I love our Earth, and being able to travel to far-flung places that I only dreamed of seeing as a child is a privilege I cherish.
But I aim to travel responsibly as much as I can to minimise the detrimental impact that travel can cause.
I am part of the responsible travel team at Exodus Travels and recently visited Vietnam on a plastic-free challenge. It was tough, disheartening at times and not always possible, but it opened my eyes to other ways in which we can travel responsibly in this vibrant and friendly country.
Learn a bit of the local language
I’m not really one for languages. I got by with Spanglish in South America and never really mastered French. But it can go a long way to say ‘xin chào’ (hello, pronounced ‘sin chow’), making the locals beam from ear to ear as you cycle past little villages in the Mekong Delta, or to thank the street food vendors selling delicious Banh Mi in Hanoi with ‘cảm ơn’ (pronounced ‘gam urn’). Making the effort shows you are interested in interacting with the locals, even if in a small way, and that you respect the local culture.
Pack a single-use plastic free kit
The ban on single-use plastic in the UK began with bags in 2015, and is hopefully set to increase to straws and cup stirrers next year. A similar ban hasn’t yet been enforced in Vietnam, and you will notice a lot of plastic all over the place as well as rubbish littering the streets, even in pretty towns like Hoi An. If you pack a tote bag with you for popping souvenirs in as well as a reusable plastic bottle (lots of hotels have drinking water where you can fill them up), you will help to tackle this problem.
As a veggie it is easy for me to say this, but as animal agriculture is one of the main factors of climate change, it shouldn’t be ignored if you want to travel (and live) responsibly). In Vietnam, the food is fragrant and flavoursome enough without adding meat to the mix, and there are endless vegetarian and vegan options to try. Try pho for as little as £1, the country’s national dish and a popular street food consisting of tasty broth, rice noodles and herbs – you can add either vegetables or tofu as well to your liking.
Find a Lesser Known Route
Travelling on the tried-and-tested tourist trail is comforting and much easier than going to an obscure area that no one visits, but with tourists wearing down the natural and fragile environments on the same paths again and again, finding a hidden corner is not only better for the Earth, but can often be far more interesting anyway. On my trip to Vietnam, we trekked through the Truong Son Mountain Range in the Hoa Binh Province, visiting Dzao Tien and Muong hill tribe families – ethnic minorities in the country. We didn’t see one single other tourist, and as we stayed with local families, we brought money into an area that otherwise wouldn’t see the positive effects from tourism. As well as walking along untouched paths, I also learnt a lot from the young families there who were keen to show us local games and dances.
It may seem like a futile effort for a very large problem, but every little thing we can do to travel in a responsible way, whether that means leaving as small a trace as possible on the environment around you, or interacting with locals in a respectful way, can help more than you think. Vietnam is a beautiful country where rolling rice fields are littered with bits of plastic, and if choosing to visit this South East Asian wonder then thinking about your impact – and doing something about it too – will go a long way.
Words and photos by Alice Bzowska