4 Ways To Protect the Environment While Exploring Vietnam

When I’m at home, being an environmentally responsible citizen is a no-brainer: I recycle, use my own grocery bags, walk everywhere I can and tote my reusable water bottle to and from work. I’m lucky to live in Toronto, where considering ways to protect the environment is common practice.But eco-friendly habits can be hard to take on the road. In Vietnam, a country I called home for seven years, recycling rarely happens, plastic bags – along with straws, bottles, containers and packaging – are everywhere, and walking even a couple blocks in a city like Hanoi can be a sweaty, chaotic ordeal.

By and large, we travelers want to do our part to protect the environment, but figuring how to stick to our environmentally responsible practices in a foreign country isn’t always easy.

Here are four ways to protect the environment while making the most of your trip to Vietnam and showing the country some love while you’re at it.

Pass on the plastic.

Plastic is everywhere in Vietnam. At corner shops, convenience stores and restaurants, you’ll find bottled water by the case and plastic straws in every drink. When shopping, most items – from food to souvenirs to clothing – are wrapped in at least a few layers of unnecessary packaging. This waste not only winds up landfills but in the ocean as well.

To stem the flow of plastic waste, you can do your part by politely refusing straws, bags and other extras. But the number one way to cut down on your own plastic use is by bringing a reusable water bottle and filling up at larger water coolers and other safe water sources in hotels, restaurants and cafes.

Stick to reef-safe sunscreen.

Catching rays on any one of Vietnam’s beaches–like Phu Quoc, Quy Nhon, Mui Ne or Con Dao–is a worthy way to spend your holiday, but not all sunscreens are created equal. Chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate might protect you from the sun, but they’re also harmful to coral reefs and marine life.

You’ll want to stock up on sunscreen before your trip – and there aren’t many good, affordable options in Vietnam.  Look for mineral sunscreens that have “non-nanotized” zinc oxide or titanium dioxide so that you can protect your skin and protect the environment.

Eat local.

With all the fresh, locally grown ingredients that are part of Vietnamese cuisine, this is a habit you’ll have no trouble adopting.

Pass on imported food and drinks and spend your holiday diving into local dishes, from world-famous favorites like phở and bánh mì to lesser-known gems like bún chả (grilled pork with fresh greens and rice noodles), cơm tấm (broken rice, usually served with barbecue pork) and bánh bèo (savory steamed rice cakes).

If I had to list specific food destinations, head to Hanoi (home of phở and bún chả), HCMC/Saigon (home of bánh mì and cơm tấm) and Hoi An (home of cao lâu, a dish with pork, fresh greens and noodles that are only supposed to be made using water from a famous well in the town).

Thanks to a large Buddhist population, there are loads of vegan-friendly local options, and Vietnam’s abundance of rice-based dishes make it a great country for gluten-free diners, too.

Embrace slow travel.

No matter how you slice it, even a single plane ride has a significant impact on the planet. If you’re going to fly all the way to Vietnam, seek out airlines with a more eco-friendly track record, and consider purchasing carbon offsets for your trip. Once you’ve arrived in Vietnam, you can also limit your carbon footprint by making an effort to choose more eco-friendly transportation options.

If you’re traveling between destinations, for example, train travel is affordable and often safer than hitting the local highways on a bus. In town, hop on a bicycle or explore on foot instead of taking cabs and motorbikes.

Not only is slowing down one of the best ways to help the environment, it also gives you the opportunity to stumble upon unexpected finds: hidden street stalls, conversations with locals, and glimpses of everyday life you’ll find in pagodas, at roadside cafes and on sidewalks.

Dana Filek-Gibson is the author of Moon Vietnam,a guide for solo travelers produced by one of our partners, Moon Travel

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