gluten free guide to vietnam

The Essential Gluten Free Guide to Vietnam

If I had to choose one cuisine to eat for the rest of my life, I would immediately opt for Vietnamese food. I spent several winters exploring the country, with time spent in Saigon and Hanoi, in Hue and Danang, and eating as much as I could every second of every day.

As a celiac, eating gluten free in Vietnam was not only possible but gloriously easy. Once I learned the ingredients I needed to avoid, I stuck to street food where I could see dishes being made and I explored to my taste buds’ content.

The following guide will help people navigate Vietnam with an eye to avoiding gluten. I am very sensitive and have avoided some dishes at restaurants where oil could be contaminated. The benefit of street food is that often the stalls are one-stop wonders, and if it involves something fried on the spot, the oil is only used for that product.

Eating in Vietnam was a pleasure, but also a good part of why I love to write about food. It isn’t just about taste, but the experience of sharing a meal in the midst of chaos, sitting on a blue plastic chair.

I hope this guide, twinned with my long Saigon Street Food Guide will make your time in Vietnam exciting, delicious, and filled with incredible sights.

LAST UPDATED: JANUARY 4, 2023

Already know you want a gluten free translation card? You can buy my Vietnamese card here, as well as Italy, Thailand, Japan, Greece, Spain, and more! 
Hu tieu soup: one of many soups in this guide to Vietnam that is usually gluten free
Hu tieu, tapioca noodles that are gluten free

Eating gluten free in Vietnam: an overview

I was diagnosed as celiac in early 2000s, though I rarely wrote about it when I started Legal Nomads. Honestly, I didn’t think readers would be interested, and it was something I struggled with heavily as I travelled but I kept it to myself.

When I met readers, many mentioned they also had celiac disease, so I started making sure I provided tips for celiacs or those following a gluten-free diet. This gluten free Vietnam guide is built with an aim to help fellow celiacs, but also to encourage people to eat in the country. It’s truly some of the best food you’ll try.

Saigon was a paradise for celiacs. I have been “glutened” inadvertently in Hanoi, where wheat and soy sauce with wheat are used more frequently. In the South—Saigon and the Mekong—I have not had any trouble. I also did well in Hue and Hoi Ann.

I should note cross-contamination is an issue as I am really sensitive to gluten. And despite this, I did not have trouble in Southern Vietnam, including with soy sauce. This is because the sauce many vendors use is local and is 100% soy-based, like tamari in Japan. Ingredients are wheat-free, the packaging says “100% soy” on it, and per chefs and suppliers I spoke with, there were no unlabeled ingredients likely to be found. You can see an English translation of the ingredients here. Whether that means there is no trace gluten in the sauce remains in question, but I did not get sick when eating soy sauce dishes on the street.

soy sauce gluten free vletnam
This is the soy sauce I used and carried with me: no wheat in the ingredients.
There is some contention about soy sauce generally, as some companies have said that fermenting soy sauce removes the gluten even when there is wheat in the soy sauce. Yes, it’s true that fermenting means that testing antibodies won’t detect hydrolyzed gluten, but the peptide chains remain, and gliadin is still there.

Tourist-driven (read: fancier) restaurants often imported wheat-y soy sauce from elsewhere, so my solution was to eat everything streetside, with great success.

A detailed gluten free restaurant card for Vietnam

This card was the second in what has become a series of gluten free guides and local language cards, and I’m excited to be working with translators and celiacs to build detailed and safe cards for us to use on the road. Each of the cards in the guide has been created with celiac-specific research, mention of cross contamination, and double checked translation from locals who speak the language.

Note: The card is available for purchase via trustworthy 3rd party site that uses Stripe, so you know your information is safe.

Why is this Vietnamese card different?

I used several different translation cards on my travels, and I still got sick. I may be more sensitive than some celiacs, but even a small amount of contaminated oil for frying, or wheat-thickened sauce in the food, is enough to make me ill for days. Let alone the joint pain later that week, and the fatigue. And regardless of whether we feel it or not, ingesting any amount of gluten is a problem if we are celiac.

