Tips for traveling to Vietnam with diabetes

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Vietnam is a mesmerizingly beautiful and surprisingly varied country. The infrastructure is good in Vietnam, and despite the heat of much of the country, the remoteness of some of its wonders, and the chaos and grime of some of its cities, visiting Vietnam with diabetes is entirely possible. Diabetes shouldn’t stop you from doing anything in Vietnam.

Morning on the Mekong River delta.

Morning on the Mekong River delta.

To survive and thrive on a trip to Vietnam with diabetes, be properly prepared and maintain a good attitude about diabetes there. This section of 70-130.com has tips for getting by in Vietnam with diabetes – information about food, insulin, blood sugar, exercise, alcohol, and the heat.

How to prepare for Vietnam with diabetes

Being practical about travel to Vietnam with diabetes is important – and easy. First of all, you need to take the supplies you need obviously. A good approach to this is to figure out how much of everything you’ll need there – insulin, blood sugar testing supplies, any other medication or supplies – and double it all.

jeremy-humalog-shot-vinh-vietnam-street-food-stall

Why double it? Well, to be safe of course, just in case something happens to part of your supply. For this reason, I suggest you split everything up into at least two parts and put them in separate bags. (If you’re taking more than two bags, put some of each of your supplies in each bag.)

If something happens to one bag – damage or theft or loss – you should still have plenty of insulin and everything. But that’s not the reason this is an important step for your Vietnamese trip; what’s more important is that it settles your mind and lets you relax. Because being relaxed and realistic about the dangers and problems of visiting Vietnam with diabetes is more important – attitude is everything!

woman-conical-hat-making-rice-paper-can-tho-vietnam

Having the right attitude about Vietnam with diabetes

Nothing bad will happen to you and diabetes in Vietnam. That’s the boring reality. Fear is the number one thing keeping diabetics from visiting Vietnam (or anywhere else), and like most fear it’s all overblown in the person’s mind.

Obviously it’s possible to have some diabetic problem in Vietnam – having perfect blood sugar the entire time is really unlikely for most diabetics, for example – but as far as big, serious problems, they just aren’t worth worrying about. You’ll be fine there. It’s much easier than it might seem.

ducks-in-river-can-tho-vietnam

So if you are worried about what can happen diabetically to you or your diabetic travel partner in Vietnam, relax. Don’t dream up the worst, scary stories you can. Replace your fear with excitement that you are visiting one of the most amazing countries in Asia.

If you have prepared your supplies, and a way to keep them cool (see below), then the most important thing to do is be excited and expect fun. Have the right attitude, which is:

Nothing bad will happen to you and your diabetes in Vietnam.

colorful-vietnamese-temple-building-roof-corner

Food and insulin in Vietnam

Food in Vietnam for most travelers is similar to nearby countries like Thailand and Cambodia in that it is often based on rice and noodles. The noodles in Vietnam can be pretty thick with carbs, and (of course) rice is as well. Many dishes include sauces that can be surprisingly high in carbs. Even fresh vegetable spring rolls can be made with rice-based wrapping worth more units of insulin than you might think.

rice-vegetables-road-stall-food-ha-tien-vietnam

But one element of successful travel to Vietnam with diabetes is that you enjoy it like anyone – eat whatever you want, and do your best with your insulin. The main thing is to check your blood sugar soon afterwards, especially after meals whose carb content you weren’t sure of. Just learn from the result and adjust your dose next time.

motorbike-near-mount-fansipan-vietnam

Due to the influence of French culture on Vietnam, bread is also somewhat common there. Roadside stalls often sell very cheap sandwiches, and the bread generally has no real surprises to its carb content. Supermarkets and smaller food shops sell plenty of foods and the prepackaged goods usually have nutrition info on them to help you calculate your dose.

street-food-vendor-woman-hanoi-vietnam

In addition to Vietnamese food, international restaurants and pizza places are often easy to find. Modern coffee shops, with their cakes and pastries and doughnuts, are also legion especially in big cities. These are often pretty high in carbs, like everywhere, so be especially careful. Eat it if you want, but check afterwards!

Low blood sugar snacks in Vietnam

Always carry low blood sugar snacks with you, everywhere you go, in Vietnam. Such snacks are pretty easy to find – any place selling groceries or snack foods will have a selection for you to try. Depending on what works for you, you may settle on a favorite type of cookie or cracker or juice, or some combination.

jeremy-with-small-shop-owner-woman-hue-vietnam

Like your insulin and BG testing supplies, stock up with more low BG snacks than you would really need. You could quite possibly be stuck somewhere (a jungle trek or a long train or bus ride) where you can’t buy anything for a while. If you use what you have, you’ll be out. So buy too much, and carry it with you. Top up your supplies at every opportunity.

vietnam-coast-sea-green-hills-from-train

Exercise and diabetes in Vietnam

Many activities in Vietnam require physical exertion, and that combined with the heat can lower BGs rapidly and unexpectedly. Kayaking in Halong Bay, hiking in the wet forests, and walking or biking around a city to see its sites can all drain your energy and your glucose.

halong-bay-water-and-rock-vietnam

You have to stop and check BG every so often, even if you think you know what it is. Unusual foods and sleep schedules can have unexpected influence on diabetes. Just check, and if you need to eat something, you’ll have plenty of juice or cookies with you. Take it easy, let people you’re with know you need to rest.

