Vietnam for Free-from Foodies!

Managing a food intolerance/dietary requirement when travelling can be a real added stress, and in some cases, it could put you off travelling to a certain place altogether. When a reaction to something you are intolerant to can replicate the effects of the dreaded “Delhi-belly”, it is understandable that many of us with a food intolerance (myself included) feel anxious about food in a foreign country. Well I am here to help! I have had many people ask me about the food in the destinations I have travelled to, many whom will dismiss going to see it for themselves in fear that they will starve the entire time. In response, I write this post for all of you dairy-free/celiac/vegetarian/vegan people out there and deliver the great news that Vietnam’s cuisine naturally has lots to offer for us free-from foodies!

There are two things which amazed me about Vietnamese food:

1.    How incredibly resourceful Vietnamese cooking is. You will experience rice in its many different forms: noodles, paper, bread... and Vietnam’s staple dishes have all been perfected around the sourcing of local ingredients to create delicious, fresh and nutritional dishes. 

2.    The variety of options available for free-from eaters.

So, without further ague, I give you my dairy, gluten and meat-free guide to Vietnam. I have designed this post so that you are introduced to some of Vietnam’s staple dishes and which dietary requirements each dish meets. 


Most hotels in Vietnam will offer both a western and a local breakfast option. For those with a dairy or gluten intolerance, breakfast can prove particularly difficult without any access to soy, almond milk or all of the gluten-free breakfast products available to buy at home. For once, you may be better with the local options for breakfast which can consist of rice or noodles with meat and vegetables. It can be rather strange at first to eat what is essentially stir-fry for breakfast but give it chance, Vietnamese breakfast is a great option to ensure you set yourself up for the day properly and it is much healthier for you than the stodgy offerings on the western menu.



What is it? 

You will come across this Asian version of porridge in many hotels across Southeast Asia. Congee is a rather runny porridge made with just rice and boiling water. It is quite starchy and bland, but could be easily sweetened up with honey, jam or fruit - I like chopped banana in mine. It is a great option for anybody with dietary requirements as it is free from dairy, wheat and meat and it will keep you full until lunchtime. 

*tip: if you want to thicken it up, try mashing a banana and mixing it in to your congee. It adds both sweetness and texture!

Suitable for: lactose intolerance, wheat/gluten intolerance & vegans.


I love eating fruit, so I was in my element in Vietnam with an array of fresh and juicy tropical fruits on offer at breakfast time such as pineapple, mango, dragon fruit, guava and bananas. One advantage to visiting this region of the world is that such fruits (which are at the pricier end of the fruit market at home) are in abundance and readily available here because this is where they naturally grow. Fruit is an easy and healthy option for breakfast and meets all three of the dietary requirements. You could easily make yourself a bowl of fruit for breakfast and there is often yoghurt to accompany it (that is, if you are not lactose intolerant or vegan). 

It is important not to be put off eating freshly prepared fruit when travelling around this region. A lot of articles out there advise you to avoid fruit you haven’t prepared by yourself to avoid risk of travellers’ tummy. But I found it completely safe to eat fruit in any of the hotels I stayed in in Vietnam (most of which were 3 star hotels with a G Adventures tour). The only places I would not advise eating chopped fruit is off street vendors, because there is no guarantee that they have practised the same level of hygiene as a hotel. It is important particularly if you are travelling long-term to get some vitamins and all of the other benefits of fruit in you, so just use common sense and you will be fine!

Tip* Pineapple is particularly good for aiding digestion, so if you feel like you have over-indulged, eat some pineapple at breakfast as it is a great natural digestant!

Suitable for: lactose intolerance, wheat/gluten intolerance & vegans.


Main dishes:

Pretty much all local dishes in Vietnam will be based with rice or rice-noodles and accompanied by meat (or tofu), vegetables and sauces. The local food in Vietnam is delicious, made with fresh, local ingredients and as a result may be considered one of the healthiest diets in the World.



What is it? 

Only Vietnam’s famous national dish! Phó (pronounced “fur”) is a noodle soup base with either chicken, beef, pork, seafood or tofu. Phó can be found on every street corner and is a nutritious, cheap and healthy option for lunch on the go. It is served everywhere from street vendors to five-star restaurants and Phó should be sampled at least once when visiting Vietnam. Phó will be presented to you in a large wide dish, containing the broth, the vegetables and noodles and your chosen meat (or tofu). The other accompaniments such as rice, bok choy, fish sauce, chilli paste and soy sauce, to name just a few, will be served on smaller plates on the side. Therefore, Phó is a very easy dish to adapt. What’s more, being somebody with a somewhat sensitive nature when it comes to food, I found Phó to be very calming and soothing on the stomach. Have you ever been given chicken broth by your mom when you were sick, and felt that healing sensation as you drank it? Well, Phó will give you that same feeling!

