Rainy Sunday in Hanoi: Recovering from bụng ốm

Pouring rain. Hammering rain. The it stops & the sun comes out. When I go out it will rain again. It’s about 80º. In any case, I’ve been cooped up for two days–feels like a week–with a stomach bug–bụng ốm in Vietnamese: almost an onomatopoeia! I knew I was recovering when I began to imagine eating some fruit. Vietnam is so full of fruit that after a while it becomes invisible. But when you notice it, the variety and abundance are astonishing. (Here is an overview of what’s available, though it only scratches the surface. And here is 40 seconds of video that catches the feel of the streets.)1

So I knew I was getting better when I began thinking about fruit. But you don’t want to stuff just any fruit into your bụng ốm–some will actually make you worse. Begin with bananas, which are full of minerals & fiber. Bananas, bottled water, and Vinamilk yogurt will get one through most food-borne intestinal disturbances. With one exception years ago, the combination has always worked for me. That time, I needed to take a course of Cipro & then probiotics & an electrolyte solution that is somehow both sweet & salty at the same time. Actually, yesterday, after I was mostly recovered, I went to the pharmacy to lay in a supply of loperamide in case of emergency (best to avoid until your system has cleaned itself out), along with the standard probiotic & the nasty electrolyte powder (don’t be fooled by the orange on the packet). I was surprised when the pharmacist asked if I wanted a packet of Cipro. “Không có toa thuốc bác sĩ?” I asked. (Without a doctor’s prescription?) She laughed and said something that may have meant, “Oh, yes, a doctor!” then she laid the blister-pack on the counter, so I got some Cipro, too. I’m not going to take any of this stuff now except the probiotic, but if I need it later, I’ll have it. Somehow, though, I usually only get bụng ốm once each time I come.

Finally, a word about yogurt. The largest industrial company in Vietnam (barring foreign & multinationals) is Vinamilk. It is a kind of miracle food. The stuff is highly sweetened & highly processed–Westerners might be tempted to turn up their noses–but it can be transported throughout a tropical country with inadequate transport & refrigeration. It is also full of probiotics.

sua chua

Sữa chua is Vietnamese for yogurt & to a non-Vietnamese the word looks a lot like sửa chữa, which is actually a different word, in this case meaning “fix” or “repair.” But if you have bụng ốm, sữa chua will help sửa chữa your problem. Plenty of water, bananas & Vinamilk yogurt make an excellent first line of defense against travelers’ stomach problems; if that doesn’t work, there does not seem to be much the pharmacist won’t provide.

Rest Day (VN Diary No. 32)

After going out this morning to cash some travelers’ checks, I’m spending most of the day in my hotel room. I spent the last couple of days in Hue walking around in the heat and yesterday (wearing a t-shirt) I got a bit of sunburn on my neck. Nothing serious, but all the sun and walking have made me tired so I’m relaxing and writing in my notebook and starting to pack for the short hop up to Hanoi early tomorrow morning.

Last night, though, I had a great dinner. There are three small restaurants on Dinh Tien Hoang Street, all owned by the same extended family as far as I can tell, and specializing in banh khoi and bun bo, two Hue specialties. The firsst is a cross between an omelet and a pancake and is filled with onions and bean sprouts and served with a peanut sauce and spicy herbs; the second is Hue’s version of pho, a beef noodle soup that here in Hue is quite spicy. I had banh khoi in one little restaurant, then went next door for bun bo, then took a cyclo back to the hotel.

Lunch (VN Diary No. 18)


I had lunch yesterday with my friends Giang and Long at the publishing house where I worked when I was here on a Fulbright in 2000 – 2001. We ate in the rooftop cafeteria at their office, where the food is wonderful, though quite unlike what you would find in a restaurant. More like home cooking. The greens at the top are water morning glory, or convolvulus, which tastes like a more bitter version of spinach; then there is a little ommelet, and another bit of egg cooked as a kind of pancake with herbs, then some chicken in a savory sauce at the bottom, and as condiments some peanust and pickled cucumber.

Biodiversity in the Mekong River Delta

This report from CNN on newly discovered species in the Mekong River basin is really quite amazing. I would love to see a Laotian rock rat next spring when I go to the delta, but I have no desire to eat one. The consumption of exotic animals — because they are exotic — was one of my biggest clashes of values with Vietnamese culture when I lived there. That, and a certain disdane for the suffering of all animals, really got to me. And I found it strange, too, in a Buddhist country. Buddhism’s doctrine that the world is defined by suffering has two sides: compassion and indifference. Over the course of their history the Vietnamese have had to sometimes eak out a living off of a parsimonious & capricious nature, which has led them to take a catholic view of what and what is not appropriate for eating. When you’re hungry, that coconut grub might look pretty tasty. I’m not an anthropologist, but it seems to me that there must be some symbolic process through with a food originally eaten for survival becomes a food of particularly high status, especially when times are more lavish.