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Looking for gluten-free travel advice/tips for Vietnam/Laos/Cambodia

Posted by ibon on 17/11/2009 at 07:09

I'm heading to SEA towards the end of December for a month. I'm gluten intolerant and would love to hear any tips or advice from other GF travellers. We're visiting Hanoi/Luang Prabang/Siem Riep/PP and Kampot. To make things more complicated I don't eat meat (fish and seafood are okay). But when travelling I am not fussed about things like meat-based broth, eating around pieces of meat etc. I've done some research on the web and from what I can tell Cambodia looks like it will be the most challenging? Also interested to hear if anyone found restaurant cards that explain in the local language that you can't eat gluten useful, or did they just make things more confusing? Any help much appreciated!

#1 ibon has been a member since 19/5/2009. Posts: 12

Posted by exacto on 17/11/2009 at 10:52

hi ibon,

my wife is also gluten free (celiac), and this is something we've been researching as well. she asked me to pass along this thread from the celiac.com website, which basically suggests to aim for things like curry or rice noodle-based dishes. plus there is always fruit! the thread is more specifically for thailand than the places you'll be visiting, but there is still some overlap. see it at: http://www.celiac.com/gluten-free/index.php?showtopic=36563

we've used the "gluten-free" cards on our trip to mexico with some success, but haven't tried them in asia yet. they are great in that you have a chance to at least communicate with someone who doesn't speak your language, but not everyone, and particularly not all the folks who wait tables, are clear about what gluten is. hope that helps. cheers.

#2 exacto has been a member since 12/2/2006. Location: United States. Posts: 2,809

Posted by spaswink on 17/11/2009 at 12:02

Great post. I have recently been diagnosed as celiac and am leaving for Thailand in 10 days. Any further information anyone could provide would be absolutely priceless.

In the short amount of time I've had to look around the net I've found http://www.celiactravel.com/ to be fairly helpful (includes the restaurant cards as a free download if anyone is keen on using them).

I'm also heading to Laos then Vietnam, and possibly Cambodia.

I'm thinking soy and oyster sauce will be the main things to avoid in traditional Thai food. I've heard that traditional Vietnamese Pho is usually safe?

#3 spaswink has been a member since 25/10/2009. Posts: 3

Posted by ibon on 18/11/2009 at 10:42

Thanks for the link exacto - that's the kind of information I've been looking for. I think now I will take the restaurant cards, after all it can't hurt to give them a try. When are you and your wife going on your trip? I'm happy to let you know how I go if you're going after Jan 20.

Thanks also for the other link spaswink. I hadn't come across that forum before. Have you read this story?:http://www.celiactravel.com/stories/vietnam.html Some good info about what to expect in Vietnam, sounds like pho is fine. I'd be really interested, if you have the time, to hear how you go on your trip.

#4 ibon has been a member since 19/5/2009. Posts: 12

Posted by exacto on 18/11/2009 at 12:12


my wife will be in Thailand from mid-December through early January, so it looks like she'll be more or less overlapping with you. we'll let you know if we discover any good GF tips on the trip or have noteworthy good or bad experiences. please do the same. thanks!

#5 exacto has been a member since 12/2/2006. Location: United States. Posts: 2,809

Posted by ibon on 18/11/2009 at 12:37

Thanks for that exacto! I'll do the same. Enjoy your trip :)

#6 ibon has been a member since 19/5/2009. Posts: 12

Posted by amazon_blonde on 19/11/2009 at 00:25

I travelled extensively in SEA from December to March of this year. I am allergic to gluten and didn't have many problems, but, I can usually tolerate a very small amount of gluten, so I didn't have to worry too much about trace amounts of soy and oyster sauce. If you are celiac or on a diet that allows absolutely no tolerance / no trace amounts of gluten, it could be problematic.

I would say that cards explaining that you are gluten free won't hurt, but I'm actually not optimistic about how successful they will be. Many other cultures don't actually "get" the concept of allergies or celiac disease. When I was in Egypt and Jordan (where it was extremely hard to travel GF), even when I explained to people, who spoke english fluently, that I could not have any wheat, gluten, etc., I would still be served a bowl of rice with little pieces of spaghetti in it. It was extremely frustrating.

