Living in Hanoi, Vietnam, a tropical country with a lot of sun and rain, has conditioned me to enjoy food that provides a balance against the fickle weather. From noodle soups to snails, fried tofu to pork skewers, here are the foods that bring me back.
Goodness in a bowl
There is a reason soup-based noodles make up a large proportion of Vietnamese cuisine, with their most famous representative being phở.
Like a cup of hot tea, the fragrant broth infused with herbs and spices will wake up your senses and send “comfort waves” to your brain. This is why it is best eaten in the early morning or at night, when you want to refresh your mind.
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For many, the best noodles should be home cooked, and I couldn’t agree more. However, when what you need is a quick mood fix and not an hour in the kitchen, you’ll be grateful for the noodle stalls on the street.
My go-to noodle soups when I need to feel better are phở, bún (rice vermicelli), hủ tiếu and Vietnamese wonton noodles.
Hot, Hot, Hot!
Warm and soft rice porridge, or cháo, that makes your tongue sting a little is a good call on a chilly day, or when you feel tired and need comfort. Vietnamese believe that porridge with spring onions and shiso leaves can help with treating the common cold.
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In Hanoi, porridge is usually thicker and smoother, and can be made with pork ribs, pork organs, chicken or freshwater mussels. In Saigon, it is common that rice grains remain, and ingredients vary from chicken or duck to fish or squid. Century eggs can be found as a side dish in the South, but rarely in the North.
Charcoal and Smoke
Skewers are among the most favourite snacks for schoolchildren and nostalgic adults. The sweet, spicy and fatty pork skewers can make you feel full and satisfied in an instant.
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However, what really takes me back to my childhood is grilled corn. If you have been to Hanoi during winter, you will see many street vendors grilling and selling corns and sweet potatoes on the spot. Burning hot in your hands and heavenly sweet in your mouth, these winter treats also bring together generations in a family, as they used to be the common food in the past when rice was scarce.
In Saigon, you can also find grilled banana wrapped in sticky rice, an adorable comfort food especially on rainy days.
It would be a mistake not to mention snails and shellfish (ốc) as a unique comfort food in Vietnam. While the snails themselves don’t really have any taste, the different sauces that accompany them sure do. Chilli, lemongrass, tamarind, you name it, the feast of spice in chewy bites will satisfy your taste buds and leave you a happier person.
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And what’s best? You can go to the store alone and order a bowl of steamed snails or clams, or a dish of superbly cheap grilled oysters, and nobody would bat an eye. Having such a treat all to yourself is one of the most satisfying things ever.
My favourite comfort food, which I missed a lot during the years I spent overseas, is fried tofu. Vietnamese fried tofu is different from what you can find in other Asian countries, but more than that, it reminded me of meals with my family.
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Family is very important in Vietnamese culture, and meal time is when the family sits together and shares stories. We bond over our homemade food, and when we are away from home, Vietnamese food always reminds us of the coziness and familiarity that sometimes is lacking in the big, wide world.
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The Story of Tương: Vietnamese Fermented Soybean Paste
Many people believe that shrimp paste, a typical dipping sauce of Northern Vietnamese villages, is the best sauce to pair with tofu. But since I was a child, I have always preferred my tofu to be dipped in fermented soybean paste, or tương, because its sweeter, lighter smell and taste reminds me of my grandmother, who used to make it at home.
This traditional dipping sauce enjoyed by vegetarian Buddhists is now less popular in the cities, and the recipes and techniques to make good tương are only handed down within individual families. But if you get a chance to try it and compare its taste to other fermented soybean pastes, like miso in Japan and doenjang in Korea, you will find a common, treasured food tradition.
How is it made?
The sauce has a high nutritional value because it is made from soybeans fermented with a type of mold or fungi. To make this mold, sticky rice is steamed, or alternatively, ordinary rice is cooked with less water than usual, and then scattered on a woven tray and covered with leaves to keep the heat. The rice is left to ferment for approximately 7-10 days.
