I pride myself as someone who tries to set a good example for others. But how much of an example can I really be when disaster strikes and I have to use my EpiPen while traveling? I hope this is story of my experience in Hoi An, Vietnam is an example of how you can try to do everything right and go 100% of the way to ensure your safety outside of your own kitchen; but still things can go catastrophically wrong.
What Happened in Hoi An, Vietnam
My travel partner and I were walking around completely ravenous and looking for a spot to eat. We settled on one with an expansive and relatively inexpensive menu. I was beyond hungry but still – as the waitress/owner came over to take our orders the first thing I did before requesting anything was take out my Allergy Translation card.
The thing about these translation cards is that the “I am severely allergic” part is written on the top in a different color than the “peanuts, peanut oil, all nuts, etc.” bit. So whenever I hand over my card I always hold the card and start dragging my finger along the top so they read the severity part first.
The owner who took our orders read the entire card aloud (in a whisper, but still – it meant she read it all the way through) and put it down with wide eyes and said, “Ok I understand. No peanuts. No nuts. Ok no problem.”
I then motioned with my hand and said, “If I eat this (pointing to the card) I will die (dragging my finger across my neck in a deadly motion while I roll my eyes back and stick my tongue out). She confirmed that she understood what a food allergy is and it was no problem at her restaurant.
Side note: I know that charades bit might sound a little dramatic; but the clearer things can be to overcome a language barrier, the better. And miming an overly dramatic scene of death is better than not doing it at all.
Then we ordered. 2 sandwiches, french fries, a pancake, and Pho (Vietnamese soup). As we ordered I confirmed with her that none of it would contain peanuts or nuts. I then asked what oil she uses for french fries in her restaurant – to make sure for a third time it wouldn’t be peanut.
She brought me back into her kitchen and picked up the bottle of sunflower seed oil. She let me look around to see the cleanliness and new dishes and knives being pulled out to use as she shouted our order. And then walked me back to our table.
I felt great. I did everything I could outside of making the food myself to ensure my safety.
As she brought the sandwiches and french fries I confirmed for another time that there weren’t any peanuts or nuts. With a smile she said, “No problem I promise there are none.”
Then she brought the Pho. I confirmed for a fifth time that it was peanut and nut free. She again promised with a smile that it was good to go. It had a dollop of chili sauce on top that I – at some point – stuck my chopstick into to taste. The taste was tiny. Tinier than tiny. It arguably didn’t even hit my tongue. Nonetheless I’m not sure if the taste was before or after I mixed the soup (meaning my chopsticks were in the body of the soup at some point).
I hate to say that it was my intuition telling me to thoroughly check the soup, I wish I could say that I always dissect my food like a surgeon before I eat it, but I don’t. I went with intuition and after a few minutes of mixing and moving noodles around I found a teeny tiny dark speck of something. Imagine a piece of finely chopped garlic. That was the size of this little guy. I brought it out of my soup with a spoon and handed it over to my travel partner.
He ate it and – lo and behold – it was a peanut.
For a split second I froze; my mind running. Did I taste the soup? Did it touch my tongue? Was that taste even a taste? I hardly remember the flavor of that chili sauce. It wasn’t a taste. I’m fine. I didn’t have any of the soup. But what if I did? Tel Aviv flashed into my mind. Err on the side of caution, I thought, I don’t ever want to experience that again.
I looked at my travel partner and took out my EpiPen and injected myself. I took 50mg of Benadryl. And the owner’s face was pale in shock. Insisting there couldn’t be peanuts in it. She was sure.
But we were sure too, and there was a tiny piece of a piece of a peanut.
We went back to our guesthouse where I took another 25mg of Benadryl and 20mg of Prednisone.
I didn’t have any symptoms. No swelling, no redness, no itching, nothing. I took my EpiPen to mitigate that. I took it because it’s better to be safe than sorry – or worse.
For me, this was a wakeup call. I’ve carried pounds of food with me on this trip specifically so I didn’t need to eat out. But I’m only human and I decided that in an extremely touristy town like Hoi An, Vietnam where westerners are everywhere and exposure to food allergies and food preferences when ordering exists I would give eating out a try.
On the whole over the last 90 days of traveling Asia (270 meals), I’ve eaten probably 25-35 meals out; and only in “touristy” locations. But it’s a numbers game, after all. And unfortunately for me that 10 or so percent I ate out was too much.
9 Ways to Mitigate Risk
I didn’t write this story to scare you. If you’re reading this and you have a food allergy, you shouldn’t be discouraged from traveling and think, “if it happened to her, it will happen to me.” Because it’s simply not true. Traveling with food allergies can be risky, but there are ways to mitigate that risk.
Here are 9 ways:
1. Only eat out in cities that have a hospital. And know where those hospitals are located.
2. Always use your Allergy Translation (or similar) card.
3. Only eat out if you have someone that you trust with you. This might be a “stranger” you met at a hostel or a long-time friend. So long as that person understands the severity and seriousness of your allergy.
4. Order foods you know the general ingredients of, but still ask about your allergens.
5. Know if your allergen is widely used in the local cuisine. (For example, peanuts are common in the central and southern parts of Vietnam, but rare in the north.)
6. If you don’t feel comfortable, walk away! Go with your gut.
7. Check the entire menu before ordering. If your allergen is a common item, you’re best going elsewhere.
8. Always have a working phone on you. SIM cards are easy to pick up at most convenience stores and airports.
9. ALWAYS carry your EpiPens. In fact, always carry two.