After living and working in Vietnam for almost half a year and having visited most of its neighboring countries, I have gradually managed to gain a slightly deeper insight into the cultures and the tourism industry in the area, although I still keep learning new things every day. Hence, I have put together a few guidelines for responsible travel in Southeast Asia. I hope this guide helps you to further educate yourself as a responsible traveler!
1) Support local businesses over multinational chains.
By choosing to eat in local restaurants, booking your tours with a local tour operator, purchasing locally made handicrafts and sleeping in homestays, your pennies stay in the local community instead of flowing into the pockets of a filthy rich business owner somewhere overseas.
2) Support ethnic minority-owned businesses when visiting minority communities to avoid exploitation.
Many Southeast Asian countries possess an incredible cultural diversity due to the grand variety of ethnic minorities and hill tribes living in the diverse mountainous areas, river deltas and central highlands. Each group has their own traditional clothing, celebrations, language, and customs.
Unfortunately, many minority groups face marginalization and are more likely to experience multidimensional poverty than the dominant ethnic population. Some of their lands have become popular tourist attractions over the years, such as the Instagram-famous rice fields of Sapa, and while tourism does generate wealth in the rural areas, the profits rarely remain within the minority groups but are collected by other operators appropriating and commercializing the minority cultures for their own benefit.
Therefore, before booking a tour in such destinations, make sure to find information on the hotels, homestays and tour operators you are planning to use on your trip and verify they operate responsibly. By choosing to go with an independent entrepreneur or a responsible agency, you will support the very people and families whose villages you are visiting. In Sapa, I recommend contacting Sapa Sisters or Sapa O’Chau for responsible tours or joining an independent lady in the bus station offering a trekking tour to her village.
3) Take only memories, leave only footprints.
Southeast Asian countries are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Vietnam is ranked as the 6th most susceptible country to hazards brought by climate change, while The Philippines ranked as number one, according to the Global Peace Index 2019. Therefore, all of us travelers should be very mindful of our carbon footprint on our travels, as well as at home because these incredible countries are already seeing the devastating impacts of global warming as they suffer from extreme tropical storms, pollution, droughts, and floods.
Do not consume single-use plastic but rather carry a reusable water bottle and a tote bag with you. Avoid cruises, opt-out of flying and choose a train or bus instead. Reduce the consumption of animal-based products as well as goods imported from overseas. Explore and admire the enchant of diverse cultures and landscapes while protecting their future!
4) Do not ride elephants.
Elephants are intelligent and gentle creatures capable of feeling a similar range of emotions as human beings. They do not belong to the violent slavery where they can be found around most tourist destinations in Southeast Asia where tour agencies offer elephant riding services. Choose to visit a conservation center instead and learn new things about the kind giants.
5) Do not get upset when asked for a higher “tourist” price.
Many travelers are asked to pay a higher price than the locals at markets, food stalls, taxis and numbers of other occasions. Instead of losing your temper, stay calm and try to negotiate a better price with a smile on your face; bargaining is a common feature of most Southeast Asian cultures. Learning the numbers and a few greetings in the local language will be likely to impress the locals and they will be happy to give you a discount.
6) Show respect when visiting religious sights.
Southeast Asia is a colorful mix of different beliefs, rituals and religions. Lao towns and riversides are decorated by an endless row of glistening temples, and monks dressed in bright red robes can be spotted walking down the streets. In Hue, the land of Buddhism, a Vietnamese lady lights an incense on the altar of the forefathers at sunset and whispers a prayer to the eternal spirits protecting this land.
As a visitor in these sights, remember to always respect pagodas, temples and other places of worship as well as monks and people practicing religious rituals in them. Cover your shoulders and knees and behave politely. Do not disturb praying people and be mindful when taking pictures. In Laos touching monks is considered a lack of respect, especially for women.
7) Avoid losing face.
In Vietnamese culture, “losing face” is considered extremely unfavorable. Hence you should avoid direct confrontation, expressing negative emotions and losing your temper in public. In addition, putting someone else to the position of losing face is seen as extremely inappropriate.
8) Do not purchase sexual services.
