Vietnam is an interesting place to be living right now as it is constantly changing. It looks so different from when I first moved to Ho Chi Minh City almost 4 years ago. The country is developing fast, there is a growing middle class and you can certainly see the effects of globalization when the decorations for the 40th anniversary of the country’s reunification celebration is sponsored by Dunkin Donuts and Popeye’s Chicken. That being said there is a huge gap still between the rich and the poor in Vietnam.
As a tourist you want to enjoy your travels but you also probably want to be able to do something to help the many disadvantaged people living in Vietnam. I believe that volunteering is not always the answer, especially if you are only going to be visiting for a short period of time. There are however other ways to help and give back, including donating to reputable non-profit organizations that work in the area and supporting local and social businesses operating in Vietnam.
Here I share my top 5 favorite places in the country, why I love them and some of the social businesses you can support as a socially responsible tourist in Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh City
Up first, my home, Ho Chi Minh City or as it is often still called Saigon. People often ask me if HCMC is safe and how can I live in such a huge and crazy city. All I can say is that I love the chaos, it has a special rhythm to it and once you get used to it you thrive on it. You have to be smart because petty crime is a problem here and do not do things here you wouldn’t do back home just because you can. However, overall I have never felt I was in any great danger and there are so many things to love about this city.
One of my favorite things about HCMC is the amazing food. There is a huge and dizzying array of restaurants here but be sure to check out some of my favorites.
Mani – A small family run restaurant that has some of the best vegetarian food I have ever had.
The Green Bamboo Boys Shelter – This shelter is for boys from disadvantaged backgrounds, many of whom where living on the streets in HCMC prior to coming to the shelter. The amazing woman who runs the shelter decided to open up a restaurant selling local specialties at lunch in order to get some extra income to help support the boys.
La Fiesta or Scott & Binh’s – These two restaurants are both run by the husband and wife team, Soctt & Duc, and they have great menus. The last Friday of every month they donate a portion of the profits to a different non-profit organization. They also employ some of the older boys from the Green Bamboo Shelter.
Sozo’s Café – This is a cute little café in the heart of the backpacker district that has good baked goods and coffee. They also train and employ people with disabilities, who are often still stigmatized in Vietnam.
Pho and Banh Xeo – these are my favorite dishes from the south. Pho is beef noodle soup and probably the most well known Vietnamese dish and it is amazing. Banh Xeo is a Vietnamese pancake that has vegetables, shrimp and pork in it. Be sure to try these two when you are in HCMC.
Hoi An is a cute little holdover from the French colonial days. This is one of my favorite places for a quick get-away as it is less than an hour to fly from HCMC to Da Nang (then you take a taxi to Hoi An). I have taken some buses in my travels around Vietnam, but the roads are not great and the honking really gets to me. And now it is possible to get super cheap flights with Vietjet or sometimes Vietnam Airlines, so I just don’t think the bus is worth it anymore. Hoi An is pretty small and it is easy to get around on a bike, whether you are heading to the old town or the beach.
When you are in Hoi An you are close to the ocean so be sure to eat some seafood. It is all so fresh and delicious, but my favorites are shrimp or crab in tamarind sauce and squid with lemongrass and chili. Yum!!
Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam. I have been to Hanoi a number of times and each time I discover something new to love. I always stay in the Old Quarter, as it seems to be where most of the action is, although the streets here are so twisty and confusing that I almost always end up lost. Be sure to carry the card of your hotel with you and someone will always be willing to point you in the right direction. Hanoi is quieter than HCMC and it shuts down around midnight whereas HCMC never shuts down completely. You can always find a karaoke bar or street food cart open at 4am in HCMC. Hanoi is also more conservative than HCMC and you see less of the globalization influence here, although that is changing. Some of the things I love in Hanoi include:
The Women’s Museum – This is one of my favorite museums in all of Vietnam. It is very well done, interesting and informative and they have a special focus on often-marginalized minority groups.
Bun Cha – This is my favorite dish from the north and you can find street food carts selling it all over the city. It is cold rice noodles, bean sprouts and mint with BBQ pork.