How to speak Vietnamese – for T1Ds

Speaking of letting people know about diabetes, how do you tell someone you’re diabetic in Vietnamese?

jeremy-buying-fruit-from-vendor-rach-gia-vietnam

You can use the Vietnamese phrase tiểu đường – easy huh! OK, it looks tough to pronounce but you can approximate it well enough. Try something like “TEE-oo DOONG”.

The good thing is that your positive and realistic attitude will tell you that this won’t be a problem: most medical situations – pharmacies, doctors, nurses – will understand either the spoken or written English word diabetes. If not, they should be able to find someone who can speak a little English.

rice-terraces-december-sa-pa-vietnam

Failing all spoken communication, showing someone your diabetes supplies should finally do the trick. Fear of communication problems is another major obstacle that many diabetics put in their own way, but don’t worry: you’ll get by fine.

Story: Syringes and border guards

When I crossed the border from Cambodia to Vietnam, the border guards were suspicious of my foil bag full of insulin pens and my number of syringes. They spoke no English at all, and I certainly spoke no Vietnamese.

I tried everything I thought of – including lots of miming of injections and making eating motions. They were confused and didn’t want to let me through until it was settled. It was a rural, out-of-the-way border crossing just recently opened to Western tourists, and there was nobody to fetch who could help our language difficulties.

The diabetic enters Vietnam from Cambodia on foot.

The diabetic enters Vietnam from Cambodia on foot.

Finally I thought that maybe my Lonely Planet guide book could help me. I flipped to the phrasebook section, and lo and behold the word diabetes was in it. I pointed to the Vietnamese phrase tiểu đường – they immediately started smiling relievedly and nodding, telling me to zip my big back up and come on in.

Having a card or paper on you with the Vietnamese phrase for diabetes on it might come in handy if you’re planning on traveling in more rural or obscure places, as this story makes clear.

Alcohol and blood sugar in Vietnam

Beer is cheap in Vietnam, but so are other kinds of alcohol. It can be nice to sit at an outdoor eatery at night and chow down on some nice rice and chicken with a big beer. But carbs aside, alcohol is another complicating factor for diabetes – if you want to drink, especially if it’s frequently, watch those BGs carefully.

A beer at sundown on Halong Bay.

A beer at sundown on Halong Bay.

Keeping insulin cool in the Vietnamese heat

Much of Vietnam is very hot for much of the year. If you’re spending much time outside (and you should!) you might want to be sure to keep the insulin and other supplies you’re carrying with you cool.

You can use a Frio pack, made for insulin and available in different sizes and colors, which is easy to use. Just dip it in water and it chemically cools itself for over a day. You can also use a simple ice pack or something too, though you’ll need a way to freeze it before you set out for the day.

masayo-bicycle-rickshaw-taxi-ho-chi-minh-vietnam

Surprisingly, though, insulin can be kept relatively cool even without cold packs. It may not be the most recommended way, but if it’s kept a few layers away from direct sunlight, things can avoid the worst of the heat on a day out. For example, keeping your insulin wrapped in a couple shirts or towels and then put in the bottom of a day pack can work reasonably well.

If you’re worried about it, though, or are planning on an extended time out in the severe sun, a cold pack is the way to go.

jeremy-holding-snake-can-tho-vietnam

As for the part of your supply you keep back in your room during such an excursion, your room may have its own refrigerator; many cheap hotels in Vietnam are very nice and clean and include an refrigerator. If not, the staff may have one you can use. Just be sure to take it when you check out and move on.

vietnamese-flag-on-monument-hue

Buying supplies in Vietnam

Medical professionals do their jobs because they believe in helping people with medical needs – this includes diabetics visiting Vietnam from abroad.

As for what supplies will be available from local pharmacies, and where pharmacies may be located and what their hours are, that’s something you’ll have to find out when you arrive. Most things are available, or can be ordered. If you need to buy insulin or some other medication, you can likely get it or something closely equivalent. But if you need to have it ordered, give yourself several extra days.

first-aid-box-toilet-paper-rach-gia-hotel-vietnam

It’s hard to say exactly what the situation will be in the places you’re going, which is why it’s best to take everything you need with you and not worry about it. But remember your positive and realistic attitude – no matter where you are and what you need, you’ll figure it out with the help of friendly and professional locals. Even if you don’t know now what the answer will be, you’ll know there. Nothing bad will happen to you.