This card is different because:
✅  Immediate download, sized specifically for mobile. You can save it to your phone and have it with you as you travel, or you can print it out and laminate it to take along.
✅ It uses local ingredients and lists of what you can/cannot eat help you eat safely, not just “I can’t eat gluten”.
✅ Unlike less-detailed cards, this card explains that contaminated surfaces or oils are also unsafe.
✅ It is researched by a celiac and goes through two sets of translations to ensure accuracy.

Click to jump over to the purchase page!

An English translation of the card will be sent to you after you purchase.

A big thanks to To Tra for enlisting her entire family’s translation services in an aim to make this card as thorough as possible without overwhelming waitstaff.

Gluten Free Vietnamese Food: Dishes and Snacks

Before I went to Vietnam, my familiarity with the cuisine was quite shallow. Even now, after years of time in Saigon, I am likely missing some of the great dishes in my repertoire. One of the most rewarding things about Vietnam travel is how excited people are to share their food with you. As a celiac, the best weapon against anxiety from the disease is an understanding of the building blocks that go into each dish. Vietnam makes this easy for you.

One of the most helpful aspects of Vietnamese eating is that the dish names are profoundly descriptive. What we in the west call pho is not only a soup name, it refers to the noodle used in the soup. Same for many other dishes, such as the litany of bun or banh dishes, referring to the starch that defines them from other dishes.

 Please see my VERY long food guide to Saigon Street food for photos and a more thorough description of each of the dishes below — this should be read alongside the current gluten free Vietnam guide to provide you with the most thorough information prior to your visit. 

Condiments — the plum or hoisin sauce with pho, for example — ought to be chosen quite carefully, but the most common condiment of all, fish sauce, was gloriously gluten free.

That said, Andrea Nguyen writes in her post on Asian gluten free eating that some fish sauces aren’t safe:

Note that occasionally fish sauce will have an ingredient called hydrolyzed wheat protein, which is not gluten free. I have not seen fish sauce with this used in Vietnam very frequently but it merits checking if you are celiac. The Vietnamese ingredient name is “protein lua mi”

Thankfully I did not suffer adverse reactions to fish sauce during my winters of eating in Vietnam, but it is worth mentioning in the event it becomes more common.

Note that eating gluten free in Hanoi was more difficult for me than in the central or southern areas of Vietnam, due to the Hanoi and northern Vietnamese dishes’ use of soy sauce more frequently than in the south where fish sauce rules.

Some of the gluten free condiments found in Vietnamese food
Fish sauce aplenty, to stay or to go.