Each family and each region has its own method to make the mold, but the basic principle is the same: fermented rice will generate heat and create an ideal condition for the fungi to grow. Scientists call this type of fungus A. oryzae. It’s also known as koji. This fungi helps to transform rice starch into glucose, resulting in a powdery mixture with a nice golden color and a sweet taste. It is important to keep track of the mold as it develops on the rice, as sometimes other, possibly toxic, types of fungi might develop as well, which will need to be removed.
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At the same time, soybeans are roasted and pounded or ground into pieces, and then boiled with water and poured into clay jars. The jars are then covered and put in a sunny ventilated place to ferment. When the rice mold is fully developed, it is mixed into the jars, and the fermentation process will continue for at least 15 to 20 days to create the final product, fermented soybean paste.
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Salt is an indispensable ingredient. Adding the proper amount of salt is important to ensure good taste and long storage time. Salt can be mixed with the mold after it is ready, or added directly into the jar. Either way, the end result is a perfect combination of salty, sweet, and the umami flavour of fermented soybeans.
Watch a traditional fermentation method:
Video source: VTC14 - Thời tiết - Môi trường & Đời sống
Where can you find it?
In Vietnam, fermented soybean paste is mainly used as dipping sauce for dishes served with rice, such as tofu and boiled vegetables. It can also be used as a seasoning when cooking braised fish or braised vegetables. Especially in the North, bánh đúc lạc is a popular snack in rural markets. It is a savoury cake made of rice flour and peanuts, which is then dipped in fermented soybean paste.
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Watch this video to learn how to use soybean paste to improve your health:
Video source: sharecare.com
The regions in Vietnam famous for their tradition of making fermented soybean paste include: Bần village in the Hưng Yên province near Hanoi, Cự Đà village in Hanoi, and the Nam Đàn district of Nghệ An province. Many people use tương and tương bần interchangeably to refer to fermented soybean paste. The Bần village has been famous for this product since the late nineteenth century.
In Southern Vietnam there is a type of fermented soybean paste called tương hột. It is made from whole-grain boiled soybeans mixed with ground roasted soybeans, fermented by rice or corn mold, or using ready-made soy sauce to speed up the fermentation process. Tương hột is also used as a condiment for braised fish, tofu or vegetables. When blended it can be used as a component in the dipping sauce for fresh spring rolls.
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Vietnamese tương and Japanese miso
If you love Japanese cuisine, you have probably tried miso soup, the Japanese comfort food made with miso paste, seaweed, tofu and green onions. However, not many people know that miso is actually the Japanese version of fermented soybean paste. Miso is similar to Vietnamese tương in components and production methods but with some differences.
First, in Japan soybeans are not roasted before boiling. They are soaked overnight instead, so the boiled beans are much softer and can be pounded into a thick, fine paste. Second, steamed rice is mixed with industrially produced koji starter, and fermented for a few days, to become kome koji (rice mold). Finally, soybean paste and kome koji are mixed together with salt and put into a jar. The ingredients need to be weighted to pressurize the mixture. This is done with a heavy bag as in this video. The jar is then covered for a month-long fermentation process.
Video source: JapaneseCooking101
Vietnamese fermented soybean paste is just as nutritious as its Japanese cousin, and even more versatile. It can be added to variations on the country’s much-loved braised fish (cá kho), used as a dipping sauce for the famed gỏi cuốn, or used as a condiment in many vegetarian dishes. The options are endless.
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Essential Vietnamese New Year Foods - Southern food
Have you ever tried Southern Vietnamese foods? If you could only use a few words to describe your Southern dish, what would they be? For some people, the answer is clear: rich, flavorful and sweet!
We have gotten to know more about Northern and Central Lunar New Year foods in the previous articles, so let’s head down to our last stop: Southern Vietnam.
Diverse Natural Resources Result in Flavour Richness
We all know that regional cuisines differ according to the climate and local products. So in Southern Vietnam, the abundance of rice, fresh fruits, veggies as well as coconuts are reflected in the dishes of this region, which tend to emphasize sweeter flavors.