This should go without saying, but in case someone still thinks buying sex is a nice additional activity for their holiday, I recommend checking this (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/mar/02/children-sex-tourists-leave-behind-fathers-visited-philippines) and this (https://theculturetrip.com/asia/thailand/articles/the-history-of-prostitution-in-thailand/) article.
9) Dismantle white supremacy at workplaces.
If you are a Western traveler of white heritage, you will most likely encounter job offerings during your travels. Numbers of English centers, schools, tour agencies, marketing companies, restaurants and nightclubs would be delighted to add you to their pay list.
In most cases, you would be hired to these positions exclusively due to your whiteness, a social construct which presents you as ‘superior’. You would also most likely to be paid multiple times what the local people in the same position earn. For instance, a European white-skinned English teacher, even with no qualifications to teach, is paid an average of 25 USD per hour in a public school in Hanoi. Meanwhile, a Vietnamese qualified and experienced teacher working full hours in the same school receives a salary of 200 USD per month.
These are signs of white supremacy, and as a person benefitting from this system of oppression, your responsibility is to dismantle it, not enable it. Do not accept any position you would not be qualified for in your own country. If you have the required qualifications for the position in question, do your research and find out the average pay of that field and do not accept a salary any higher.
10) Choose your volunteering project wisely.
Before deciding to volunteer abroad, ask yourself a few questions: What are your intentions for this trip? Do you go with the intention to “save” someone or instead eyes and heart open for learning new things? Do you have the qualifications to solve the problems you are working on? Are you trying to solve these problems at home too, or are you only interested in solving “exotic” problems?
Unless you have a very specific skill set, there is almost no volunteer work that you can effectively do if you do not commit to a long-term project. Most reputable organizations do not even accept volunteers who are not willing to stay for at least half a year due to the negative impacts on children, among other reasons.
Lina Goldberg visualized the issue in her book Move to Cambodia: A Guide to Living and Working in the Kingdom of Wonder followingly: “Think about it: students don’t learn English when their teachers are coming in and out for two-week stints. They learn the same things – like the alphabet and how to count to ten – over and over again, but never get a deeper understanding of the language. Imagine if your whole childhood education had been in the hands of short-term substitute teachers.”
Instead of a two-week volunteering holiday with rescued street children, opt for a long-term project that fits your skillset. Go with no expectations and with an open mind and be prepared to learn unexpected and life-changing lessons about other people and, above all, yourself.
11) Do not visit orphanages like zoos.
Even when initiated with good intentions, visits to development centers or orphanages by travelers usually end up causing far more harm than good. They interrupt and daily routines of the centers, violate almost every child protection policy there is, often contribute to corruption within the institutions as the tours tend to be paid, and put the residents of the centers in a humiliating position where they are being exhibited to visitors for profit.
People in vulnerable situations are not entertainment for travelers seeking “authentic experiences” or a way to make them feel good about themselves by “giving back”. If you wish to help rural people with disabilities, street children or orphans, find a trustworthy NGO and make a donation or become a regular supporter. If you decide to organize a visit to such center, make sure its purpose is merely educational and the privacy and dignity of the residents are being respected. Any reputable organization would not allow any other kind of visit, and if they do, they are not the ones you want to support.
12) Find a balance between your culture and local lifestyle
Living or traveling within a new culture raises some complicated questions: How to adapt but at the same time stay true to myself? How to express myself and my nature without offending anyone else?
Different cultures have different moral codes, and certain behaviors urban Europeans like myself are used to, are not accepted in some Asian communities, just like they are not in every European community either. Especially European party culture can be shocking and offensive to some locals who are in favor of traditional values of their origins.
Try to keep good manners in mind and accept the reality that you are a visitor in someone else’s home, and you should try to adjust to their ways. Nevertheless, this does not rule out the opportunity to exchange views and engage in prosperous intercultural learning.
13) Ditch the travel blogs, books and articles and just go.
Prejudice, stereotypes, and misinformation blur our perception of foreign people and cultures. Therefore, travel with your eyes open and leave all the prejudices and expectations home. Picture yourself as a white canvas, and let the sounds, smells, and colors of your destination paint the picture of your journey in you.
Do not believe every story and negative experience you hear from other travelers. Instead, choose to draw your own map along the way and make your own observations of the people and cultures you get to know.
Author: Pauliina Halonen