The smell of a freshly cut durian might be enough to make you wish you were dead, but it’s a little known fact that the giant yellow fruit can actually kill you. While we cannot find any documented cases of death by durian in Vietnam, there are several in neighbouring Southeast Asian countries.
According to the New Scientist, a study by Japan’s University of Tsukuba concluded durian makes it much more difficult for the human body to break down alcohol, which perhaps might explain why a 68-year-old Thai man died in 2004 after eating durian in a fresh produce market in the northern city of Chiang Mai. Although known to be a heavy drinker, he was reportedly not drinking at the time he collapsed in convulsions after asking for water.
Two months earlier a Thai civil servant died after ‘binge eating’ four durians prompting the Thai Ministry of Public Health to warn its citizens not to consume more than two segments a day.
Those most susceptible to death by durian have high blood pressure, heart conditions or diabetes. The ministry also warned not to mix with red wine or coffee as, combined, it boosts blood pressure raising the risk of a stroke.
Statistically you may be just as likely to die from a durian falling on your head as from eating four — they’re heavy and have sharp spikes that can do significant damage to your skull. Fruit pickers are advised to wear hard hats. — RS
Road rules in Vietnam are routinely flouted or ignored — the rule of thumb is whoever has their nose in front has the right of way. You’d think such simplicity would dull any disputes, but it just ensures that when there are arguments, it comes down to who was there first.
Picture the increasingly common scenario. Two taxi drivers vye to be first to turn into a small lane. But, with not enough space to accommodate the two of them, one taxi comes to rest less than gracefully against a kerb while the other stops just inches from a terrified pedestrian. Then the rage begins as one taxi chases the other for several blocks. At traffic lights, both shake their fists and scream at each other through spittle-showered windows. Fortunately, after a while the anger dies down and the foes go their separate ways.
According to a survey by insurance company AXA in the UK, almost 40 percent of drivers involved in accidents were frightened or angered by other drivers moments before a crash. In addition, rage in itself can cause high blood pressure, which can lead to heart failure.
So, remember this safety rule. Most drivers will always assume they’re in the right. All making road rage a Saigon thrill best treated as a spectator sport. — RS
Tap Out of It
Travellers’ forums are flooded with warnings about avoiding the tap water in Vietnam. Though many people use tap water for brushing their teeth and washing up in the kitchen, bottled water is used for everyday drinking. Vietnam environment website, sustainasia.wordpress.com says that surveys carried out by Sawaco (Saigon Water Supply Company) show an increase in bacteria and ammonia in the Saigon and Dong Nai rivers, which supply water to Ho Chi Minh City.
Such high levels of pollution cannot be adequately treated at water plants, making tap water dangerous to drink. Also, in 2011, Reuters reported that 25 percent of drinking wells in the Red River Delta contained dangerously high levels of arsenic, a toxin that can lead to cancer and neurological problems. That’s a pretty extreme outcome, and with other common effects of drinking tap water such as diarrhoea or vomiting, it’s probably best to employ a nice man to drop off your barrels of drinking water for a nominal fee, and save the tap water for flushing the toilet. — SC
This rudimentary food chain scenario may make your stomach turn. So, before you read on, beware.
It’s quite simple. Unable to afford or even necessarily see the point of a more sophisticated indoor toilet system, people use a ‘fish-pond toilet’ where their excrement — faeces, urine and all — drop directly into a pond below and the fish feed off the waste. Pushing the envelope even further, the fish in these ponds are then cooked and eaten. All a long way from the common Vietnamese saying, “Nha sach, ruong ranh”. Clean house, green fields. This is anything but.
The fishpond toilet is a common latrine design for low income households in rural areas and can also be found in the non-urban districts of this city. This is not the first time human excretion has been used to cultivate food. Many years ago, people collected urine in jars and used it for plant cultivation. According to a Sansed workshop at Can Tho University, urine can be a good mineral fertiliser once it’s been acidified. Regardless, it’s highly doubtful that these fishpond toilets would pass a health inspection. And just the mere thought of eating a faeces and urine marinated fish is enough to turn you vegan. — SC
Waiting to Inhale
Even with the wealth of information that exists globally pertaining to the perils of smoking, in 2012 this city (and Vietnam as a whole) remains rooted in the dark ages.