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The warm weather and fertile soil of Southern Vietnam create an ideal condition for growing various fruits, vegetables, and raising livestock. As a result, food in Southern Vietnam gets a more vibrant flavor profile with the generous use of garlic, shallots, and fresh herbs.
Additionally, thanks to the widespread use of coconut and sugarcane, sugar is added to more food here than anywhere else in the country giving the dishes a distinctly sweet taste—just like how sweet and friendly Southern people are.
Bánh Tét (Tet Cake or Vietnamese Round Glutinous Rice Cake)
If bánh chưng is an indispensable part of Northerner’s Tet, bánh tét plays the same vital role in Central and South Vietnam. Year after year during Tet holiday, Southern families enjoy this Tet cake, the central dish of the Southern Tet celebration.
According to Southern people's belief, bánh tét is a symbol of a prosperous life. That’s why it is considered a New Year specialty although its available throughout the year.
As we have talked about Central bánh tét in the previous article. In this article, I’m going to introduce you something totally new! The Southern version of bánh tét that isn’t well known by foreigners. This sweet and vegetarian dish is called bánh tét ngọt.
Basically, bánh tét ngọt is the ordinary bánh tét but filled with vegetarian ingredients like banana, back mung bean, mung bean instead of pork.
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The process of making bánh tét is time consuming and provides an opportunity for family members to catch up, bond and revel in the holiday spirit. In preparing this dish, glutinous rice must be carefully chosen and washed before being stir fried with coconut milk and some salt. Then the hardest part comes, filling the cake. The exact taste of the cake’s insides is up to you. This could be savory or sweet depending on the taste of each family.
Watch how Southern people make their special bánh tét:
Video source: RunAwayRice
Bánh tétngọt also differs from region to region, as locals tend to base their recipes on what natural ingredients are close at hand put their own hallmark spin on bánh tét. For example, Can Tho is famous for its unique bánh tét lá cẩm (violet Tet cake). This bánh tét's sticky rice is soaked in purple water colured by lá cẩm (magenta leaves), which gives the cake a more eye-catching, charming purple appearance. Inside the cake, there are tasty ingredients such as mung bean, black mung bean, and sometimes salted egg yolks. All are tightly and beautifully wrapped in banana leaves. The cake is cut into pieces, which show the dark purple of banana, the yellow of green bean, and the orange of egg. The flavour of glutinous rice cake is tender and tasty.
Some just make Tet cakes for family consumption and gifts, some make it for businesses, and some have become artisans by elevating their Tet cake making to a craft.
Video source: Cooky TV
Củ kiệu tôm khô (Pickled Scallion Heads Served with Dried Shrimp)
If Central’s people like to savor bánh tét with dưa món (pickled vegetables), Southern people love to enrich their sense of taste with pickled scallion heads and dried shrimp. Even as early as mid December, the housewives have already bought scallion heads in preparation for Tet.
This rustic yet simple-looking dish, contrary to popular belief, requires an extra meticulous cooking process.
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First things first: scallion heads are soaked for hours in water. Then the roots are carefully washed and then exposed to the sun until their leaves turn dry and wilt. Next, all the scallion heads are put into a clean jar. One layer of sugar is covered with one layer of scallion heads. After placing all the ingredients together, one must leave the jar in a dry area for about 10 days until the scallion heads are slowly fermented and eventually are ready to be taken out.
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Finally, one serving dish of củ kiệu isn’t complete without some dried shrimp on top. Make sure to prepare more dried shrimp in advance for our littlest diners. I assure you kids will definitely be fond of this savoury, sweet and sour dish.
And there it is! Your Southern Tet feast is halfway finished!
Thịt kho Tàu / Thịt kho hột vịt (Pork Braised With Eggs and Coconut Water)
This Vietnamese dish of braised pork with egg and coconut milk is best cooked by the Southern people. Just like other Southern housewives, my mom, a true Southerner, would prepare a giant pot of pork braised with eggs, enough for the whole family to eat during Tết.
