Worried about having a sick day on your travel to Saigon? It is important to keep yourself informed about various things when visiting a country, especially if you’re worried about catching something from unknown places. Vietnam is a humid place and viruses can act differently, especially for a foreigner or expat. Here are some of the common diseases and illnesses in the region;

Cough and Cold

The cold is a benign and frequent infection of the nose and throat. The cause of cough and cold is a virus. There are over 100 different viruses that can cause a cold and the average time duration of a cold is 10 days. but the length of symptoms can vary widely. The incubation period of a cold is from 12 hours to a few days. Contamination occurs through saliva, nasal secretions and contaminated hands or surfaces through thin drops of infected secretions that reaches your mucous membranes after someone coughs or sneezes next to you or these surfaces. The virus cannot penetrate through healthy skin but can easily enter your body through contact with mucous membranes of the nose, the mouth and the eyes.


Worms, mainly strongylus (red worm), are parasites whose larvae can be transmitted by touch or by food. Worms are present in the ground and water. If contracted, the larvae penetrate the skin and reach the bloodstream. From there they go to the heart, lungs, throat and intestine where they mature. Worms are probably the most common cause of sickness in Vietnam. Complications include a cough, diarrhoea and aching. In serious cases a person could die because this is one of the only worms that can replicate perpetually inside the human body. Eggs inside a sufferer’s rectum can mature and develop into larvae, penetrate the rectum mucosa, enter the bloodstream, reach the heart, and return to the digestive tract as mature adult larvae; re-infestation occurs when this pattern repeats.

Other worms such as toxocara (nematodes) and gnathostoma (another parasitic nematode) are also very common. Toxocara are transmitted via dogs and cats; gnathostoma are contracted by eating meats that have not been cleaned or cooked well. You can protect yourself against worms by eating only meats that have been thoroughly cooked and avoiding raw or rare meat. In addition, wash your hands regularly, and if you are still concerned, do remember to take deworming medication once every three to six months.


Common in Vietnam, tuberculosis (TB) is caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Symptoms of TB in the lungs include coughing, fever, night sweats and weight loss.

TB is the seventh leading cause of death in Vietnam and the country’s most fatal infectious disease. Amongst the Vietnamese population, 89 out of 100,000 are positive for tuberculosis. The BCG vaccine is available but unfortunately it is limited to reducing severe forms of the disease and is not a cure-all. Drugs that cure TB are available, but at least four separate medicines must be taken for six months. Not many people complete the programme, so the bacteria become resistant and spread. The OUCRU TB research programme, in partnership with the Hospital for Tropical Diseases, Phạm Ngọc Thạch Hospital for TB and Lung Diseases, the National Lung Hospital in Hanoi, and the National TB programme, are performing clinical trials of different therapies to improve diagnosis and care.

Dengue fever

More frequent in Vietnam than malaria, dengue fever is transmitted by mosquito bite and is more of a city disease, unlike Malaria, which is more common in the countryside. In very rare cases (1- 2%) the disease is fatal. No two cases of dengue fever are alike and no two people will exhibit the same symptoms. At present there is no vaccine, but progress is being made and one may become available in the near future. Typical symptoms include fever, muscle pain, fatigue and headache. Other symptoms apparent after the onset may include diarrhoea, gastroenteritis, rhinopharyngitis, nausea, low white blood cell count, skin rash and hair loss.

You can protect yourself from dengue fever by wearing pale-coloured clothing, using mosquito repellent and netting, avoiding aspirin (it prevents blood from coagulating), and refraining from putting cut flowers into a vase – unless you refresh the water daily. If your residence has a pond or similar water feature, consider introducing some fish that will eat the mosquito larvae. The larvae need only two or three days to establish themselves, so check any water receptacles around the property, including water bowls for the pets.

Hepatitis A

More frequent in tropical countries than developed ones, hepatitis A is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis A virus (HAV). It is usually spread by faecal-oral route, transmitted by contaminated food or water, or via direct contact with an infected person. Some early symptoms of hepatitis A infection can be mistaken for the flu. Some sufferers, children particularly, show no symptoms, which usually appear between two and six weeks after infection. Symptoms usually last less than two months, though some people can be sick for up to six months. Typical symptoms include fatigue, fever, nausea, appetite loss, jaundice and clay-coloured faeces.

Hepatitis A is neither chronic nor particularly dangerous to persons under the age of 30. However, if you are older, it can be hazardous and even fatal. You can take a blood test for antibodies and if negative you may choose to be vaccinated. Check with your doctor.

Hepatitis B

An infectious inflammatory illness of the liver caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV), this disease is transmitted by exposure to infected blood or bodily fluids such as semen and vaginal fluids. Viral DNA has been detected in the saliva, tears and urine of chronic carriers. Developing countries see perinatal infection as a major route of infection – most hepatitis B transmissions are from mother to child during childbirth; close behind are transmissions from sexual contact. Other risk factors for HBV infection include working in a healthcare setting, transfusions, dialysis, acupuncture, tattooing, sharing razors or toothbrushes with an infected person, travel in countries where it is endemic.

The hepatitis B virus is estimated to have already infected one-third of the global population. In developing countries, it is estimated that 5-15% of persons are chronic carriers, whereas only about 1% of the population is chronically infected in North America and Western Europe.

HBV cannot be spread by hand-holding, sharing cutlery or drinking glasses, kissing, hugging, coughing, sneezing or breastfeeding. The disease leads to liver inflammation, vomiting and jaundice. It is rarely fatal; however, chronic hepatitis B may lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. Hepatitis B can be prevented through vaccination, which is highly recommended for those in Southeast Asia due to the high prevalence of the illness.

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C, which is less common but sometimes more severe, appears to affect 3% of the global population. It is an infectious disease affecting the liver, caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). The infection often causes no symptoms; however, chronic infection can lead to liver scarring and cirrhosis. Spread by blood-to-blood contact (drug needles, contaminated medical equipment, transfusions), HCV persists in the livers in about 20-30% of persons infected. The disease can be treated with medication and 50-80% of those treated are cured. There is no vaccine against hepatitis C.

Influenza A (H1N1)

At the end of April 2013 the Department of Preventive Medicine – Public Health Ministry announced cases of pneumonia caused by the influenza A virus. Some cases were fatal. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the disease is in the post-pandemic period, and has been so since May 2010. Worldwide there are five million reported cases of severe influenza and between 250,000- 500,000 deaths each year. Fatalities from severe cases measure 5-10%.


In Vietnam, the first case of HIV was reported in 1990. Through the decades, the epidemic has significantly increased but remains concentrated: most cases are amongst intravenous drug users and commercial sex workers. According to the Ministry of Health (MOH), the number of people living with HIV/AIDS in Vietnam was 227,114 in June 2015.

HIV is transmitted primarily through sexual contact. Using condoms, widely available for purchase throughout the country, can offer protection. Be sure to check expiration dates and packaging for integrity. HIV is unlikely to be spread by transfusions as blood donors in Vietnam are screened.

Note that the preceding list of diseases is not exhaustive. For more information, refer to your practitioner or a hospital that has a tropical diseases department, listed later in this chapter.

For information on health go to Saigon’s Sick Can Count on a Wealth of Healthcare Providers