Suitable for: lactose intolerance, gluten/wheat intolerance & vegans.

Note* I am talking about Phó in a very generalized manner and not taking in to account the many variations you may find in this dish (as people will have their own secret recipe). It is always wise to check with wait staff/vendors what they have used to prepare the Phó in case there are any hidden ingredients in there that would not suit you, particularly if you are celiac.

Bánh Mi

 Chicken salad Bánh Mi from  Phuong  in Hoi An - the queue was coming out of the door with backpackers for this place!

Chicken salad Bánh Mi from Phuong in Hoi An - the queue was coming out of the door with backpackers for this place!

What is it?

Bánh Mi is another incredibly popular choice for on-the-go eating in Vietnam. It is an example of the French colonial influence upon Vietnamese cuisine as it consists of a long, thin bread roll or baguette filled with local fillings which could be pate, chicken, sausage, pork, pickled vegetables, salad and herbs… to name just a few. This humble baguette may have been started by the French, but it was perfected by the Vietnamese. Despite local favourite fillings, what makes Bánh Mi distinctly Vietnamese is the inclusion of rice flour in the dough of the bread, which results in everything you love about freshly baked bread: a crisp exterior crust which gives way to a beautiful fluffy interior. Load this with the filling of your choice and you have what Lonely Planet have hailed ‘The World’s Best Sandwich’. I think both locals and tourists would have to agree with this decleration. As another cheap, healthy and deliciously fresh street food, Bánh Mi is a real winner!

Unfortunately, this option will not be suitable for celiacs because of the baguette. However, as it is freshly prepared it can be easily adapted for vegetarians or those with lactose intolerance – (just ask for no butter or mayo). 

Suitable for: lactose intolerance, vegetarians/vegans


Spring Rolls

Whoever came up with the saying that ‘all good things come in small packages’ must have been eating Vietnamese spring rolls at the time…

There are two main forms of spring roll in Vietnam. The first is made with fresh rice paper and as a result can have quite a chewy, moist, albeit pleasing texture. The second, which we are more familiar with in the western world, are the deep-fried spring rolls which resemble those that we order from a take-out back home. My personal favourites were the fresh spring rolls. They just felt fresher and healthier to eat without being deep-fried, and I enjoyed biting in to the chewy fresh rice paper.

Fresh Spring Rolls

What are they?

Fresh spring rolls make for a great light and healthy snack or an appetiser for a larger meal. These fun little parcels are packed with goodness and sealed in fresh rice paper which is completely gluten, dairy and meat free! Whether you opt for a meat, seafood or a vegetable filling, other typical ingredients of the filling include vermicelli noodles (thin rice noodles), lettuce, carrots, bean sprouts and herbs such as Thai basil, mint or cilantro leaves. To accompany the spring rolls, you will be served an array of dipping sauces such as soy sauce, peanut sauce, fish sauce or chilli sauce which complement the mass amount of flavour these rolls already deliver. 

Suitable for: lactose intolerance, gluten/wheat intolerance, vegetarians/vegans.

Deep-fried Spring Rolls 

What are they?

In contrast, you have the deep-fried spring rolls. Select your filling from a choice of meat, seafood or vegetables to be wrapped up in rice paper, and then they are deep-fried. The spring rolls will then be presented to you with the accompanying dipping sauces, which again could be peanut sauce, fish sauce, soy sauce or chilli. Have you seen a pattern emerging yet?

Suitable for: lactose intolerance, gluten/wheat intolerance*, vegetarians/vegans.

Note* If you are celiac, some deep-fried spring roll papers can contain gluten or be contaminated by gluten in the deep fryer in restaurants. Even in the UK, restaurants tend to use the same fryer for several dishes, so it is always worth checking this out if you are unsure. If you are a bit dubious about the contents of the deep-fried spring rolls, you are best to stick with the fresh ones. 

Drinks and Deserts:

Being lactose intolerant, desert is the main component of a meal that I struggle with when eating out at a restaurant. In western countries, most deserts contain butter, cream or ice-cream which means I’m often left with the consolation prize of a fruit salad. And, okay, Vietnam does not have as much of a sweet tooth as us westerners, but deserts are on offer in restaurants and one ticks all of the free-from boxes:

 Fruit desert platter at   Hanoi Food Culture  , Hanoi - definitely a restaurant worth a visit!

