After spending the last week laid up with the worst case of food poisoning I’ve had in my life, I thought I’d pass on some of the knowledge I’ve gained. The biggest being if you’re really sick, go to a doctor! And also, mostly don’t try any of the stuff I did.
1. If it doesn’t taste good, don’t eat it.
The particular bout of food poison which nearly killed me last week was brought on by some bun thang. In theory it should have been a delicious soup made of egg, ham, chicken, spices, and noodles. But after the first few bites, I found myself wrinkling my nose. I couldn’t place my finger on what was wrong, it just didn’t taste great. Not wanting to be rude, I forced myself to eat about half the soup before giving up and leaving.
Don’t be like me. If it tastes gross, just leave. Your stomach will thank you for being a bit impolite later by not trying to turn itself inside out.
2. Food poisoning isn’t always predictable.
“Don’t eat unpeeled fruit.” “Never try street food.”
Your guidebook isn’t giving you bad advice, but in countries where your stomach isn’t used to the natural bugs in the food and air… and where hygiene practices aren’t as uniformly enforced, just about anything can make you sick. I love buying sliced pineapple from the fruit women on the street, and one of my favorite Vietnamese snacks is bo bia ngot, a honey treat sold off the back of bicycles and prepared by hand. Neither have killed me yet.
But a high-quality, Western restaurant, delivery pizza during one of my first weeks in Hanoi made me miss work the next day as I was incapable of moving a few feet from the toilet.
Sometimes the food you think is the safest can be the worst, and the scary looking corner café can be the cleanest. It’s unfortunate, but you can’t always judge what’ll get you.
3. Don’t be ashamed.
Are you slumped on the bathroom floor crying and hugging the toilet with your unfortunate roommates listening to the horror from the next room?
Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t apologize. Beg someone to get you some clean pajamas and go back to the dilemma of which end you should be facing towards the toilet.
4. When you get desperate enough you’ll be willing to try anything. (Don’t be stupid!)
Some Vietnamese pharmacies have a reputation for shady practices: prescribing drugs they shouldn’t have, selling expired medicine, or repackaging medicines under false names. You should avoid them and stick to reputable doctors and hospitals.
At some point you may get desperate enough to send your roommate out to mime vomiting in front of a uncomfortable pharmacist and take whatever weird, probably unsafe, definitely reckless, drugs he or she prescribes.
It’s not smart. Don’t do it. If you’re desperate enough to take meds, then go see a doctor!
*Note March 2016: After reading back through this blog post with several months hindsight, I’d like to add that I have now used Hanoi pharmacies on numerous occasions with no backlash. I’ve even been able to get anti-nausea medication that seemed to help with one of my many and regular food-poisoning battles here. That doesn’t mean you should do it. I’m clearly not a doctor (clearly), but I wanted to leave a little update about what’s worked for me.
5. Know what foods and drinks might help and when to eat them.
Still in the “I wake up from naps and have to grab a bin or a bag or a hat or something” stage? Little sips of water and tiny chips of ice is about all you should try.
Feeling well enough for something besides water? Try ginger or lemon tea. Unfortunately I drank some really icky, powdered ginger tea when I first started getting sick. So after throwing it all back up, I tried some plain lemon tea later and felt much better. Ginger ale is good too, although not always as easy to find in a foreign country.
Well enough to start trying actual food again? Bananas, white rice, white bread, and crackers are the way to go. Weirdly enough, eating half a banana is what gave me the biggest turn around during last week’s bout of food poisoning. They’re a miracle fruit!
6. Cooking at home isn’t as pointless as you thought it was.
You’re abroad, the food is cheap, and it’s delicious. Why should you cook at home? It’s such a waste of time and money.
Well, after you spend several days convinced of your own ultimate, untimely demise and crying about never seeing your family again, cooking at home won’t seem so bad. Sure, you’ll still want to eat out and try new foods, but there is nothing wrong with cooking a nice, home-made, hands-were-definitely-washed meal on your own stove too.
7. Know when to go to a doctor.
Never be afraid to see a doctor, even in a foreign country. Whenever something seems too bad, or scary, or even just a little bit not right, go. You’re health should come first and worries like embarrassment or money should always be secondary.
Does anyone have any more tips for combatting food poisoning or avoiding it in a foreign country? Let me know as I’m sure last week’s battle wasn’t the last I’ll face during my time in Hanoi.