Gluten-free in Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City is a work of pure genius. To create a city that works so well with so little to work with is beyond comprehension.

The buildings are tall and thin and none of them match. It is like someone had a cup and they filled that cup with a couple of long-stemmed roses. As they came in from work each night they would add to the cup in a haphazard but diligent way. A couple of short-stemmed seaside daisies. A couple of matchsticks. A pudgy stick of plastic cheese crumbling out of its wrapper. A set of five chopsticks (no one knows where the sixth went – the notorious odd sock). Pens, pencils and paintbrushes. Until the things were all squeezed into that cup with no room for breath or thought. Thought dissipates in a place like this – wonder slides into its place like it never left the mind of your five year-old self. Everything is seen with new eyes.

Telephone wiring creeps around poles and buildings like the unruly, long black hair of the hula girls that we left behind in Oahu.

The heat was the first thing that crawled over me as I walked out of the airport. And the smell.

Well actually, it was both. I could smell the heat. The heat was heavy with pugnacity, slapping me across the face without the usual preemptive bow. I acquiesced without a fight. I let it seep through my nostrils and clog up all my pores until I was sweating Vietnam. The world dipped and swung and I fell in place on my swollen feet with a smile. No one picked us up at the airport like arranged. Hello there. I’ve missed you big and often. (It has now been three years since I have been in the third world. I am now in, what I call, the fourth world. Where everything bustles around me and my inside stills. The peacefulness of perspective.)

We wandered through the market and I ate spindly, moist rice noodles surrounding chunks of pork adorned with mint leaves and some other leaf of aromatic amazingness dipped in fish sauce and chillies and munched on deep pink and black polka-dotted dragon fruit and peeled open the spiked, alien skin of lychees and the smooth, crunchy skin of longans, sucked up the fresh water from a coconut slashed open on the street with a machete and melted in mouthfuls of papaya and watermelon and the best banana I’ve had in 31 hours. I know. It flows and flows and flows like a gaping wound.

(Normally I don’t eat grains at all but I feel as if the primal eating thing is taking a step up in Vietnam – among the pigeon porridge and chicken feet and fried frogs and innards of all sorts of animals I care not to dwell on – so I think some safe starch in the form of rice will be counterbalanced by a massive hit of nutrient-density from an onslaught of cartilaginous meats and internal organs. The pigeon porridge is definitely off my list but the others are big contenders for lunch tomorrow.)

After a jetlag-induced nap in the afternoon we wandered about five shops from the hotel where we were staying in Ly Tu Trong St, District 1 and found a little restaurant with bamboo covered walls and a friendly young boy ushering us onto the two-foot high table and little stools out the front.

With the help of Mister Google, before we left Hawaii I found out that it wouldn’t be too difficult to stay gluten-free in Vietnam (and a breeze to stay dairy-free because dairy is not often used). I created a flash card with a couple of phrases on it in Vietnamese (I will add this to the post when I get back home so you can print it off or make your own).

I cannot eat foods that contain wheat
Toi khong the an thud an co bot mi
If I eat food containing wheat flour, I will be sick
Neu toi an thuc an co bot mi, to se bi benh
I don’t eat food that contains soy sauce
Toi khong an mon an cho xi dau
I can eat fish sauce
Toi an duoc com nuoc mam

I added some FODMAP information and some dairy intolerance stuff and my custom-made I’m-a-pain-in-your-arse-but-it’s-better-than-a-pain-in-my-belly card was ready for action.

My mate Google seemed to believe that Pho (pronounced “fuh”) would be generally safe as long as I was okay with some rice (“com”). Pho is meat broth with vegetables and beef (Pho Bo) or chicken (Pho Ga). Spring rolls (New) are generally made with rice paper. Greens (Rau mong) would be plentiful (excellent.) Bamboo was a must (cay tre).

At the restaurant, I pointed at my choice on the menu and showed him my travel nutrition card. As he bowed to me politely and said “can I take this?” I knew I was in good, kind hands. What arrived was exciting (primarily because of the lack of vegetables we’d found in Hawaii over the last week).

In a little bowl – dried shrimp and pork cartilage floating in a fish sauce with a couple of red chillies sitting on top like pressed flowers, their juice squeezed out from their middles. On a big plate – a steamed vegetable medley. Okra, some chunks of something from the zucchini family (I assume this from the smooth texture of the plump white flesh inside the pale green skin), water spinach, carrot, cauliflower, bamboo shoots, and bitter melon (super disgusting but I ate it all the same).

While we ate, scooters flung along the sidewalk, two men tried to “shine” hubs’ shoes (he was wearing thongs…) and the sky closed the lid on the day.

Someone tell Ho Chi Minh that he forgot to leave a crack in the lid for the stars to creep in with the night.

Happiness ensued.

Postscript as I am writing:
This conversation just happened.
Hubs: “What day is it?”
Laura: “I don’t know. Tuesday?”
Hubs: “I feel like it is Thursday….Yeah, it’s Thursday.”
Laura (shocked): “What?”

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