Gluten free Vietnamese dishes, soups, and noodles

  • For banh xeo and banh khot, please be sure to ask if their batter has wheat and rice flour. The recipe is meant to be made with rice flour but some places are using pre-made mixes, in which case it is not safe for celiacs. See here for a recipe for banh khot that I’ve made many times since I lived in Vietnam.
  • Hu tieu (tapioca) noodles – these can be found in hu tieu Nam Vang a soup that was one of my favourite breakfasts. It’s important to note that some forms of hu tieu soups don’t actually use hu tieu noodles. As I wrote in my Saigon Street Food Guide, hu tieu soups can come wet or dry, with dry noodles stir-fried or lightly pan-fried and the broth on the side. There are also a few types of noodles commonly served with hu tieu soup, (1) mi (egg noodles, see below for UNSAFE foods where these wheat-based noodles reside in this guide), (2) hu tieu noodles, made with tapioca starch so they’re springier, and (3) pho or bun noodles, made with rice flour.  Only (1) is off limits for us celiacs.
  • Goi cuon – fresh spring rolls, which are wrapped in rice paper. Often called summer rolls in North America.
  • Mi quang – the exception to the “mi / my” category below, mi quang noodles are actually made of rice, served with a smaller amount of broth that is tinted with turmeric. They are wider than pho noodles and quite delicious!
  • Mien (mung bean flour) noodles. Mien noodles can often be found in stalls that sell pho, and one of my favourite dishes to get when I had a cold was mien ga, chicken noodle soup with mung beans as the noodle base.
  • Pho (rice flour or rice starch) – while we often use pho as the name of the soup, the soup’s name comes from the noodle itself, which is made from rice flour.
  • Bun (rice flour or rice starch) – there are a whole slew of bun soups – bun bo, bun mam, bun ca, bun thang, bun moc, bun mang vit, and many more. For those growing up in the West, please do explore the extraordinary variety of Vietnamese soups beyond pho. Many of these soups do not have soy sauce in them, but it is always important to ask.  Whenever I had a cold, bun moc, a pork and mushroom meatball soup with rice noodles, was my favourite go-to to help me feel better.
gluten free dishes you can find in vietnam
Bun noodles are made from rice and are gluten free.
  • Banh canh (tapioca and rice noodles), often served in banh canh cua, an incredible crab noodle soup that I often ate for breakfast near my apartment in Saigon.
  • Cha gio (fried spring rolls, wrapped in rice paper) Northern-style Vietnamese restaurants will call these nem. Note that for celiacs eating in Hanoi, and with more and more frequency in the south, they are not always made with rice paper as the wrapper. Northern nem are sometimes dipped in bread crumbs before being fried, so again please be cautious if not in Saigon. These days, it’s important to ask if the fried rolls are made using banh trang (rice paper) or won ton or flour wrappers.
  • Com (rice) – com tam (broken rice), com suon (rice with pork chop), com hen (rice with baby clams) — com anything, really. The com itself is safe, but as with any protein dishes you need to confirm that the meat or seafood was not marinated in a marinade that includes soy sauce. During my years of living in Southern Vietnam, soy sauce was not prevalent, but readers report it is more and more common in the south.
  • Chao long – this is a congee-like porridge, made with rice and some deliciously nutritious offal like lungs and intestines, as well as blood cubes. It’s not for everyone, but it is amazing if you enjoy your grisly parts. Note that they usually come with bread on the side, or chopped inside, but you can just decline them.
  • Oc – is technically the word for snails, but an oc restaurant will not only serve snails but also a dizzying variety of delicious seafood, from grilled scallops to lemongrass clams, and so much more. Often these are cooked over the fire or steamed, and I did not encounter breaded options very often. Unlike the fried oysters or breaded scallops of Canada, I was able to partake in almost all of the seafood at these stalls, and it was incredibly tasty. For a primer, please see Vietnam Coracle’s Snails and Seafood guide.
Lemongrass clams, a delicious gluten free meal
Lemongrass clams, served street-side. One of my favourite meals.

Gluten free Vietnamese snacks: so good!

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the snacks.

One of the hardest parts about being a celiac is that often the “on the go” snacks that countries offer are made from wheat. It makes sense; the sandwich or pastry are both easy ways to transport food without making a mess. With the exception of Mexico, where corn snacks are everywhere, I’ve had a hard time with mid-meal noshes.

Not so in Vietnam! From banh trang nuong (grilled rice paper rolls), below, to banh trang tron (rice paper shredded and mixed with quail egg, peanuts, chili oil, and green mango into a salad), to banh trang cuon (rice paper rolls with similar ingredients but rolled and cut into a bag), I never felt hungry when soups were lacking. None of these had any wheat.

Banh trang nuong: delicious snack that is also gluten free
Banh trang nuong: delicious snack that is also gluten free (as always, check condiments!)

Gluten free hotels, restaurants, and shops in Vietnam

Unlike my other guides, Vietnam is less robust on the gluten free products – but that’s ok, because you can essentially cook yourself with a metric ton of rice noodles or banh. For those wanting to cook from home, AirBnb is still your best bet. Otherwise, go for street food like I did, or opt for nicer hotels.

Prior celiac guides were written with my own restaurant recommendations, tested from travels as a celiac. In 2017, my life took a big turn when a botched lumbar puncture left me with a chronic spinal CSF leak, and disabled. As a result, the recommendations in this guide are partly put together via community crowdsourcing, and have not been personally tested by me specifically. While I have lived in Vietnam, my recommendations are outdated, and I have turned to fellow celiacs to help fill that gap and keep you as safe as possible.
Gluten free hotel in Da Nang

Hyatt Regency Da Nang: Restaurants at this hotel were very accommodating to celiacs, per Blends by Orly, who writes that The Green House restaurant made them gluten free pumpkin bread (which was more like sponge cake),  and adds that, “The Green House offers gluten free spaghetti at lunch and dinner as a substitute to all pasta dishes on the menu. In fact, the box of gluten free pasta is on display with the other regular pastas, which is pretty cool!”