Two days before the Lunar New Year’s Eve, my mom would go to the nearby markets early in the morning to choose the ingredients: the best meat, eggs, as well some coconuts for her giant pot of thịt kho hột vịt.
Making Southern thịt kho hột vịt is not too challenging if you just follow some tips. After watching my mom make it for years, here are some good tips that I can offer.
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In order to make the most delicious braised pork dish, you must choose the ingredients wisely. Pork belly must contain both fat and lean meat, or it will get unsuitably dry during the long cooking storage. This meat must be cut into large pieces, marinated with spices and fish sauce for about 30 minutes. While waiting for the meat to become thoroughly soaked, boil the eggs and remove shells.
To start, heat up your pot, then boil fresh coconut water and add cold water if needed. Then put all the marinated pork into the pot, cook until the meat becomes soft. Now it’s time for the next step, putting the eggs into the pot. Finally, season it to match your family's taste and simmer the food until the meat becomes super tender.
The finished dish of pork braised with egg and coconut water is considered properly done if it has these two qualities: an eye-catching and distinct golden brown color and well-seasoned, tender meat.
Learn how to make your own dish:
Video source: Jamie Oliver
This is a dish were cooks have some leeway to give it their own style and spin. For example, some Southerners love to dry pork belly in the sun before braising and some others like to braise their protein with scraped coconut meat. But my mom’s recipe is done without either step.
This dish is best paired with pickled scallion heads and a fragrant hot bowl of rice.
Canh khổ qua dồn thịt (Bitter melon Stuffed With Meat Soup)
You might be wondering why superstitious people like the Vietnamese would choose a bitter dish for their very first start of year. This might surprise you, but canh khổ qua dồn thịt is a significant part of Southern Vietnamese spirituality.
It may look simple at the outside, but bitter melon stuffed with meat contains many spiritual elements according to the Southerners’ belief system. In Vietnamese, “khổ” means “hardship”, and “qua” means “pass”. So basically, Southern people eat this dish in the first days of the New Year with the hope that unlucky things in the old year will pass and that they will welcome a peaceful new year.
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Bitter melon has a nutritious blend of bitter and sweet flavors.
Additionally, canh khổ qua dồn thịt is also good for health thanks to the cool-tasting broth, which is a relief amid the humid and warm weather in Southern Vietnam. This food is believed to help lower the heat inside our body.
Make yourself a bowl of bitter melon stuffed with meat soup:
Video source: Helen's Recipes (Vietnamese Food)
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Food Bank Vietnam: Leading the Fight against Food Waste
Sitting on a street corner in Saigon, it’s easy to catch the sight of street children polishing shoes and old women selling lottery tickets. These are just a few among the many Vietnamese people who may also struggle to put food on their tables every single day. Statistics from the Vietnamese Fatherland Front show that in the first half of 2017, there were 574,000 people suffering from hunger in Vietnam.
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On the other hand, food waste is a widespread issue throughout the country at almost all stages of the supply chain. A survey by Electrolux on 4,000 households in eight Asia-Pacific countries suggested that Vietnam is the second largest producer of food waste in the region, behind China. 87 percent of the households admitted that they waste two plates of food per week on average.
There are many reasons why Vietnamese people waste so much food. Culturally, preparing more food than necessary is considered a gesture of hospitality and generosity. This has become a custom not only in families but also in restaurants and ceremonies. While Vietnamese people have a habit of saving leftovers for the next meals, nearly 50 percent of people surveyed said that they often forget about excess food or fresh ingredients left in the fridge.
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A considerable amount of food is also lost or damaged during production, storing, transportation and distribution, due to the lack of investment in technology and infrastructure. The preference for fresh food also means that items more than a day old, though still safe to eat, are too easily considered garbage and thrown away because no one is buying them.
