For those of us privileged enough to travel, we are fortunate to discover and be warmly welcomed by communities around the world. But, our decisions have an enormous impact on the destinations we visit. Before you go to Vietnam, here are a few ways you can leave positive footprints behind.
While we’re all in awe of elephants, tigers, and other exotic animals, they should only be viewed in their natural habitat. World Nomads is against all animal tourism experiences that put animals in danger.
Also, any souvenirs made from animal parts may seem harmless, like a sea turtle shell, bird feathers, or corals and seashells, but travelers need to think of how these wonders were acquired – how would you know if they were poached from the wild? Avoid animal-related products or experiences as best as you can, don’t contribute to cruelty, poaching, or the robbing of wild species from forests.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
The best way to see animals is on a wildlife-watching tour, a guided jungle trek or by visiting (or volunteering at) a wildlife sanctuary.
Regrettably, the situation for elephants in Vietnam is critical. Wild elephant numbers are declining due to habitat loss, poaching, and agricultural and economic development/land use politics. There are around 60 wild elephants left in Vietnam, and there are 40 in captivity. Instead of riding elephants, watch and engage with them at the recently developed Daklak Elephant Conservation Centre. The Vietnam Elephant Initiative can help travelers learn more about the work being done to save elephants in Vietnam, and how to get involved.
Many visitors are keen to try or purchase weasel, or ‘civet-cat’, coffee during their trips, which is coffee with a rare and chocolatey flavor, developed from coffee beans having passed through the civet’s system. However, for this process to take place, the weasels must first be trapped with painful snares and wires, held in tight battery cages, and force-fed kilos of coffee beans, narrowing their diet and causing them great harm. While civets are not currently endangered, their current rate of capture is bringing the species horribly close. While there are farmers who will let their civets roam free to eat beans at their leisure, and later collect the droppings, the markets are flooded with unethically produced coffee as no guidelines exist.
Another animal-related souvenir is snake wine, which is often made by drowning live snakes in alcohol, including rare and endangered species). Snakes and other reptiles carry salmonella, and consuming these products presents a risk to travelers. While snake farms may be presented as cultural experiences, they are cashing in on the cruel maiming of exotic
Staying in ethnic traditional homestays, engaging with ethnic trekking guides, or buying ethnic handicrafts (and paying a fair price) means that your tourism dollars can bring enormous benefits and help alleviate poverty. Aside from that, it is also an excellent way to slow down your trip, learn more about local culture, get to know the families and have an authentic experience.
Want a souvenir? Buy a locally made handicraft. Bartering is acceptable in Vietnam, but don’t bother losing face overpaying a little more – how much does a dollar or two really affect your budget? Read our guide to ethical souvenir shopping before you get started.
Booking with a tour provider that is committed to sustainability, ethical business practices, and local prosperity is a great way to make a difference. Before booking any tour, do your research, ask around locally and check on TripAdvisor, social media, and by asking other travelers.
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For example, the trekking industry around Sapa has been heavily supported by tourism development partners which has allowed local ethnic minorities to offer authentic local products to travelers while improving their economic potential. One example is Sapa O'Chau, the first international and not-for-profit tour operator, founded and run by a woman from the Black Hmong minority.
Often, these types of projects provide travelers with amazing experiences, while also creating enormous benefits for local people. Check out Footprint or the Vietnam Community Based Tourism Network. CBT is also sometimes called social tourism. Visit.org is a good place to start.
When researching, keep in mind the following:
Most of us would like to do good while traveling and have a positive impact on local communities. Many travelers take voluntourism trips, which promise to build local schools or provide other local benefits. If you’re not a skilled tradesperson at home, you won’t suddenly become one when traveling. Often what local people lack the most are not skills, but finances to invest in a better life. Unless you can offer real expertise, keep your contribution purely in economic terms.
Vietnam has a turbulent modern history and many local people still have vivid memories of their experiences
The topic of the war is usually avoided by local people unless you are on a related tour. Be respectful, wear appropriate clothing, ask before you take pictures – don’t just assume it’s okay – abandon any biases you may have about the war.
Shouldn’t we all be using reusable cloth bags by now? Travel with a reusable shopping bag, and avoid products wrapped in plastic, especially in rural communities which often don’t have adequate waste-disposal schemes.
It’s not always possible to find clean water on tap while traveling, but instead of buying bottled water, adding to plastic waste problems, travel with a Steripen or a Lifestraw water purifier. This way, you will save money and help the environment by refill your own reusable bottle with local drinking water supplies.
Josh, winner of the 2016 Travel Film Scholarship, went to the hills of Sapa in Northern Vietnam to meet and film the volunteers of Sapa O'Chau.
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