Fruit desert platter at Hanoi Food Culture, Hanoi - definitely a restaurant worth a visit!

Fruit with a "twist"...

Again?! But hold on, there is a twist! Vietnamese people don’t simply chop some fruit and call it desert, they’re better than that! Another must-try when visiting Vietnam is the fruit desert platter which is typically a selection of chopped pineapple, dragon fruit and mango accompanied by a kind of chilli salt which you dip your fruit in to before eating. When I tried this, it reminded me of the time I took the cinnamon challenge - but far less intense. For those who are fans of the whole sweet and savoury combinations, like sweet and salty popcorn, you will enjoy this!




Every main city in Vietnam has its own local beer. The problem with this is if you are celiac you can’t drink beer. However, you are able to have cider and this is available in most restaurants in Vietnam. Furthermore, if you are celiac, you have the option of tasting either a Vietnamese egg coffee or an iced coffee or tea, something I unfortunately had to miss out on.



Egg Coffee (ca phe trung)

What is it?

It sounds awful but I have heard it is delicious! Egg coffee is composed of an egg-yolk blended up with condensed milk to form a frothy sweet layer to top a rich Vietnamese blended coffee underneath it. It is very sweet and has been likened to tiramisu or marshmallow fluff. 

Suitable for: gluten/wheat intolerance, vegetarians

Iced coffee 

As mentioned, iced coffee is a popular choice in Vietnam, and there’s no wonder when temperatures often hit the thirties and above! Iced coffee is often served with condensed milk, making for a sweet pick-me-up. However, coffee has even made it into smoothies in Vietnam and you will even find combinations of fruit or yoghurt with coffee. Suitable for vegetarians and celiacs, dairy-free people I’m sorry but you will have to stick to the fruit platter for your sugar fix!

Suitable for: gluten/wheat intolerance, vegetarians



Rice Wine

What is it?

In my experience, this drink would be better named Rice Vodka as it does pack a bit of a punch and most definitely should not be drank in the same liquid measurements as wine! During a village tour in Hoi An, I visited a rice wine brewery where I learnt a little secret about rice wine. Rice wine delivers lots of natural good bacteria to your stomach and is relied upon by local fisherman not only to liven one up after a hard day's work, but to aid in the digestion of meals and balance the stomach bacteria. If you ever feel like you have over-indulged or you feel a bit out of sync, order a shot of rice wine! 

Suitable for: lactose intolerance, gluten/wheat intolerance, vegetarians and vegans



A Few extra survival hacks: 

Lactase tablets

What are they?

This year, I decided to try taking lactase tablets on my travels. These capsules of lactase (the enzyme that digests lactose) enables somebody with a lactose intolerance to eat dairy immediately after swallowing one of the capsules. They work brilliantly, and it meant I could indulge in the odd bit of ice-cream without being hotel-bound for the rest of the day. What I would suggest is you trial these capsules at home before you travel to see how well they work for you. Personally, these tablets have enabled me to eat a portion of pasta bake and an ice-cream with no effects. However, I still wouldn’t go mad on dairy and eat the biggest sickliest ice-cream sundae you can find, but they most definitely do give you more freedom when travelling. 

These tablets also came in handy if you do accidentally eat a little dairy despite your best efforts – a classic example being a sandwich which included butter – take one of these tablets immediately after and it should help stop any effects such as the stomach cramps, heartburn or worse! 

If you are in the UK, you can purchase the lactase tablets I used from Holland and Barrett here. Most health stores will stock these tablets.

Suitable for: lactose intolerance

Pack a few free-from goodies

I always pack some of my favourite free-from cereal bars in my backpack and even some trail-mix or nuts. Packing some snacks like these are great to have should you ever be in a situation where options for food are very limited. They are also just handy in general to have when you know you have an action-packed day ahead and are in need of a snack! You can always buy clothes, but you can't always buy free-from food, so my favourite goodies will always have room in my suitcase!

Peppermint Tea

For those with a sensitive constitution, throwing our bodies in to a completely foreign diet is not always a smooth transition, and can result in some unwanted heartburn and bloating. Drinking a peppermint tea will help solve any of these problems as it helps to de-bloat and neutralise stomach acid. Peppermint tea is widely available across SE Asian regions including Vietnam and is the natural alternative to swallowing an indigestion tablet.


So there you have it - my quick guide for free-from foodies in Vietnam! Have you found any foods in Vietnam that are free-from friendly? I would love to know! Comment with your experiences or any questions you have about food intolerances and travel!



Source: 2018/6/16/vietnam-for-free-from-foodies