Story: Buying insulin in Hue

Once I was in Hue on an extended trip to Vietnam and needed to buy some insulin. I stopped by the local hospital and went to the pharmacy. They didn’t speak English but it turns out I needed a note from a doctor anyway.

Someone came to lead me through the hospital to an obscure little sunlit room in the back of the complex. Eventually an English-speaking doctor appeared and asked me a few questions. What did I need? How long had I had diabetes? How did I control this condition?

jeremy-with-nurse-at-hue-hospital-vietnam

It was just some general questions so he could make the professional decision that I did indeed need to buy insulin. He wrote me a note and I was led back to the pharmacy, where they sold me some Humalog pens.

I hoped I wasn’t a burden, but of course that’s the point of the hospital, to help people with medical needs. Everyone did their best to help me, and I got what I needed at a good price with a minimum of fuss.

There’s always a way, and you’ll find it.

Your trip to Vietnam

If you have been to Vietnam, with or without diabetes, how was your trip? Where did you go? If you have diabetes or were traveling with a diabetic, how were the blood sugars?

ho-chi-minh-statue-can-tho-vietnam

If you are planning on going, or thinking of going, to Vietnam with diabetes, let me know if you have any comments or questions about it. And always remember:

You can go anywhere with diabetes!

Read more about my travels in Vietnam

Come along on the adventure! Follow detailed travelogues about the wondrous sights, fascinating people, and varied diabetes experiences I encountered as a traveling T1D in Vietnam:

Day 333: The Strange Beauty Of Sa Pa, Vietnam

Share your travel stories, give advice, or ask a question in the comments section.

Next page: Tips for traveling to China with diabetes

“Tips for traveling to China with diabetes. Travel safely and smoothly with these tips on insulin, blood sugar, food, and supplies in this vast country.”

About the author

Jeremy has traveled to over 40 countries, taken several road trips across the United States (and Canada), and lived on and off in Japan for several years. He was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1982 but doesn't let a little thing like that stop him from exploring the world.

Jeremy writes about his travels with diabetes on 70-130.com as a way of logging his excursions and of inspiring others who might be feeling hesitant to take their own big bite out of life.

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16 comments
Tips for traveling to Vietnam with diabetes

  1. Hi Jeremy, my daughter and I are heading to Cambodia and Vietnam in December & January. I am D1 and so happy to reading 70-130. You answered most of my questions. Another I do have is, do I require a medical certificate or similar from my doctor to enter these countries with my D1 supplies? Look forward to hearing from you. Yvette

    • Hi Yvette!

      It depends on the meaning of “require”. There may be legal requirements to have a note from a doctor, but I’ve never had to show mine to anyone, including in Cambodia and Vietnam. When they understand you have diabetes they usually just smile and tell you to go ahead.

      But it’s always good to travel with a note, just in case. Some doctors don’t know much about this, and some do. But just ask a doctor to write a short note that says something like “Yvette is my patient and is a Type 1 diabetic. She travels with XXX and YYY insulin, blood glucose testings trips and meter, [etc etc]” and just list whatever you’re traveling with.

      I don’t think you’ll need it though. Anyway have a great trip. I’ll be interested to hear your experiences there! Let me know if you have any other questions :)

  2. Love this! Am planning to visit Vietnam next year if we can save up and I have to say, I was a bit nervy about the D – so thanks for the reassurance! Can’t wait to try the cuisine (and to welcome a couple of weeks of carb overload!), and will stock up on the old frio packs. EXCITED!

    • Sounds great! When people ask what my favorite country on my Asia trip(s) was I often mention Vietnam for the scenery, the people and the food especially. Can even be light-ish in carbs – bánh xèo for example is like a crepe made with rice flour (needing insulin) but is full of shrimp, bean sprouts, pork, etc.

      I’ve never actually used a Frio pack but if you have I’d love to hear how it worked for you.

  3. Hi, I am a type 1 diabetic, and I had a professional opportunity in Vietnam. Since I live in France all the treatment here are free. I wonder how much it will cost and if it’s easy to find Humalog and Lantus in Hanoi.
    I already refuse this opportunity because of my diabetes, I can’t find any informations about how to manage diabetes in Vietnam if you expatriate. If an other similar opportunity ever show up, I dont want to miss it. Because I would love to live in Vietnam and China for a long time… but my diabetes always get in the way

    • Hi Vincent,

      I hope you decide to take the next opportunity. People in Vietnam have diabetes, like everywhere, so you just join the system and get your medication, etc. I’m sure there are French (and English) speaking doctors in most large towns. I bought insulin as a traveler at a hospital – just talked to a doctor for a couple minutes. It was very easy.

