'Take only pictures; leave only footprints'
We all know that someone said that. Well they’re right. Sort of. We need to be environmentally and ethically responsible when we travel so here are a few ideas to help with that.
We travel to experience other cultures but the very travelling that we do affects the culture that we have come to visit. It’s a bit of a catch 22, but what can we do to prevent or slow down the development of this problem?
Here are a few things not to do when travelling in the Vietnam countryside.
1. Don't buy items from young children
They may be really cute or they may be annoyingly persistent. Either way, keep your cash in your pocket.
Why? These kids should be out at school so that they can have a brighter future than living hand to mouth on the streets.
There are plenty of charities that provide schooling materials or fund education programmes for children. Give your money to them it will create employment for a few in the charity and it will create a future for the kids.
These children can be ‘managed’ by delinquent parents or criminal gangs. This means you end up funding a cycle of evil that will never end. It may be tough love and hard, but it is best not to give.
RentABike supports Blue Dragon, who work with all kinds of street children, and you can, too. Take a look at Blue Dragon’s website.
2. Don't give sweets or money to children in the Vietnam countryside
In rural areas in Vietnam dental hygiene comes a long way down on the list of priorities. So, what happens if teeth start to rot or periodontal disease sets in? The kids will, at best, suffer for quite some time with awful toothache / pain until enough money and time can be found to get treatment. At worst, the kids will… well, we can imagine, can’t we?
Another result of this can be that these kids then learn that tourists give stuff away for free. A begging culture begins and before long dependence on tourism and lack of self-sufficiency start to damage the whole community, that was functioning reasonably well in the first place.
Give smiles, interact if anyone is interested, learn a bit about them if you can or let them learn about you. You are not in a zoo.
3. Don't use plastic bags or bottles
This is pretty obvious as, by now, we all know the harm that plastic bags can do to the environment in every stage of their life cycle. The main issue here is the incorrect disposal and the lack of awareness of the harms that is prevalent in small rural communities.
The larger community is only just coming to terms with all of this and finding innovative ways of managing the issue. These smaller communities simply have not chance so remove the bags from the equation and you are not contributing to the problem. It’s not hard; just take a reusable bag and a water bottle with you and we are all good.
4. Don't go into local schools without notice or in study time
The kids are at school to learn and not to get visits from you that interrupt their day or their concentration. How nice it may be for you to experience a gaggle of kids fawning over you, should be passed over. Even if think donating school materials or clothing is a good idea, why do you need to go in for an ego boost. Drop it off out of school hours or hand it over to a charity that can do that for you.
How many tourists have come before you and how much of the kids’ day has been taken away from them? If you have been herded to a shop to buy ‘gifts’ before visiting then who is benefitting from that? The kids?
Would you like your own kids to be interrupted several times a day whilst studying? I don’t think I can even go into a school in my home country without be thoroughly vetted. Can you? Think twice.
5. Don't take photos with permission
There is no need to be overbearing and impolite and take photos willy nilly without asking. It only takes a glance, a wink, a nod of the head and you can very quickly get the approval of the subject.
Better still, spend a moment with the subject. See if you can communicate and learn a little something. Show the subject the photo that you took (you probably have a digital screen right?)
When you look back on your photos they will be so much more pleasurable. What is more, if you show others and have a back story that goes with the image, it will come to life for them also.
If your intended subject does refuse, be polite enough to smile and walk away. Don’t go getting upset about a photo that you are unlikely to remember as not having taken. And, who wants a photo of someone who is clearly unhappy about being photographed?
6. Don't make too much noise in villages at night
If you are the tiniest bit adventurous in Vietnam, you can get yourself out to small places that have very little tourism, particularly if you rent a motorcycle. These are magic and are the real reason you should be out here, learning more about the culture and people.
However, you might forget that the locals are not on holiday, or free from schedule. They have to get up insanely early to go about their daily business. Whilst you are happily dozing, they are weaving, replanting rice, getting kids off to school, checking fish traps… and so on and so on..
Instead, why not go to bed early and then get up with the locals and find out what is going on. Take a camera and you’ll get some quality media.
Be noisy in the tourist destinations like Mai Chau, Sa Pa and Ninh Binh. Stay up late in the remote villages if you want, but be quiet. Anyway, what is there to do past 9pm in a lone stilt house in a paddy field with minimal electricity?
Your presence impacts others
Come on over. Have fun. Enjoy the Vietnam countryside! But, just have a thought about what impact you are having on the locals. Are you adding to their lives in some small way. It may only be that you are increasing custom to a small shop, or having a laugh and a joke with some locals but that is enough. So, long as you are not negatively affecting anyone, there is no harm.