All the antacids in the world could not have prepared me for the inevitable everlasting stomachache that comes with traveling through Southeast Asia. The overwhelming ecstasy of ordering food from Vietnam’s true culinary masters — the street vendors — is canceled out by the consequential agony from consuming unidentifiable food that was prepared on a polluted street and sat out in the heat for hours.
What kind of food am I eating that can possibly cause such turmoil? If only I knew.
Mealtime usually begins with me wandering the streets obtrusively peering into people’s bowls until a certain noodle-like substance strikes me as appetizing or until a pushy vendor hustles me into a seat before I can tell what’s happening. Ordering involves frantic shouts, points and confused stares, and it usually ends with me panting over a plastic table on the sidewalk in sweaty hunger.
By the time my food arrives, I’m happy just to have semi-successfully communicated in my broken Vietnamese, so I eat what I’m given without question because sometimes it’s better not to know.
Chunks in soup may be some sort of root vegetable, but they are just as likely to be a poultry organ. Leafy greens are abundant in Saignon, although it’s plausible that they come from a random city bush or prolific patch of Saigon grass. Sweet-smelling pastries can fool you until the first bite unveils an unexpected spattering of spicy meats and strange sauces. Fish are usually served in their full form — with eyes and everything — rather than filets and don’t resemble any kind of trout, tilapia or tuna but rather their shriveled, ghastly cousins from an alternate underworld. Food is ugly, unfamiliar and best consumed in utter ignorance.
The results of consistently eating foreign food of questionable origin and washing it down with cheap beer have not been pleasant.
My digestive system has given up. Food rolls through my intestines like bowling balls and festers in an uncomfortable simmer. The stomachache evolves into an all-consuming pain as lumps of noodle, half-cooked shrimp and God-knows-what-else try to get along as they meagerly digest.
My predicament may sound like mere discomfort, but this is no ordinary condition. I’m certain there is a full-fledged war occurring in my gut — either that or some vicious, sharp-toothed creature has mistakenly ended up inside me and must gnaw its way out.
I picked up the stomach pain somewhere in Thailand and have endured bouts of crippling aches and urgent sprints to the bathroom for the past 46 days. If it’s possible to overdose on Tums, I have done it. My intestinal tract is officially broken, may it rest in peace.
The corruption in my stomach has both eased and wreaked havoc on my $5-per-day budget.
On the plus side, eating has become more hassle than it’s worth, so I’ve been spending very little money on food. Eating plain white rice and a bit of fruit is all I can endure, and that only costs about $1 per day.
But this severe intestinal distress has demanded many costly trips to the bathroom. Most notably, I spent $6 at a Starbucks just for the guarantee of a clean public restroom complete with running water and toilet paper, which is often hard to come by in Vietnam.
Even in a persistent state of agony, I am wholly in rapture with this special country. I’ve recently visited heavenly beaches, peaceful campsites, historic war tunnels and an island populated by monkeys. If I haven’t been devoured by some strange Southeast Asian parasite by next week, perhaps I will recount the adventures in greater detail. But right now, I need to pop another handful of Tums.