How NOT to Get Food Poisoning While Travelling
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.
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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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