Though Vietnam ratified the World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in December 2004, adding larger warning labels to packaging, and the authorities issued a decision in 2009 banning smoking in healthcare facilities, libraries, theatres, cultural centres, public vehicles and indoor workplaces, a much-mooted smoking ban has yet to be enforced in all public places.
The statistics make for grim reading, with 56 percent of the population still keen to light up and as a consequence those in the same area as smokers are more likely to breath in sidestream (the smoke that comes from the end of a lighted cigarette) or mainstream (smoke that is exhaled by a smoker) fumes. Both are classified as a “known human carcinogen” (cancer-causing agent) by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the US National Toxicology Program, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a branch of the WHO.
Currently, the authorities are collecting opinions on a draft law proposing further restrictions on tobacco use. The law would extend the existing ban to cinemas, children’s amusement parks, circuses and buses, and call for the creation of designated smoking areas at colleges and vocational schools, offices, cultural and sports roofed stadiums, exhibition centres, restaurants, bars, karaoke lounges, trains and boats. If approved, the new law will take effect in 2013. But will it be enforced? — JT
A Fatal Bark
When Bob Merrill and Ingrid Reuterskiold penned “(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?” in 1952, chances are the question wasn’t inspired by a shared predilection for eating said mutt.
Yet, the relationship between this country and ‘man’s best friend’ is more taboo, bringing a whole different meaning to the term ‘dog treats’. Whether it’s a bowl of thit cho hap (steamed dog meat) or a plate of cho xao sa ot (sautéed dog with lemongrass and chilli), the slaughter of canines for human consumption is a highly divisive issue.
Cultural differences aside, the health risks associated with eating dog are very real. Many, if not all, of the dog meat restaurants in Saigon do not slaughter the dogs themselves or possess certificates of origin and quarantine from veterinary organisations, meaning the pooches (usually smuggled into the country illegally from overseas) go untested for any possible diseases such as rabies and vibrio cholerae bacteria (for example, acute diarrhoea that can result in severe dehydration and even death within hours).
Alarmingly, cases of both have been recorded in increasing numbers in Vietnam since 2009, according to the Southeast Asia Infectious Disease Clinical Research Network (SEAIDCRN), meaning it’s not the dog’s bite you need to worry about, but your own. — JT
It won’t have escaped your notice that this city is covered in miles of black wires hanging from every available vertical structure. The city’s wiring has even become an unlikely icon — so much so that it’s made its way onto the front of t-shirts. As popular as the chaotic mass of cables may be, the authorities plan to move them underground and out of sight by 2020. With the spate of fatalities caused by having live wire so close to the street and the hands of the everyday pedestrian, it’s no great surprise.
A recent accident in Tan Binh resulted in the death of 22-year-old Hoang Thi Thanh Truyen. According to Thanh Nhien News, experts blame the failure of the Ho Chi Minh City Power Company’s automatic shutoff system to cut the power in time after a 15 kilovolt wire broke and landed in the flooded street where Truyen was walking. Water and electricity, not a great mix.
This was by no means an isolated incident. Low hanging wires have been responsible for knocking motorists unconscious in Hoc Mon, clotheslining unsuspecting drivers in Hanoi, and seriously burning a mother while leaving her four-month-old baby dead.
Now that the rainy season is truly upon us, being vigilant while walking or driving around the often flooded streets and paying particular attention to hanging or broken power lines can save your life. — JA
Packed with viruses, get bitten by the wrong mosquito and you won’t just be scratching a small red lump. You may just find yourself on the receiving end of a deadly sting. In Ho Chi Minh City a common threat is dengue fever, and according to Dr Lague from Central Medical Institute (CMI), Vietnam has the highest incidence of the disease around the world.
With 60,000 cases reported in 2011 alone, 12,000 were in Ho Chi Minh City, the south of Vietnam being one of the highest risk areas in the country. Cedric Breda first noticed he had the disease when he couldn’t shake a persistent fever. “I remember going out to do some shopping and coming back exhausted.”
