While nearby Thailand gets a ton of buzz internationally because it has a well-developed tourism industry at every end of the spectrum—both high-end and budget, and everything in between—Vietnam deserves a closer look for anyone heading to Southeast Asia. This long and skinny country has thousands of miles of coastline, every type of terrain imaginable, and arguably the best food scene in the region (them be fightin’ words for many, but you’d be hard put not to have Vietnam at least in a top three list!). The country is firmly on the “banana pancake trail,” which means a plethora of budget options abound and there are no shortage of backpackers north to south, but there’s a lot more to the country than just that.
Vietnam has truly incredible things happening on in sustainable and responsible tourism. Social enterprise as a concept is firmly established in Vietnam, and you can travel the country regularly spending your money at responsible tourism-facing businesses. Northern Vietnam boasts remarkable ethnic diversity, and the hill tribe groups in the north are actively crafting a vibrant and local tourism industry that funnels money into nearly every remote corner that has a trail pointing in that direction. In major cities, an abundance of training restaurants work with underprivileged youth, and elsewhere you’ll find responsible tour companies, cafes, workshops, and more.
Let’s dive right into the best social enterprises in Vietnam, as well as other actions you can take as a responsible traveler in the region.
Responsible Travel in Vietnam
Talk to a recent SEA backpacker and there’s a good chance you’ll hear them gush about their time in Vietnam. Likely because local food and culture is just so darn accessible. No matter where you travel, there’s bound to be something interesting, beautiful, and yes, responsible. That said, like the rest of Southeast Asia, there are overarching concerns for responsible travelers. From how to ethically interact with wildlife to avoiding human exploitation and sex trafficking, it’s a complicated topic covered in-depth in the GV Responsible Travel Guide to Southeast Asia. That said, here’s what each of the key issues looks like when zoomed in on Vietnam, specifically.
Human Tourism & Trafficking: If you’ve read our Thailand responsible travel guide, than you’re aware of issues in the region when hill tribe groups become nothing more than human zoos. If the idea of hill tribe cultures excites you, then you can delight in the knowledge that Vietnam is among the most fascinating places to take part in hill tribe tourism. Unlike the many sketchy options in Thailand, northern Vietnam has a well-developed tourism infrastructure built entirely around trekking to visit the region’s various hill tribe and ethnic minority groups. The format is usually a trek plus homestay, and the length of each entire depends on the traveler.
Homestays: Speaking of homestays, these are not confined to the northern hill tribes. Across the country, homestays are a common and excellent way to respectfully visit rural communities, support the local economy, and learn about the people and culture of Vietnam. If GV doesn’t recommend a homestay for the town you’re visiting, there is still likely ample opportunity to engage in this type of tourism (despite trying, we can’t find everything!). On your own, look out for businesses described as community-based organizations (CBOs) and for hyper local businesses run by local families (and not recognizable hotel brands).
Wildlife Tourism: We’ve covered riding elephants extensively on both Grassroots Volunteering and its sister site—the short of it is that you should not. Vietnam has some options for ethical elephant interactions, but generally you’ll find a better selection in Thailand (and, to an extent, Cambodia). If it’s your dream to interact with these majestic creatures, consider saving that experience until you get to one of these neighboring countries. Besides elephant tourism, generally avoid riding any exotic wild animal. Riding ostriches in Dalat is gaining popularity, but most would not consider this a responsible travel decision: An ostrich’s body is not designed to hold an adult’s weight and these animals fully panic when ridden.
Note: In addition to these concerns around types of wildlife tourism, Vietnam has a large and growing black market for products produced from illegal animals. Not only are live animals trafficked to nearby China, and further afield, but souvenirs using turtle shells, skins, and ivory are available. Purchasing these products contributes to the trafficking of wild and endangered animals, and should thus be avoided.
Haggling: This is a concern that falls firmly on the shoulders of travelers. Negotiating is a practice new to many international travelers, and some can take the art of the haggle too far. There are some who say “no vendor would sell a product for a loss”—that is not true. When a vendor has a sunk cost (they have already bought the goods), they may actually lose money on a deal if it means cash-in-hand that day, thus being able to buy food, pay school fees, etc. Bargain respectfully. And take heart that your sale directly helps the local economy—spend money and feel good about infusing your cash into the local economy.
Responsible Travel Dos: There’s another side to responsible travel beyond the don’ts, and we’re about to take a granular look at exactly how and where to spend your money responsibly. If you’re already doing the activity—and it fits within the framework of an ethical and sustainable tourism activity—then use this vetted list of social enterprises to ensure your travel dollars are going as far as possible on the ground.
This guide includes businesses offering socially responsible tours, fair-trade sourced souvenirs, meals prepared and served by former street children, and more. Each business is a social enterprise operating with a strong social mission to use tourism as a force for positive change.
What is a Social Enterprise?
A social enterprise sells good or services and uses a portion of the profits to reinvest in the local community by addressing social issues, improving locals’ quality of life, conserving natural resources and the environment, preserving the community’s cultural integrity, and more. The social enterprise holds its strong underlying mission above financial gain, investors, or traditional commercial business ideals. Instead, the common good is the primary focus and when a social enterprise succeeds, so too does the local society.
