The ultimate guide for not getting food poisoning in Asia

by Ben Phillips, 2/3/2020

The ultimate guide for not getting food poisoning in Asia

 

I still remember the salty wafts from that first serving of steaming pho in Ho Chi Minh City, the first bite of a crunchy, flavour-packed Banh Mi on the roadside in Hoi An, and the incomparable taste of the first bowl of Bun Cha I slurped away while sitting on a plastic stool in the bustling back alleys of Hanoi. I will never forget the way my taste-buds lit up like fireworks on New Year's Eve with every new dish I discovered. Seeking out the best street food in Vietnam became an obsession. In hindsight, I also became a little reckless. I’ll never, ever forget those incredible first-time experiences, but I’ll also never forget the one time I got food poisoning in Asia. It was a shocker! 

We hope this guide on how to avoid getting food poisoning in Asia gives you a free pass to dive into every culinary delight this foodie’s paradise has to offer without ending up with your head in a toilet bowl for 48 hours. 

 

Research, research, research 

One could be easily mistaken for thinking the only way to discover the best, authentic street food in Vietnam is by chatting with the locals. Don’t get me wrong, this is a fantastic place to start, but every recommendation should be validated by at least one other source. Have a chat with the manager of the hostel to ask their opinion. They might give you a resounding thumbs up and tell you to go for it. Or they might stare back at you in horror and beg you not to roll the dice this time around. 

It may come as a surprise, but even the back-alley street food vendors in Vietnam have an online presence. Sure, they don’t operate state-of-the-art websites with pop-ups to join their mailing list, but in most cases, their businesses are registered on Trip Advisor or Google Reviews. If 300 other travellers have tried the Banx Xeo and gave it their seal of approval, get in there! 

 

Take a Street Food Tour 

This is by far the safest option to sample the best street food in Vietnam. The last outcome a street food tour operator wants is twenty of their customers leaving one star reviews online after contracting salmonella poisoning. Street food tours in Vietnam are curated by locals who have tried and tested every stop on the tour. We understand this isn’t a popular option for all travellers, many of whom prefer to discover the hidden gems on their own, but it is without a doubt the safest way to go. Have a chat to the manager at the hostel about booking you into a tour. 

Eat at places where you can see the food being cooked 

This is one of the key benefits of eating street food. You can well and truly tell if the chicken feet rotating above the roaring fire has been cooked through. A really good rule of thumb to follow when eating in Vietnam is - if you are sitting near where the food is prepared and cooked, it’s going to be both delicious and safe. 

 

Visit the local markets early in the morning

Take a deep breath before stepping into the Ben Thanh market in Ho Chi Minh City or the famous Dong Ba market in Hue and be prepared for a glorious attack on the senses. Visiting a local market in Vietnam is a must. The intoxicating chaos will leave a lasting impression on you. The market stalls are stacked with jackfruit, durian, and mangosteen, pulsing with colour and bursting with flavour. Trays of fresh carp, catfish, and goby rest in trays of ice alongside swirling buckets of fresh prawns.

Do not do your grocery shopping from a local market after 10 am. These hardworking locals have been there since 4 am setting up their stalls. The best tasting, freshest, and most importantly, safest produce should be bought as early as possible. 

We also don’t recommend purchasing fruit or vegetables from the market that has already been cut up. It is a far safer option to buy fruits and vegetables whole and cut them open yourself. 

 

Clean your cutlery

This might sound completely absurd. But when you visit local restaurants in Vietnam take a quick look at the container of chopsticks on the table. Do they look like they have spent half an hour in a dishwasher? In all likelihood, they have been given a quick rinse under the tap before being placed back on the table. 

I always carry around a little bottle of antibacterial liquid to give both my hands and the cutlery a quick once over before putting anything near my mouth. It might seem ludicrous, but you’ll regret not doing it if you get food poisoning in Asia. 

 

Wash your fruit and vegetables with bottled water 

In all likelihood you wash your vegetables under the tap before preparing a meal at home. When you travel through Asia always have a stash of bottled water on hand to stay hydrated and to wash any fruit or vegetables you buy from a street vendor. Produce in local stalls are susceptible to contamination from dust, pollutants, as well as possibly coming into contact with odd rat, cat, or dog. 

 

Why is this restaurant empty? 

If you find yourself asking this question, it’s better you don’t place an order and move on. The best places to eat usually have a line out the door. 

 

Packing tips

You will experience mild sickness when travelling through Asia. It is unavoidable. But there is a big difference between travellers diarrhoea and full-blown food poisoning. Here are a few essentials we recommend packing before starting your Asian adventure: 

  • Imodium. Only take this if you are certain you are suffering travellers diarrhoea and not food poisoning. It’s a very handy medication if you are about to embark on a long journey. 

  • Rehydration tablets or electrolyte power to replenish your salt and vitamin levels. 

  • Ask your doctor for a script of Antibiotics such as Metronidazole and Ciprofloxacin. These can be lifesavers if you do suffer food poisoning. 

  • Anti Bacterial wipes to clean wipe down cutlery and hand solution if you’re handling food with your hands.