A Guide to Visiting and Exploring Vietnam While Caring for the People and the Environment
Words and Photography by Kat Smith, of A Way Abroad
Vietnam is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. From incredible limestone cliffs in the north, deep jungle and vast coastlines in the center, and lush soil capable of cultivating nearly anything in the south, you’ll be left in awe during your entire trip to this Southeast Asian gem.
While you certainly won’t lack for beautiful vistas, friendly locals, and unique foods to try, you will lack for obvious sustainable alternatives during your travels.
That doesn’t mean things aren’t changing and Vietnamese locals aren’t trying to educate their neighbors on sustainable choices. What it does mean though, is that since these steps are being taken at a snail’s pace, you’ll have to work a bit harder to make your trip to Vietnam as sustainable as possible.
I’ve seen the changes happen firsthand in just a few years of living in Vietnam. The amount of eco-friendly shops popping up in cities has quadrupled, restaurants and bars started using non-plastic straws, and some take-away places are doing their best to pack your food in paper, not plastic or styrofoam. While these steps are all incredible and are certainly heading in the right direction, they aren’t yet the norm.
So, what can you do to make your trip to Vietnam as sustainable as possible? These 5 tips are sure to help you make your trip as eco-friendly as possible.
Slow travel is by far my favorite way to see the world. As a nomad of almost 10 years, there’s really nothing better than taking as much time as you can to see a single place. You’ll get to learn its quirks, find local haunts, and really immerse yourself into the lifestyle.
On top of all those travel bonuses, traveling as slowly as possible is also the best decision you can make for the environment. According to Excalibur, by traveling less frequently, you’ll use fewer greenhouse gasses and lower your carbon footprint.
Instead of trying to squeeze in as many places as possible in a short week’s trip to Vietnam, either add more time or cut your list of destinations drastically. While cutting your list down might feel like a tough thing to do since there are so many great places to visit in Vietnam, by spending time in only one or two places, you’ll get to know them so much better than you ever would have by just spending a night or two there.
While traveling slowly is by far the best means to a sustainable trip to Vietnam, you’ll most certainly need to take some means of transportation while here.
There are some bus lines and trains that you can you can take to travel into the country if you’re already in Southeast Asia but those options have greatly dwindled since 2020. Unfortunately, the best way to get into Vietnam as of publication is to fly into the country, unless you have your own car or bike and are visiting Vietnam as a part of a larger road trip.
Once you’re in the country, you’ll have a handful of options to get from Point A to Point B. If you’re traveling within a city of town, you can choose from:
- Motorbike (either taxi or driving your own)
- By Foot
- Car (either taxi or driving your own)
- Bus (but these routes can be hard to navigate)
- Water bus (only available in Ho Chi Minh, to my knowledge)
Within the limits of a city or town, the most sustainable mean of transportation you can take is a bicycle or foot. Since neither of these options emits any greenhouse gasses, you can explore to your heart’s content without having to worry about any environmental side effects. Do keep in mind that while it’s completely possible to travel by foot or by bicycle in the two biggest cities, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, you’ll want to be extra careful in the routes you choose because not all streets are pedestrian friendly.
While traveling between towns or cities will most likely require more efficient means of transportation than by foot or bicycle, you do have some choices for how you’ll travel:
Vietnam is a big country, bigger than most people assume when they take their first glance and simply see how thin it is. That means, if you want to go from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi, you’ll have a lot of ground to cover in between. Plus the highway system might not be what you’re used to, so even if you think it doesn’t look far, it is.
You’ll most likely be tempted to travel by plane but the most sustainable option is by train or bus. Both are readily available and a lot of the buses even have lie down beds instead of seats. Bring a book, plenty of snacks, and get ready for some rest while doing the planet some good.
You’ll quickly see from your first to-go meal or your first trip to the market that very fewplaces throughout the country provide sustainable packaging or bags. Unfortunately, all of those single-use items will be spotted in rivers, on road sides, and washed up on some beaches.
Although sometimes hard to remember, make a reminder that every time you leave your apartment or hotel that when you grab your phone and keys, you also grab a bag, reusable container, and reusable cup. Trust me, you never know when you’ll order too much food that you’ll want for later, crave a cà phê sữa đá (Vietnamese iced coffee), or need to pop into the shop for a few supplies.
Even though you’ll have your supply of bags, containers, and cups with you, find the locally owned eco-friendly businesses in the town or city you’re staying in. Supporting these businesses will help them thrive, grow, and hopefully set a great example for others in the community.
In each big city, you’ll find a handful of shops selling environmentally-friendly, sustainable products. Many of the products are made locally as well, so you’ll be supporting not just the shop itself but a longer chain of beneficiaries.
Plus, it’s more expensive for restaurants and shops to use more sustainable packing. They’ve made these choices either because they’re trying to lessen their environmental impact or because they’re hoping to attract clientele who are. Either way, by supporting these businesses, we’re rewarding them for making smarter choices and hopefully ensuring they won’t revert to more affordable single-use options.
When the time comes for you to make your own meal, or even just pick up some snacks to get you going throughout the day, opt to shop at the local market rather than more user-friendly mega supermarkets.
Much of the produce and meat sold at the markets is harvested, killed, or fished nearby so not only are you helping to support a local family and give back to the community that’s welcomed you, but you’re also supporting a much shorter food chain and one that didn’t require boats, planes, or transfer trucks to get to your doorstep.
Luckily, the markets in Vietnam are fantastic. They’re a bit hectic if you’ve never shopped at a wet market before but have some confidence and find a friendly vendor with great looking goods. Knowing at least the numbers in Vietnamese will greatly help you with this. You’ll be wowed by the variety of fruits and vegetables available at such a low cost, and if you stick around long enough for the seasons to change, you’ll be rewarded with a whole new variety. Just be sure to bring your reusable market bags with you!
Vietnam is an incredible country that I truly love. Although the country as a whole has a long way to go to become a sustainable powerhouse, the local communities in general are doing their best to educate themselves and make better choices.
Change is slow, we all know this. By supporting those that are pushing for a bighter, healthier future and showing others that it’s not so hard to bring out a spare container or bag with you, we’ll hopefully have a chain effect of others joining in.
With the ladies at the market who all passed by bags around, having never seen reusable market bags before, and the Vietnamese companies working with unique non-plastic straws like wild grass straws and those made from rice and pasta.
Just be sure on your next trip to Vietnam, you’re on the side of the solution, not the problem.
About the Author
Kat Smith, the founder of A Way Abroad, has been living around the world since 2013. She recently spent 3 years living in various parts of Vietnam. Although she’s currently working remotely from Montenegro, who knows where she’ll end up next.