In Ho Chi Minh City alone, food waste accounts for more than 60 percent of the city’s 8,300 tons of solid waste per day. In previous City Pass Guide reporting, Nguyen Toan Thang, Director of HCMC Department of Natural Resources and Environment, said that up to 76 percent of this waste ends up getting buried in the city’s vast landfills, which leads to severe air, water and soil pollution in the surrounding area.
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Until now, there has been no concerted effort to collect unwanted food and distribute it to those in need, thereby preventing it from becoming waste. This is where Food Bank Vietnam steps in.
Project founder Nguyen Tuan Khoi shared his vision for Food Bank Vietnam. “We want to build not only a charity project distributing food for poor and disadvantaged people, but we also aim to engage businesses such as restaurants, food producers and supermarkets, in the movement to save food, avoid wastage and supply food for the people who actually need it,” he said.
The project is a non-profit project established by Development and Sharing Foods (DSF) and C.P. Vietnam. C.P. Vietnam is a branch of Thailand-based C.P. Group, one of the largest Thai conglomerates in agriculture and food processing.
To do this, Food Bank Vietnam plans to start with supporting ten community houses and homeless centers in 2018, by providing them with free food, such as pork and rice, on a regular basis. It will also organize cooking sessions with the ingredients collected from donors, and distribute the meals to disadvantaged groups in Saigon through the help of a team of volunteers.
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In April 2018, Food Bank Vietnam will organize a seminar called Chong lang phi thuc pham (Fighting Food Waste) for representatives from the food and beverage industry to raise awareness among them about reducing food waste and ask for them to redirect their excess food from the waste stream.
In the long term, it plans to develop a system of “Mobile Food Banks”, or stations to receive and give out free food, as well as “Food Bank Eateries”, selling low-priced meals for the disadvantaged throughout the country.
Another important part of the project is to build an emergency food bank to provide food during natural disasters, such as floods and hurricanes, which happen every year in Vietnam. With support from the Vietnamese Committee of Red Cross and the Youth Social Work Centre, the project founder is optimistic that this is achievable within five years and will be sustainable in the future.
After a quick online search for health tips and warnings about food poisoning, you may rapidly come to the conclusion that you should only eat in expensive restaurants and international hotels in Vietnam. However, don’t get too intimidated and don’t assume that high cost is a guarantee of cleanliness and good food hygiene.
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Use Bottled Water, but Filtered, Boiled Water is Usually Safe Enough
When I left my cosy and secure family home in England long ago heading to the Far East for a new job, I asked my doctor what health issues I should be concerned about. My doctor was a well-travelled chap and I always remember his words of advice. “Most water will be safe enough to drink as long as it’s been boiled enough to make a good cup of tea.” Note: this refers to local drinking/potable water, not river or stream water. I’m not a big tea drinker myself, but I do drink lots of coffee and have always thought back to those words whenever I enter a new coffee or tea shop.
However, do continue to use bottled water or water from a known healthy source for personal use whenever possible. It should also put you at ease to know that most homes and businesses in Asia have their drinking water delivered in large geyser bottles.
Personal Hygiene – “Now Wash Your Hands!”
In day to day travels, our hands touch all kinds of things and all of those things have come into contact with various kinds of contaminants. Therefore, the best favour you can do for yourself is to always wash your hands before eating or handling food. The most common cause of travellers getting sick is from hand-to-mouth contact. Sharing finger foods can also be a great way to pass-on any bugs you may have picked up during the day to others.
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Check the Kitchen
It’s not always possible to look over the kitchen for hygiene standards but when you approach your chosen eating place you should observe the surroundings. Glance at the rear entrance where the kitchen usually is, if possible. If you see food hanging around outdoors and unrefrigerated, you may wish to reconsider your chosen restaurant or be sure you order something that is well-cooked.
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Is the food hot and steaming when served? If not, then consider how and where it has been kept. Food in Vietnam is commonly pre-cooked and served with rice or a noodle dish. Do you think the food has been adequately covered and protected from contamination prior to being paired with the rice or noodles (are there any flies or insects on the food)? A judgment call may be needed on what items to order.
