To the Vietnam vet who told me I might need to take salt tablets on this trip: well, you were right. I just might. My sodium levels got dangerously low during my first few days living in Ho Chi Minh City, and this form of dehydration could not be remedied by drinking more water. You see, hyponatremia is a lack of electrolytes, including sodium and potassium. Having experienced the terribly unpleasant effects myself, I now know how to prevent hyponatremia.
What to avoid
In retrospect, I realize that this hyponatremic condition of mine had been building up over a period of days. I can’t eat dairy or wheat. Therefore, milk and bread, both common sources of sodium, are not in my diet. Besides that, I did everything wrong:
- Being too active in high heat and humidity–I was sweating all the salt out of my body!
- Drinking too much water–I was diluting my body’s electrolyte content.
- Drinking caffeine–What a terrible way to start off the day: with tons of strong iced tea and even a cup of coffee.
- Not taking in enough electrolytes–I should have bought a coconut instead of drinking random fruit juices.
I never expected to feel the effects of the hot weather so severely. But I made quite a few mistakes. I started with drinking tons of water and iced tea in the morning, both of which diluted the electrolyte content of my body. The caffeine in the tea didn’t help none, either. By the time of my early afternoon nap, I already felt highly fatigued and crampy.
My march to the bus stop took place around 1:30 PM, and I was a sweaty pig by the time I made it on the bus. Walking through the claustrophobic shops of the Ben Thanh area made things worse, which resulted in me high-tailing it inside Saigon Centre, an upscale mall sure to have chairs and air condititioning.
That’s how I found myself in the fetal position inside a bathroom stall, feeling queasy, dizzy, and more tired that I’ve ever been. After these few minutes of rest and cooling off, I decided I was ready to hit the streets again.
Soon after, I somehow survived through a spontaneous massage. I don’t know how I didn’t hurl all over the masseuse girl’s table.
Upon entering Ben Thanh market itself, I followed the scent of durian towards the food area. I needed some juice! Or at least, that’s what I thought. I remembered that in the morning I’d experienced a brief bout of diarrhea, so I figured I might be a little dehydrated. (I had no idea…)
I knew coconut juice really helps prevent dehydration, and that I needed it. The price of a coconut at Ben Thanh, though, is over twice of that almost anywhere else. So I got a harder-to-find juice (specifically, a soursop smoothie) instead.
Little did I know I was continuing to dilute my body to the point of no return. The coconut juice, packed with electrolytes, would have been a much better choice.
By this point, I’d been dying to return home for about 3 hours (and I’d only been gone for 5), so I went into a coffee shop, ordered fresh-squeezed pineapple juice, and signed in to the wifi. My main objective was to call for an Uber motor taxi to get home, but the first thing I did was look up dehydration symptoms.
Interestingly, my symptoms specifically matched sodium depletion, according to WebMD. So, before calling the Uber, I went across the street to a convenience store for some Revive (a common local sports drink) and dried seaweed.
The ride home was not as bad as it should have been. What do I mean? Well, the Uber guy got me home RIGHT before I threw up into my toilet. The funny thing was that I didn’t feel nautious on the way home, even though it was a super bumpy ride. (He drove over tons of sidewalks .) Thanks to his ingenuity, though, our quickly bypassing the traffic is probably what saved me from having to hurl all over the streets, his back, and his bike.
Note: he was a super nice guy, though. Maybe he would have forgiven me.
When feeling sick
If you experience the symptoms above and suspect hyponatremia, it’s best to see a doctor. If not immediately possible, try to remedy the situation by getting yourself out of an environment or activity that is causing you to further exert yourself. Cool off. Drink electrolyte-rich beverages. Take it easy for a few days.
Since that fateful, nauseating day, I’ve forced myself to walk at a slower pace. While wandering around Ho Chi Minh, I’ve discovered that using a sun-reflective umbrella helps me keep cooler. I try to explore as many air-conditioned stores and malls as I can along the way, taking time to cool off. I force myself to sip water and chug coconut juice or sugarcane juice instead. I invested in multi-vitamins and a bunch of sports drinks.
The good news? Well, the food hasn’t made me sick yet!