Gluten free hotel and restaurants in Hoi An
  • Several readers report that the Four Seasons Nam Hai in Hoi An can also accommodate you fully as a celiac. Given my travels are usually slow-travel, long term wandering, I didn’t test this one out but it is in line with other Four Seasons properties around the world. For that price, I’d hope so!
  • La Siesta Hoi An prepared gluten free bread and food that was safe for celiac readers.
  • Morning Glory Restaurant (Original – there’s a second one!) will accommodate celiacs and know about CC and what is safe for us.
  • Baby Mustard Restaurant is not in town – it’s about 3.5km away – but it features beautiful, fresh food in a rural setting and is a great spot to eat safely.
  • For cooking schools, I can recommend the Vy’s Market Cooking School to accommodate gluten free dishes and cooking, and know what is safe/unsafe for celiacs.
Gluten free restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon
  • Rawberry is a refined sugar free, 100% gluten free, dairy free bakery that has made many a celiac happy.
  • Annam Gourmet Hai Ba Trung: I bought quite a few gluten free products here during my years in Vietnam. They carry pasta, cereals, frozen items, and more.
  • Ciao Bella: Italian restaurant that offers gluten free pasta. Confirm cross-contact is not occuring when you visit; read reports are mixed.
  • Duxton Hotel Saigon: the upmarket hotels tend to have more knowledge of celiac disease, and readers report a great breakfast spread here, with staff who can accommodate safe food. I don’t eat breakfast myself so I haven’t’ personally tried it.
  • Eden Coffee House D7: Western food abounds at this cafe in District 7. Their menu is clearly marked for gluten, but note that while they do have a dedicated fryer, their kitchen is shared and they only say “gluten sensitive” on the menu not GF. While readers have eaten here, I am not sure I’d risk it with celiac disease, as extensive as the menu is!
  • Kem Bach Dang Ice Cream: I ate here many times during my years in Vietnam, and while there are quite a few spots to get ice cream this one is a fave. Most of the flavours were gluten free. For safety, ask for a separate scoop so as to avoid cross-contact (a translation card should help for this!), and ensure that you get a plate or bowl, not a cone. The coconut ice cream is not to be missed.
  • There’s also Gluten Free Gourmet, which offers celiac-friendly savoury and sweet items in the same city, in District 2. They supply several restaurants with gluten free products to use in their menus, too.
  • The Vintage Emporium has gluten free bread to substitute for their meals, but is also knowledgeable about celiac disease and can modify the menu accordingly. It’s a Sydney-style cafe with a full bar and delicious brunch options.
  • Craving Mexican food? Gringo Tacos has corn tortillas and staff who are knowledgeable about what gluten free is, and about cross contamination.
  • When I lived in HCMC, I would bring my own gluten free soy sauce (purchased at L’Annam, below) and eat at one of the many great sushi restaurants in Japantown.
  • Vietnam House has an extensive menu and staff are knowledgeable about how to safely eat gluten free. It is also a beautiful spot for a meal.
  • If street food is intimidating, opt for Vietnamese homecooked flavours from Den Long restaurant. The menu marks items that have wheat in it, and the staff understand celiac disease and its restrictions.
Gluten Free hotels and restaurants in Ha Noi
  • For accommodation, the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi Hotel in the Hoan Kiem district of Hanoi has a restaurant with clearly marked gluten free items, and a chef knowledgeable about what to eat to keep celiacs safe. When in doubt, that’s always an option.
  • Annam Gourmet Hai Ba Trung: I bought quite a few gluten free products here during my years in Vietnam. They carry pasta, cereals, frozen items, and more.
  • LN readers have said that Hanoi Social House is very aware of, and able to cater to, food allergies–including celiac disease.
  • There’s also La Studio, a vegan spot with many gluten free offerings. Please do double check, however, as their soba noodles (for example) were not 100% soba and did have wheat in them.
  • Koto Van Mieu Restaurant KOTO is a not-for-profit social enterprise that empowers at-risk and disadvantaged youth in Vietnam through hospitality training programs, and this restaurant in Hanoi is their flagship spot. The staff speak English and can accommodate celiac disease.
  • Bun Cha Ta Ha Noi: readers report that this spot is gluten free, and while traditional bun cha uses fish sauce and nuoc mau (a thickened, caramelized fish sauce) to marinate the mean, it is important to confirm that soy or oyster sauce is not used when you visit. As with many other spots in Hanoi, they use rice paper wrappers for their spring rolls, and had no wheat on site so the fryer was safe when readers visited.
  • For a taste of Mexico, try Hanoi Taco Bar — they make their own stone ground corn tortillas that are celiac-safe. As with any restaurant, do inquire about condiments used, like any soy sauce or “salsa inglesa” that may have wheat.
  • For a lovely beef noodle salad, called bun bo nam bo, visit Bách Phương Restaurant. Confirm no oyster sauce or Chinese soy sauce in the beef marinade.
  • For banh xeo and banh beo, two crispy and delicious rice pancake treats, opt for Nha Hang Mr Bay Mien Tay, who do not use wheat in their batter (at the time of writing in 2023).
  • You can also follow Gluten Free Hanoi on Instagram for ideas of where to (and what) to try when visiting the city.