In many ways, travelling in SEA is easier. You can always order rice. And if you need to, you can usually figure out something to eat with that rice that doesn't have soy. Things get a bit more complicated with noodles. Lots of dishes are served with rice noodles, which I love, and so I constantly tried to order noodles rather than rice. One piece of advice, learn how to describe "rice noodles", which are often called "white noodles", in the local language. Many many times I was frustrated by ordering something I thought would come with rice noodles only to be served a big plate of wheat noodles. Avoid "rara" noodles, "mama" noodles or anything that sounds similar -- they are essentially ramen wheat noodles and surprisingly popular in SEA. I had less problems with this in Vietnam and the most problems in Cambodia. In Cambodia I pretty much had to stick to rice.

Overall, I managed just fine in SEA and it's one of the easier places to travel GF, if you can get over the language barrier and/or you have some capacity to handle trace amounts.

#7 amazon_blonde has been a member since 20/12/2008. Posts: 116

Posted by exacto on 19/11/2009 at 04:25

blonde's comments remind me of another problem celiacs face everywhere, which is cross contamination. even if you are ordering rice noodles, odds are they'll be cooked in a vat that is also used to cook wheat-based noodles. so, like she says, if you can tolerate small amounts of gluten, you should be okay. but if you are strictly intolerant, then stick to rice-based dishes to avoid this cross contamination. the good news is that those traditional types of rice-based meals are cheap and most folks find them incredibly delicious too. cheers.

#8 exacto has been a member since 12/2/2006. Location: United States. Posts: 2,809

Posted by somsai on 19/11/2009 at 20:40

Been following this thread with interest after I looked up gluten free etc.

I'd think, at least in Laos, that the more "local" you go the chances of running into anything wheat would approach zero. I can't off the top of my head think of any foods cooked with any wheat.

Those instant noodles mentiones above are sometimes served, especially in places with English menus. It's known that we often have a difficult time with local food so they make the effort to try to feed us things we like, and we are known to like the ramen mentioned by blonde.

But my first thought was what about the glutamate that is in everything.

#9 somsai has been a member since 1/3/2006. Location: United States. Posts: 566

Posted by ibon on 26/11/2009 at 11:37

Thanks so much for all the other advice - it's extremely useful and giving me a good idea of what to opt for in each country. Like you amazon_blonde I love rice noodles so it looks like I will have to be a bit careful with those. I can handle trace amounts of gluten, I do get some symptoms but don't get violently ill.

#10 ibon has been a member since 19/5/2009. Posts: 12

Posted by lnbenn on 9/1/2010 at 20:38

I realize this message may be too late for those of you that are traveling GF, but hopefully it is useful for some others who stumble upon this thread.

My fiance (who has celiac, soy allergy, and reacts to trace amounts of gluten) came to visit me while I was spending a few months in Vietnam and I thought a lot about what he could eat. During his visit he ate very well and his digestive system was great. I would say Vietnam is an "easy" place to travel if you are gluten intolerant.

While I have heard that pho is gluten-free, I suggest that you avoid pho and other soup dishes because some cooks use bullion to season the broth. The bullion doesn't necessarily contain gluten, but I know often times in the States bullion contains additives that can be suspect.

Some dishes we stuck to while he was here that worked for him:

Fresh spring rolls: you usually get rice noodles, veggies, herbs, and some sort of meat (sometimes pork, fish, shrimp, or shrimp hash grilled on sugar cane, delicious!)

steamed rice with grilled pork/veggies: there is a variation where they marinate the pork with lemongrass, chili, and fish sauce. This was probably his favorite dish

rice noodles with grilled pork

steamed fish

sauteed fish

ginger chicken (generally this is cooked only using fish sauce)

Things to avoid (although you probably already know this):

Any type of meat that is deep fried because it is usually dredged with flour.

Anything with "minced pork" as this is actually often sausage (and highly suspect!)

Fried noodles (often these are wheat or "yellow" noodles)

Another note: sometimes they sprinkle "fried things" on top of the rice noodle bowls that can look suspect but I believe that it is fried garlic. He had no problem eating it.

But trust your instincts and do what you need to do to preserve your health. Happy eating!

#11 lnbenn has been a member since 7/10/2009. Posts: 1

Posted by mixxat on 22/5/2012 at 03:50

South-east asia is very good place to get gluten free eating.
They use lot of rice and others but no wheat

#12 mixxat has been a member since 29/4/2012. Location: Other. Posts: 42

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#13 addy09 has been a member since 30/6/2012. Posts: 5

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