Supporting social enterprises is the core idea behind this site. Responsible travelers often align with the social enterprise business model because it’s not only good for travelers to understand a deeper story of a new place, but by supporting these businesses responsible travelers leave a place better than they found it. Our “What is a Social Enterprise” post shares a deeper-dive into the social enterprise business model, how to locate these businesses, and why they are a core tenet of responsible and sustainable travel.
Social Enterprises in Vietnam
- 9 Grains by STREETS (Hoi An): Operated by the STREETS International trainees, this coffee shop and cafe serves tasty food and delicious coffee alongside a strong underlying social mission: to offer hospitality and culinary training program to street kids and disadvantaged youth in Southeast Asia.
- Bloom Microventures (Hanoi): Discover the direct results of microfinancing in a marginalized community outside Hanoi on a tour where you will also meet with entrepreneurs who will receive micro-loans from your tour fee.
- Bread of Life (Da Nang): Enjoy a delicious Western meal at this restaurant in Da Nang which employs deaf waiters, cooks and baristas. The restaurant provides not only employment but training and support.
- CBT Vietnam (Sapa): Experience local life in Northern Vietnam by skipping the hotels and opting for a homestay. CBT Vietnam provides a directory of local homestays that are safe and highly recommended.
- Fragrant Path (Dai Lai, Soc Son): Go on a tour or enjoy a wellness day at this farm outside Hanoi which supplies produce for the Maison De Tet Café in Hanoi. Fragrant Path also features a workshop focused on creating jobs for local artisans from rural villages.
- Hanoi Kids (Hanoi): Experience the fun of teaching locals kids by taking a tour run by student volunteers. Tours include a grand tour of the city, visiting a pottery village and more.
- Happy Heart Cafe (Da Nang): Stop in to relax, enjoy some coffee and meet with friends at this delightful café which also offers a Western menu. The café works to employ deaf and handicap locals, providing them with valuable work experience.
- Hearts for Hue (Hue): Take a tour of Hue and gain a deeper understanding of the culture and life of the locals. Hearts for Hue’s main purpose is to improve the lives of the boat people of Thua Thien Province, including providing microloans to local artisans.
- Indigo Cat (Sapa): Shop for handmade textiles or admire the handiwork of the locals at this shop owned by a Hmong/French family. Local indigenous women in rural areas outside Sapa make tribal textiles.
- Jack’s Cat Cafe (Hoi An): Snuggle with rescue cats while sipping on a coffee and relaxing. Jack’s Cat Cafe is a cafe and rescue shelter, where roughly sixty cats reside.
- Joma Bakery (Hoan Kiem): Good coffee, yummy baked goods and delicious sandwiches can be found at all four locations of Joma Bakery in Hanoi. 2% of all proceeds support local grassroots projects, which helps to improve the lives of locals.
- KOTO Cooking Class (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City): Learn the secrets of Vietnamese cooking, including Vietnam’s national dish, Pho (pronounced Fa). KOTO is working to be a self-sustaining social enterprise and trains street and disadvantaged youth in the food and hospitality industries.
- KOTO Restaurant (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City): In Hanoi, dine on delicious international foods or indulge in some cake or pastries. In Ho Chi Minh City dine on delightful Southeast Asian, Belgian or French dishes. KOTO is working to be a self-sustaining social enterprise and trains street and disadvantaged youth in the food and hospitality industries.
- La Maison De Tet (West Lake, Hanoi): A charming cafe, La Maison De Tet’s menu features organic local ingredients. Food is sourced from local farms and artisans like Fragrant Path, helping to support the local economy.
- Lifestart Foundation (Hoi An): Choose fair trade souvenirs when visiting Hoi An by going to the Lifestart Foundation workshop. Lifestart gives disadvantaged locals the opportunity to earn income (they receive 100% of the proceeds) through the creation of arts and crafts.
- Mekong Quilts (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An): Purchase beautiful quilts made by women from poor and rural areas across Southeast Asia, something you’re sure to treasure for many years to come. This social enterprise is led by Mekong Plus, an NGO which reinvests in local communities provides scholarships for children and micro-financing programs.
- Pots n Pans Restaurant (Formerly Hanoi, reopening in Ho Chi Minh City eventually): Indulge in modern Vietnamese cuisine, with a twist, at Pots n Pans Restaurant when visiting Hanoi. The restaurant supports local farmers and producers, and partners with KOTO (see above) for its staff.
- Reaching Out Arts & Crafts (Hoi An): Housed in an ancient building in Old Town, this shop features arts and crafts created by other-abled artisans. Cutting out the middleman, Reaching Out provides training and support to other-abled artisans who would not be able to work otherwise.
- Reaching Out Teahouse (Hoi An): Enjoy a peaceful cup of tea at this teahouse located in Old Town. Run by the same people from Reach Out Arts & Crafts, the teahouse employs both able-bodies and disabled locals, creating an environment of equality.