In a street market, you will find many vendors selling the same foods. A tip an old friend gave me (picked up during his travels across Africa) was to locate the person cooking that food, and buy directly from them. This way you will have a better idea about where the food has been and how it has been stored since it was prepared and cooked.
Meat and Fish
If you have a craving for meat, consider how the local cuisine incorporates meat into meals. In Vietnam, it’s usually served in small amounts and is often very well-cooked, boiled, fried or grilled. If you really must have that rare steak oozing blood or that seemingly fresh sushi, think about the supply chain that provided the meat and fish (do you see refrigerated delivery trucks)?
Visit a local food market and make your own judgements - food markets offer great photo opportunities too. If you are on a beef farm or at a fishing port, enjoy the local delights, if not perhaps think again.
Image source: cloudfront.net
Dairy – Yes or No?
Usually a sniff test is sufficient to warn you off milk past its best. In today’s brand name coffee consuming culture, we get lots of dairy pressed upon us and sometimes it is difficult to know how fresh the product is when it is combined with a stronger flavour. In the past, I’ve been served sour milk simply because it is a costly item in Asia and many vendors are remiss to throw it out.
Alternatives do exist, such as soy or other vegetable sourced milks, but the same questions on freshness remain. Soy is a commonly available option in most of Asia and is a commonly consumed and familiar beverage in the Asian market. Local Asian coffee products are usually produced using sweet condensed milk, which in my experience, is far less likely to be served past its shelf life simply due to the fact that it lasts much longer than fresh milk.
Some dairy can be very beneficial to your digestive health if it suits your diet. A small amount of yoghurt daily can keep the good bacteria in your gut in good shape. If you can find it, enjoy it. Most Yoghurts in Vietnam are filled with sugar and artificial flavourings. One natural yoghurt is from Da Lat and is commonly available at most supermarkets.
Probiotics are commonly available in drink form or capsule form in Asia. The drinks are a bit on the sweet side, but they can also work wonders in protecting you from and in aiding a speedy recovery from a bout of food poisoning.
Fruits and Vegetables
At the grocery store, many fruits in Vietnam can be found in their own packaging so we don’t always think about the hygiene risks. But be aware that peeled and cut fruit may be exposed to unclean environments or contaminated by insects carrying dirt and bacteria. If you can see the fruit being washed and cut in front of you (with clean utensils), then it’s probably a safe choice, if not, then looking for another vendor may be wise.
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Washed and cooked vegetables are unlikely to present any problems on their own, but uncooked salads and vegetables should be considered more carefully. Pay attention to the washing method before you commit your stomach to trial by bacteria.
Both fruit and vegetables are usually grown locally or on the outskirts of towns and cities. The land may be intensively farmed and the fertilizers used may be a by-product of animal waste (dung) or even human waste. This thought alone makes me extra cautious in buying fruits and vegetables, no matter where they are from. Peeled fruits are by far the wisest choice, but washing thoroughly with clean water, or soaking in salt water or vinegar water prior to washing is a good practice.
Don’t Panic. Just Stay Hydrated – but be Prepared to Seek Medical Attention
If you do succumb to a bout of food poisoning, think about the likely source and consider the options your have. Often (usually) your body will deal with the issue itself and perhaps by lunch time the next day you will be fine.
In other cases, you may be facing dangerous levels of fluid loss (always maintain body fluid levels by sipping on water or oral rehydration solution (ORS) salt drinks. It is always good to have a few of these in your luggage along with a supply of Immodium or similar medicine (Dhamotil is commonly provided in Asia).
If the problem persists or you find yourself unable to hold down any fluids, then seek medical help as soon as possible. Some victims reach straight for western antidiarrhealmedicines, some of which work by slowing down your digestive system. This may make life more comfortable, and may be very useful to make it through the journey, but if the problem persists for longer than a few days, seek medical help as soon as you can.
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