What ISN’T gluten free in Vietnam?

Don’t eat these things!

This list is blissfully shorter than many countries out there, but is worth memorizing the names – nui, my, won ton – so that when you see it on menus you know what to avoid. The Vietnamese card also has these foods to avoid.

  • nui (macaroni noodles)
  • mi or my noodles (egg noodles with wheat)
  • hu tieu won ton (won ton soup with egg noodles) – however, hu tieu Nam Vang is fine as it is made with tapioca noodles and the broth isn’t seasoned with soy sauce.
  • banh mi (bread, obviously)
  • fish or meat that is deep fried, as they are often dredged in flour first.
  • nem / cha gio in the North: the north of Vietnam does use more soy sauce from China, which has wheat, and will also use wrappers that are wheat-based instead of made from rice. You must double confirm that  your food in Hanoi and the north is 100% gluten free. Namely: no soy sauce, that the wrappers are made from rice if you are eating in and around Hanoi, and that no wheat was used to make the nem.
  • As noted above, marinated meats are in the “ask” category: worth asking if soy sauce was used to marinade. Soy is often used to marinate grilled meats used in bun bowls, though the bowl above is from Saigon and the soy sauce used did not have wheat as an ingredient.
  • Mexican restaurants get a “pass” in many Vietnamese gluten free guides: in my experiences this is RARELY the case. Among the issues I’ve found: tortillas that are half wheat, half corn (found this one out the hard way), wheat tostadas, contaminated fryers, and more.
  • Koki flour: used more in Thailand than in Vietnam, but it’s a batter that includes flours like wheat. A no-go. Really, other than the cha gio etc in the North, I’d avoid deep fried stuff in Asia.

Celiac disease in Vietnam

The prevalence of celiac disease in different populations around the world ranges from 0.3% to 1.25%. As of 2016, no data existed for Vietnam and a study took place as recommended by the World Gastroenterology Organization, to try and establish a baseline prevalence of celiac disease in Hanoi.

Using two phases, the study tested children over 24 months of age. First, they used rapid tests and positive patients were then given an ELISA test for anti-tTG antibodies. In the second phase, a sample from each child was examined for anti-tTG, as well as for anti-endomysial antibodies (EMA), HLA DQ2/DQ8 genes, and H. pylori antibodies.

The study found a low prevalence of celiac disease, but did find that the prevalence of human leukocyte antigens HLA DQ2 and DQ8 was similar to that of other countries. The researchers hypothesized that the lack of consistent gluten in Vietnamese food/population consumption habits may have resulted in a lack of celiac findings for the non-genetic testing.

Further reading about  Vietnam

For those of you looking to visit Vietnam, there are some wonderful books to help inform your visit. The country is a complicated one, with a history that includes war and migration of citizens and a deep love of food.

My suggestions for more historical background:

My suggestions for food books:


Happy and safe eating!

For the rest of my celiac translation cards and guides, see here.

-Jodi

gluten free guide vietnam
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