Vietnam Sustainable Travel Guide
My family hails from Vietnam, specifically from the southern region of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon City). I was lucky enough to spend a month there with family back in 2007, where I got to meet family members that I had never been in touch with before; taste my favourite delicacies in my native country; and explore much of the country whether it was on foot, bus or car. And suffice to say, I was simply amazed! Prior to my visit, I had envisioned what would be a poor, developing country with little access to the creature comforts found in Canada. But Ho Chi Minh City was bustling with neon lights, incredible skyscrapers and all the technological advances that I had taken for granted as a citizen of the western world. There were, of course, still signs of a decade-long war that swept the country back in the 1960’s and 70’s. But despite this, Vietnam still shone brightly with its charm and uniqueness.
The country has a population of over 90 million people, making it the 13th most populous country in the world. In 2014, they also welcomed over 8 million international visitors. Vietnam is characterized by tropical rainforests, which make up approximately 42% of the country’s landscape, as well rolling hills and mountains, which cover about 40% of the landscape. White sand beaches can be found along its 3000km coastline. Popular places to visit include: the Northern Highlands; the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ha Long Bay; the Red River Delta; The Annamite Mountain Range; the Coastal Lowlands; and the Mekong Delta.
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The aforementioned Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, continues to be a tourism hotspot for Vietnam. Here, stunning Limestone Mountains surround the scenery and jut out of the bay as cliffs and columns. Traditional houseboats float in the bay, which can be rented to sail for multi-day adventures. However, due to over-tourism in Ha Long Bay, environmental degradation has started to occur. One of the most biodiverse regions in the country, the increase in human traffic has caused such strain on the bay’s health, resulting in deteriorating water quality via poor solid waste management and houseboat wastewater management. Despite efforts by the Vietnamese government to restore the health of the bay, visitors are encouraged to do their research regarding their environmental impacts of any activities in the area. Should you join a tour with a tour operator, take the time to ensure they are licensed and are dedicated to protecting and sustaining the health of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
From personal experience, I can certainly say that one of the best words to describe Vietnam is ‘exotic’. Tigers, elephants, monkeys, lizards and many more bizarre animals can be seen both in the wild and in captivity. However, this exoticism has its drawbacks. In 2012, the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) had listed Vietnam as the worst country for wildlife crime. And there are many examples to illustrate why they received this ranking:
Rhinos: Vietnam is attributed to the massive rise in Rhino killings after a politician was quoted as saying their horns cure cancer. This is obviously false.
Bear Farms: Visitors can take a tour of a bear farm, and then participate in illegal activities such as drinking bear bile wine and purchasing items made of bear products. Thankfully the Vietnamese government has recognized this as animal cruelty and has ordered the immediate end to the practice.
Tigers and the Black Market: Tigers are often taken from the wild to be displayed in zoos and parks. Despite claims that these animals are on display as part of a conservation effort, the animals are often treated very poorly due to loose regulations. It is also believed that once the animal dies, its skin/fur and bones are then sold on the black market, fuelling the illegal trade of wildlife products.
Elephant Rides: A growing tourist activity is to go on a “joyride” on an elephant. These are anything but joyful for the elephant. Baby elephants are often taken away from their caring mothers at the age of 2 years old, only to be physically and emotionally abused for months or even years, so as to make it obedient to orders. When ready, the elephants are worked tirelessly, carrying up to 5 people for several kilometers. This stress can make them an immediate threat and put both the tourists and the elephants themselves in danger. Eventually, many of them die of starvation and exhaustion
Because crimes against animals are so prevalent in Vietnam, it is recommended that travelers do their research on anything pertaining animals and wildlife. This often means skipping out on that activity, product or meal. But the country is so unique and charming, that your adventure in Vietnam doesn’t need to be spoiled by unethical, and often illegal, animal trade. Remember that sustainable travel is all about respecting and supporting local environments, cultures and economies. You can still go on the adventure of a lifetime without the exploitation of animals. Rather, you can respect the country’s wildlife and environment by supporting conservation efforts and following best practices.