8 tips for eating a healthy, plant-based diet whilst travelling in Asia

8 tips for eating a healthy, plant-based diet whilst travelling in Asia

31st May 2018

I often hear people say things like “I could never go vegan because it’s too hard to eat abroad” or “I don’t want to travel outside of Europe because finding vegan food is challenging”. Having just returned from 6 months in South East Asia, I want to tell you that this doesn’t have to be the case and share some of my tips to help you enjoy plenty of delicious, healthy and plant-based local foods whilst travelling overseas!

TIP 1 – “I am vegan” translation cards
Before going away it’s a great idea to prepare some translation cards in the local language, explaining that you eat a plant-based diet and listing the foods you don’t eat.

For me these cards were invaluable, especially in Indonesia where often people don’t speak much or any English. The locals found it pretty funny when I presented one so it was a nice way of bonding as well as getting some fresh, yummy, local food – with no animal products. I had them laminated which I later partly regretted (as I try to avoid all unnecessary plastics) BUT it meant that they lasted the full 6 months and I was able to pass them on to other vegan travellers.

I downloaded my translation cards from hereThere are also phone apps which do the same thing, however my advice is that cards are easier to pass on to kitchens without worrying about your phone going missing! Check out Veganagogo and Vegan Passport by the Vegan Society.

My collection of ‘‘I AM VEGAN’ translation cards before heading to Asia

The ‘vegan table’ at Greenfield Ecostay, in Phong Nha, Vietnam

TIP 2 – Make the most of Happy Cow and Tripadvisor
When you’re ‘off the beaten track’ Happy Cow and Tripadvisor aren’t always that helpful, however if you find yourself in a city or where a lot of tourists visit, the Happy Cow app will be your best friend, showing nearby places that serve vegan food. If Happy Cow isn’t showing any options where you are, Tripadvisor is helpful as long as you have a bit of patience and don’t mind browsing through reviews and photos to find somewhere which seems to serve a vegetable dish or two!

Remember to help out your fellow vegan travellers and add your reviews after eating out 😉

TIP 3 – Bring your own food container and fork with you
When travelling from one location to another or going on a day trip, it’s not always wise to hope that you’ll stop somewhere along the way which will have vegan food. When travelling by bus in Asia we’d often stop somewhere with pre-cooked food using animal products. We learnt that before heading off, it was best to go to our favourite local restaurant and get a takeaway in our own containers or make ourselves a packed lunch at our accommodation. That way we weren’t travelling long distances with that fear of not being able to eat for hours!

Plus, taking your own food container and fork means that you won’t be using disposable containers and cutlery given to you by restaurants, which is waaaay better for the environment 🙂

Tapioca and banana cake with coconut cream at Nook Cafe in Hue, Vietnam

Fresh summer rolls from Footprint Cafes, Siem Reap

TIP 4 – Let hosts know that you’re vegan in advance
If you’ll be staying in a guesthouse or somewhere where they are providing you with food as part of your accommodation or trip then it’s a great idea to message them in advance and let them know what you do and don’t eat. That way they won’t buy in animal products especially for your visit or be put on the spot when you turn up and say you’re vegan.

Also, on this subject, don’t be afraid to ask for what you want! I found that I was being given fried tofu and tempe by different hosts which was great at first but after a while I felt so bloated and lethargic. After a while I started asking for lots of vegetables and beans (I was craving chickpeas!) and found that people were more than happy to oblige.

If you have a curious host then this is also a great opportunity to tell them about veganism and share some of your favourite recipes. We stayed with quite a few people who wanted to know why I don’t eat animal products and actually enjoyed the new challenge of cooking in this way!

Mark enjoying home grown veggies and purple rice for dinner at our homestay in Flores, Indonesia

Moths also loving the fresh mango! At BeTreed in Preah Vihear Province, Cambodia

TIP 5 – Be careful of MSG
In some parts of the world (particularly in Asia) MSG is used in lots of cooking. If you’re not familiar with it, MSG stands for monosodium glutamate – it looks like a fine white powder (sort of like table salt) and is used to enhance the flavour in savory dishes. There is no conclusive evidence that ‘normal consumption’ of MSG is bad for you but for lots of people (myself included) can induce symptoms like headaches, diarrhoea, thirst, sweating, insomnia, weakness and chest pain. We found when ordering food it’s a good idea to simply ask for ‘no MSG’. If you ask nicely and with a smile it doesn’t usually cause offense!

TIP 6 – Stay in places where you can prepare your own food
Even when traveling in countries where it’s really inexpensive to eat out, it does start to add up and you may find that you miss simple, home cooked food! We often stayed in places where we had access to a kitchen and could cook our own food (airbnb is perfect for looking for accommodation like this) meaning that we could pick up whatever we wanted from the supermarket or markets and cook ‘at home’. We found in SE Asia that fruits could be bought pretty cheaply but surprisingly some vegetables were a similar price to what we’d pay in the UK – or more.

Remember to take your translation card along to the supermarket so that you can check packet ingredients to make sure none of the ‘usual suspects’ are hidden in there.

Christmas morning pancakes made in our airbnb accommodation in Manila, Philippines

Fruit and veg market stall in Hoi An, Vietnam

TIP 7 – Stock up when you can!
If you find yourself in a city then it’s a good idea to do some online investigating to see if there is a health food or whole food shop in the area where you can stock up on some vegan staples (and treats!) such as plant milks, nuts, dried fruit and alternative grains to rice.

TIP 8 – Be open minded & try new things
Whilst travelling it’s great to immerse yourself in the culture and eat like a local – minus the animal products! You may find that you love eating rice for breakfast (or dhal with every meal!) and that you try foods you’ve never even heard of. It’s all part of the beautiful experience of travel 🙂

Vegan pho for breakfast in Hoi An, Vietnam

Chôm Chôm fruit in Vietnam

If you have any plant-based food travel tips or you recently visited a country, city or town with amazing vegan food then please share your experiences in a comment below. It’s so great to be able to learn from each other and I’m always adding to my list of places to visit, so that I can try all the vegan food!

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