      I don’t think your diabetes gets in your way, I think it’s your fear of what might happen. Be bold, you’ll be fine :)

  4. Hi Jeremy
    I enjoyed reading this, I feel more comfortable travelling wit my diabetes to Vietnam/ Cambodia. I was wondering I have an insulin pump and it can’t go through some scanners at airports. Do they speak English at the airports and what is there security system like.
    Thanks

    • It would probably depend on the actual security officers working at the time you’re there. As stated above, if you can say or have them read the word “diabetes” they can take you aside and look at your equipment manually if their scanner doesn’t like it. People with pumps and other medical devices travel in Vietnam all the time so don’t worry. It may be a hassle but you’ll get through.

      When are you planning on visiting, Carissa?

      • I fly out from Sydney tomorrow. Your article on Vietnam has made me feel more confident about travelling over there with diabetes. I’m looking forward to the food and amazing scenery. Any suggestions on food or where to go as me and my sister have a few spare days.
        Last thing do many speak English in Vietnam

        • Two places I most enjoyed were a town called Quy Nhon on the coast – very scenic beaches and a great small-town vibe – plus the mountainous north, like Sa Pa and around Lao Cai. Very different places but both spectacular.

          It may be tough in some circumstances to find English speakers, but many might know basic English, or at least words if you’re buying train tickets or looking for chicken or something. Anywhere tourists go should be ok. Otherwise, traveling w/o English is like traveling with diabetes – it’ll work out somehow so don’t hold back.

          Let me know how things go with your pump at the airport and how you like Vietnam! Have the time of your life :)

  5. Thanks Jeremy I will let my sister know. I’m so glad I found this blog. Every time I travel I can never find anything from diabetics who have travelled but all this information on Vietnam and other places is great. Good job mate.
    I’m thinking of writing a blog about my diabetes and how I want to move into the film industry.
    I will message you again when I get back to Australia and let you know about how it all went.
    Any idea where your thinking of going next

    • I’d like to see your blog when you start it.

      Yes my next big trip is a several-weeks-long car trip around the National Parks in the United States, around spring 2017 :) Planning and saving now.

      Hope you’re enjoying Vietnam!

  6. Hi, SO happy to see your Vietnam blog.
    I’m going to be travelling for 6mths around half the time in S.East asia (inc Vietnam).
    I always get told once insulin out of the fridge it has a shelf life of 4 weeks. Does you use Frio as a substitute ‘on the go’ fridge when travelling with insulin, then do you put the insulin in a fridge?
    Do you take your whole lot of insulin in Frio packs for your entire trip or do you research and restock insulin (and needles) at a hospital every month during travel? I use Levimir and Novorapid. How will I know these are available in each country I visit?
    Sorry for all the questions, I’m still in the fear stage just now.

    • Yasmin,

      I’ve never used a Frio pack although they do sound very useful. I usually try to put my insulin in a refrigerator at each guesthouse/hotel. When traveling I put it in a foil pack deep in my backpack, with a frozen ice pack (not touching the insulin). A Frio pack would probably work fine too.

      I’ve never had problems with insulin going bad; I don’t let it get REALLY warm and try to cool it whenever I can. It doesn’t really seem to start going “bad” immediately out of the cool air.

      The last time I was in Vietnam Novorapid was around, and ActRapid was easy to get; I’m not sure about Levemir but they will either have it or something similar. I’d check with your doctor to see what they say about different kinds of basal insulin. I tend to buy whatever the local pharmacies have and it always seems to work ok, but to your point, pretty much anything you want would be available at SOME price from some international or tourist pharmacy. Most major companies have their insulins in most places in the world. Asking at any pharmacy or hospital can get you information about where you might buy X or Y insulin if not there.

      I usually try to get more than one month’s supply just to make it easier. In SE Asia, especially, they will usually sell whatever you want (within reason).

      Your trip sounds great!

  7. Hi Jeremy,

    Great blog – I am hoping to stay out in Hanoi for many months on a teaching job.

    Working out a budget at the moment – would you be able to give some rough indication of how much a months supply cost you?

    I use NovoRapid and Levemir if that helps at all.

    So reassuring to read your blog, you’ve given me the confidence to get out there!

    • Hi Murray,

      If you mean buying insulin in Vietnam, I’m afraid I don’t have any recent info about that. It may perhaps be a little cheaper than a Western country but not that much.

      Great to hear that this site is inspiring and useful to you. Let me know how things go in Hanoi; I only passed through (twice) and always wanted to go see that city properly.

      Jeremy

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