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Free-From Travel: Vietnam

I'm really excited to bring back this travel series after (that virus) stopped all plans for over two years. Travelling shouldn't be stressful for us Autoimmune sufferers so I wanted to combine my passions of travel and food with serving the autoimmune community so you can eat well and safely abroad as well as hopefully inspiring some meal ideas to take back home to your own kitchen table too.

I visited North Vietnam around thirteen years ago and it had always held out as one of my favourite places. This time I took my family back and we did the South. From Saigon to Mui Ne, Dalat, Nha Trang and then up to Hoi An - my favourite place of all. A lot has changed since then, but the food and drink has remained much the same - only this time I travelled gluten and dairy free.

Airport Travel: We flew from London Gatwick airport and my go-to option for food is Wagamama. I had a Pad Thai with a green juice (above), it was delicious. I always feel a little anxious about what my gluten free meal will consist of on the plane, so I like to get a good meal in before I travel. I take a couple of snacks too, even if they are used to keep me going on arrival while I get my bearings.

Aeroplane Food: Ordering gluten free meals for the plane is usually quite straight forward. We travelled Qatar airways, who catered for many different diets which was impressive, but despite this it wasn't possible to get a gluten and dairy free meal. Luckily I can tolerate a little bit of dairy even though I usually abstain. It would have been possible to avoid the dairy-containing foods such as mash and omelette, but I decided on this occasion that I would eat them as I didn't want to be hungry or feel unwell - a 16 hr flight is bad enough.

Saigon: I felt anxious about my first few meals due to the language barrier, but I quickly got into the swing of things. There's usually wifi in every restaurant and using Google Translate was a huge help. We found a great Pho restaurant at the end of our street, so we tried that in-between jet-lag naps. They are naturally gluten and dairy free, made from a healing bone broth, with lots of fresh vegetables, herbs and flavourings. It's very easy to have rice noodles with it, so overall that was an easy first win. But I don't find these soups particularly filling and it took a while to adjust and keep my blood sugars balanced (they eat a lot of white rice or noodles with most meals). I was constantly on the hunt for protein, but that got easier with experience.

Drinks: Now their coffee is amazing. I was very excited to return and wanted to try it again. But their traditional coffee is made with condensed milk, which isn't dairy free and contains a lot of sugar. If these ingredients trigger symptoms and inflammation then I would advise you to steer clear. I eventually discovered a coffee made with coconut milk and ice in Nha Trang, which was amazing and so delicious I easily made the switch and didn't look back. I didn't get around to tasting their traditional egg coffee because we were so obsessed with the coconut ones. Getting dairy free milks in cafes is hard, but I will say the Vietnamese do drinks very well and there will be something else on the menu for you to try instead. My other go-to drinks were coconut water, pineapple juice and tea.

My son did not adjust well to the food, so we had to buy him breakfast from the convenience stores. Luckily most packaging labelled their ingredients in English so it was a great place to top up with snacks for long journeys too. We had an apartment, so we bought eggs to boil, fruit, Japanese rice snacks and I even found walnut milk. They have quite a few plant milks out there, some combined soy, almond & walnut together, which was very nice in my tea. The ingredients weren't as 'clean' as you would get here, but for two weeks I wasn't complaining.

On Day 2 after a lot of searching we ended up in a lovely (but expensive) restaurant. The menu was translated into English, the food was delicious and the setting was off the hectic roads in a beautiful garden. It was worth it! Even if you only do it on a few occasions. Sometimes we would have a brunch in the morning and order lots of food that we could package up and take in the buggy. This reduced the number of restaurants we had to navigate and made eating out less stressful. It was good to always have something on hand, like a spring roll for my son and then we'd usually have a large early dinner and street food if we needed something in-between.

The great thing about Vietnamese food, is that it is so fresh and cooked from scratch with whole foods. You won't have to worry about additives, thickeners or any nasties like that. Other than Pho some of the other kinds of dishes I had were rice with chicken, pork or a vegetable fried rice. We had hot pots with noodles, vegetables and seafood. Fish, chips and salad. Spring rolls and rice pancakes with meats and fish. You can eat very cheaply in Vietnam, but I would recommend spending enough to get plenty of protein on your plate. White rice is plentiful there, but it's low in fibre and digested very quickly, so you'll be hungry in no time.

Some phrases that will help you navigate signs and menus:

Com = Rice

Com Ga = Rice with chicken

Com Tam = Rice with pork

Bo = beef

Tom = prawn

Com Chien = veggie fried rice

Mi gao = rice noodles

Spring rolls = Nem ran or Cha gio

Street food is plentiful and cheap. Some of the things I opted for were grilled rice papers with egg, spring onion, tiny prawns and chilli mayonnaise. They are not filling but a tasty option if that is all you need. Meat and fish sticks with vegetables -the safest would be to go with the whole and unprocessed meats, however I did try the sausages and had no problem with them at all.

Hotels offer western food and they can be a good option if your kid is not eating well or you want a break from rice and navigating traditional food. I always opted for Asian food as it is so delicious and often the easy free-from option. Vietnamese food is also good if you're on a low fodmap diet. At first I thought the Vietnamese had quite a narrow diet until I saw locals eating broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower and I realised just like here, when you eat out you get all of their classic dishes, but the locals did appear to eat a much wider variety of foods at home.

Traditional snacks are also very wholesome, healthy and delicious. There does seem to be a rise in the popularity of their children eating western style junk snacks (my observation) but their own stuff is much better! We loved their coconut covered peanuts, vegetable crisps and sun-dried fruit. Again highly unprocessed and whole. I would have loved to take their way of eating back to the UK. Their spring rolls are made with rice paper, so this is a good opportunity to enjoy them as many made in the UK contain wheat flour.

Artichoke tea. A traditional herbal tea drank for it's detoxification support - something you'll need with all of their air pollution! It takes a bit of getting used to, but after a while I was opting for it over coffee. It actually had a slight coffee flavour to it and I wish I had brought some home with me.

Overall I love Vietnamese food and you can eat out pretty stress free if you use Google Translate, although It didn't take long for me to get bored of Pho and I wasn't a fan of the beef over there. But other than that, after I was getting enough protein, I felt great eating their food and wish I could access more of it at home. I would highly recommend Vietnam as a good place to travel with an autoimmune condition if you can tolerate rice. It's simple, fresh and delicious.

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