He quickly consulted a doctor who confirmed he had contracted dengue fever. The high temperature lasted a week, with visits to the doctor every other day. “We know that a patient has a risk of complication when platelets fall below 50,000 per mm3,” explains Dr Lague. “At this time, it's reasonable to be hospitalised.”
After a test confirmed a dangerously low level of platelets, Cedric was admitted to hospital. Treatment for the disease is mostly supportive, as in Cedric’s case, where only medicine to reduce his temperature and a drip to keep him hydrated were prescribed.
Although the prevalence of the disease in Vietnam is incredibly high, the mortality rate is reassuringly low, approximately 0.01 percent, but it’s always worth getting yourself checked out should you notice any early signs like fever, muscle pain, headache and diarrhoea. A characteristic rash similar to measles can develop, but this generally occurs after the early stages of the disease.
Despite the low mortality rate, complications can arise and according to the doctor there are four serotypes. So although infection of one serotype will generally give you immunity, it does not count for the other three. But it’s not all bad news, as Dr Lague points out.
“In the future, probably in the next few years,” he says, “we will be able to vaccinate and protect against the four serotypes.” — JA
No Second Helping
Who doesn’t love the food here? It’s quick, cheap, always hits the spot and for the most part it’s healthy, if you discount the deep fried variety. However, you do hear horror stories, and not just from tourists with ‘Delhi belly’. But is it a killer?
According to the Vietnam Food Administration there were three reported fatalities in the first three months of 2012. In the first quarter alone there were 16 cases of food poisoning affecting 360 people, of whom 254 were hospitalised.
Whereas natural toxins, microorganisms and toxic chemicals were the main culprits in the case of the 360 effected, one of the most common types of food poisoning lurking in Ho Chi Minh City, according to Victoria Healthcare’s Dr Tuong Nguyen, is e.coli or traveller’s diarrhoea, which causes “acute onset watery diarrhoea starting 24 to 48 hours after ingestion with concomitant vomiting and abdominal cramping”. E.coli generally lasts for around two days, but is by no means the quickest to rear its ugly head after contact.
A stealthier type of food poisoning, caused largely by improperly stored food is staphylococci, a nasty mix of intense vomiting and watery diarrhoea, these charming side effects make an appearance as little as one to four hours after contact and can last for two days.
According to Dr Nguyen, the CDC estimates that 79 percent of cases result from food prepared in commercial or institutional establishments in Vietnam. Despite this issue, generally only bigger restaurants in the city hold food hygiene certificates, so it always pays to be vigilant. For any hardened food poisoning veterans in Ho Chi Minh City, it’s all too easy to believe the myth that you can build up a resistance to these kinds of bugs over time. Dr Nguyen insists that although we can get used to strange foods, food poisoning is food poisoning, whether you’ve had it before or not.
So, check your food and don’t get caught face down on the porcelain throne. —JA
Canals run throughout Ho Chi Minh City and help keep most of the city above water. Well, they do most of the time.
And yet, anyone who lives along these Saigon River tributaries — both man-made and natural — will be familiar with both the proclivity for treating them as mile-long garbage scows as well as backyard pools. And if you've ever been tempted to swim across them either on a dare or as a result of the symptoms of some mental illness, then there are a few things you should consider.
The last couple of years have seen a 64-fold increase in the presence of pollutants and a 2.7-fold increase in the presence of “surface pollution”. That is to say, there's a grab-bag of potentially cancer-causing (or super power-inducing) chemicals in the water not limited to lead, cadmium and mercury — the sweetest of the transition metals. That said, testing done on snake-head fish and water cabbage from the river indicates that fortunately these chemicals are present in “relatively low” amounts.
In addition, the vast majority of the pollutants referenced above are excrement. In the city itself as well as upstream, many households, factories and businesses are not yet connected to the ready and waiting wastewater facilities and shunt their toilets directly into these waterways. So, the next time you see a backhoe perched on a barge and dredging the river, keep in mind the horrors contained in each enormous scoop-load of that black, rancorous river bottom.
Oh and this writer swam one of the canals and is relatively fine. Though he seems to have developed some super powers. Not that anyone has noticed.
The point is, whatever you do make sure your vaccinations are up-to-date and think long and hard before you dip a toe one in any of the city's canals or rivers to cool off. — CB