Pots and Pans Restaurant – This restaurant was opened by graduates of the KOTO program; which is a non-profit that trains kids from disadvantaged backgrounds in the hospitality sector. The food here is wonderful and it is a great program to support.
JOMA Café and Bakery – They have great fair trade coffee, sourced from neighboring Laos and they donate a portion of their profits to non-profits in and around Hanoi.
I really love Mui Ne as I can take the train there so it only takes four hours and then I am out of the hustle and bustle of the big city and at the beach. Relaxation is just around the corner! Unfortunately there is not much here in the way of social businesses, but it is still a great place to go and eat amazing seafood and relax on the beach. I usually stay at either, Villa Aria or Mia both of which are local boutique hotels. I have had friends who have gotten married at both places and they are absolutely gorgeous and the staffs are so lovely and helpful. Mia also has a great happy hour and the strawberry chili martinis are to die for!
While you are in Mui Ne be sure to head to the end of the strip to the open air, makeshift seafood restaurants. They aren’t there during the day but they pop up in the evening with that days fresh catch. My favorite thing is to order a full crab and dig in.
Da Lat is about an 8 hour bus ride or 45 minute flight from HCMC. It is in the central highlands so it is more temperate and the French introduced fir trees to the region so it reminds me of home a little bit. Da Lat is a great place to hiking or riding in order to take in the natural beauty of the area. You can also join a tour if you want a little bit of adventure and go canyoning off one of the many waterfalls in the area. I would recommend Vietchallenge as their guides are great and safe. Unfortunately, Da Lat is similar to Mui Ne in that there are not many social businesses here yet.
One of the only examples of a social business, although it is a great one, is the Crazy House. It was built by a Vietnamese architect, who wanted to raise awareness about the need to protect our environment and live in a more sustainable way. It is also really cool to look at and it really is crazy!
In terms of food, Da Lat is not one of the cuisine hubs of Vietnam as it is a relatively new city (it was built by the French as their holiday get-away). That being said there are still some great restaurants here and I recommend trying the traditional Vietnamese BBQ (you can do this almost anywhere in Vietnam, but why not here). They will bring a small charcoal grill to your table and either you or the server will grill it right there in front of you! In Da Lat on of the best places to do this is Quan An Cu Duc, keep in mind that it is a Vietnamese restaurant and it does not come even close to Western standards of safety and cleanliness, but this is one of the reasons it is so much fun!
So those are my top 5 favorite places in Vietnam, as you can probably tell I really enjoy food. Where to eat is one of the main things I look for when I travel to a new place and it is even better when those restaurants are also social businesses helping the local community. That being said there are social businesses that are not restaurants so be sure to check these out as well.
Mekong Quilts – employs women form some of the poorest areas in Vietnam to make and sell their handicrafts. It is an incoming generating project for Mekong Plus, a non-profit organization working in Vietnam and all the profits are reinvested back into the community by Mekong Plus. They have shops in HCMC and Hanoi.
Ginko Vietnam – sells t-shirts and other clothes that are designed and made in Vietnam and are made in an environmentally sustainable way. Being eco-friendly is one of the guiding principals to Ginko and they make great quality, comfortable clothes that highlight the quirks of Vietnamese culture. The shops in HCMC, Hanoi, Hoi An and Nha Trang.
Reaching Out Vietnam – sells Fair Trade handicrafts of all sorts made by people with disabilities that make very unique gifts. They have a shop in Hoi An.
I hope you enjoy your time in Vietnam, it is a wonderful country and 5 places do not even begin to cover why I love it. I hope you will love it too and that these tips will help you to travel in a smart and ethical way.
This guest article was written by Jessica Schmit. Originally from Canada, she has lived in Vietnam for 4 years. Her background is in international development and since being in Vietnam she has had the pleasure of working with a number of non-profit organizations helping them to fundraise. Jessica created the Watchful Wanderer blog to share her tips and experiences about how to be a responsible traveller.