- Saigon Hotpot (Ho Chi Minh City): Student-led tours are one of the best ways to experience Ho Chi Minh City. Tours are led by student volunteers from several universities.
- Sapa O’Chau (Sapa): Whether you’re looking for a trekking tour, homestay or a café to sit back and relax, using Sapa O’Chau is one of the best ways to ensure that your tourism dollars are being used to support the local community.
- Sozo Centre (Ho Chi Minh City): A cafe, caterer and function space, Sozo offers a delicious menu of both Vietnamese and Western cuisine. Sozo works with many underprivileged families to help them break the cycle of debt and provide them with employment opportunities.
- STREETS Restaurant Café (Hoi An): Indulge in a Hoi An Tasting Menu and experience contemporary Vietnamese and International cuisine inspired by chefs from around the world. Linked to STREETS International, which provides sustainable programs for street kids and disadvantaged youth in Southeast Asia.
- The Hill Station (Sapa): Spend an afternoon eating cheese and sipping wine during your time in Sapa. A restaurant, deli and boutique hotel, The Hill Station is a combination of Indochina era history and hill tribe culture and employs several Hmong locals.
- Tohe (Hanoi): Purchase artwork created by local children, giving them the confidence to continue perfecting their talents. Tohe provides a creative learning space for many disadvantaged youths in Hanoi.
- Topas Ecolodge (Sapa, Lao Cai): Stay at this one-of-a-kind ecolodge perched atop two cone-formed hills in the Sapa Valley. A worthwhile splurge that supports sustainability and supports the local economy.
- U Café Hoi An (Hoi An): A cafe serving up a small menu of food and drinks focused on Vietnamese and Japanese cuisine. U Café provides vocational training for disadvantaged youth in Hoi An and Da Nang, as well as language training in English, Japanese and Esperanto.
The database of social enterprises in Vietnam is always expanding as GV Ambassadors map the world of projects and businesses that need support from responsible travelers. Wondering how we pick a social enterprise for inclusion? Make your time in Vietnam a better force for good by visiting and supporting businesses committed to environment, social, and community welfare.
Interested in Volunteering?
Volunteering in Vietnam is not nearly as complicated a topic as volunteering in nearby Cambodia, which has systemic issues embedded deeply within the volunteering industry, and a bit more like the Thai volunteering industry—there some issues, cautions, and things you should consider before booking a volunteer vacation.
All volunteers should start their research by seeking to understand the nuanced issues within the global volunteering industry, and the range of potential concerns. Read our piece, “The Psychology & Ethics of International Volunteering,” for an outline of key issues and mindsets plaguing volunteers. In essence, understand that volunteer programs should not compromise the dignity of local populations, and in many cases projects should work toward an end-goal of independence of the communities from the need for volunteers, even if it’s at a point further in the future.
To pick the right volunteer program, assess the length of time you have to give and the skills you offer. For those with long-honed specialized skills—things like financial degrees, law, medicine, fundraising, and more—there is great need in a vast number or organizations.
If you have few concrete skills, consider instead visiting any of the many social enterprises listed above. You can use your trip as a way to learn more about the culture, as well as research specific organizations you might want to support down the line. Avoid volunteering with children unless you have many months to commit to the project—numerous studies have found that short-term stints at schools and orphanages can have harmful longterm effects on the children.
All of that said, there are certainly a number of volunteer opportunities for volunteers of all skill levels and time commitments, so don’t let any aspect prevent you from researching and then assessing if you have the skills suited to a project that needs your help. Research independent volunteer opportunities in Vietnam.
Additional Resources for Responsible Travelers
If you’re planning a trip to Vietnam, or Southeast Asia in general, these travel resources are essential for travelers focused on sustainable and responsible vacations.
- The Responsible Traveler’s Guide to Southeast Asia
- 8 Behaviors of Socially Responsible Travel
- Should You Give to Child Beggars?
- How to Pack for Long-Term & Round The World Travel
- Travel Planning Resources
- ALA Free Travel Guides for: Thailand and Vietnam
- Guide to Street Food in Saigon (and a guide for celiacs)
- ALA Cost of Living in Vietnam
- Lonely Planet Vietnam
- The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook
Books to Read Before You Visit Vietnam
Understanding a country’s history and culture is a fundamental aspect of responsible and informed travel. Plus, you’ll enjoy your travels so much more when you have context to wrap around your interactions and experiences.
These memoirs offer a heartbreaking and humbling entry into the country’s sex trafficking industry, as well as the legacy left by the Khmer Rouge. Bring one of these books on the plane, or download to your e-reader before you leave, you’ll be thankful for the nuanced insight you gain by better understanding the aspects of Vietnam you’re unlikely to talk about over coffee or with your tour guide.
- The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam by Bao Ninh
- The Girl in The Picture: The Story of Kim Phuc, the Photograph and the Vietnam War by Denise Chong
- The Quiet American by Graham Greene
- Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham
- Eating Viet Nam by Graham Holliday
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