What are the realities of travelling regeneratively and how can it be encouraged?

by Nicholas and Sim Eng on June 27

On the 22nd of June 2022, we embarked on a journey to Vietnam. No fixed plans, no end date, and with only a passport in one hand and luggage in the other, we were ready to go! That was the start of our regenerative travel, embodying the spirit of adventure and the thrill of the unknown. 

In this blog post, we will bring you on a journey with us to Vietnam – a land rich in culture, covered with mountains and rivers, and people whose warm disposition makes you feel as though you’re in a home outside of your home. We hope that these main takeaways from our trip can provide greater insight for those who are interested to travel regeneratively.

by Nicholas and Sim Eng on June 23

Homestays and their competition 

A key element of regenerative travelling is to support local efforts as much as possible, one obvious way to do that is opting for homestays as compared to franchised hotels. The good thing is there is an increasing trend of homestays in Vietnam. So it isn’t hard to find local accommodation (be it in the city or village)! Many of the once rural and closed-off villages are slowly developing and opening up to tourists. Now, there are families in less well-known villages who are offering their services to tourists (accommodations, food, handicrafts etc.).

However, if you really want to maximise the authenticity of a local experience, we would recommend finding accommodation on the ground. When we were in Mai Chau (a small province housing a few villages), we spotted many accommodations offered deep in the villages. There were many small, single-stilt houses with ‘homestay’ signs. Some of these accommodations do not seem to be on common booking websites like Airbnb or Booking.com and are most probably catered to travellers that need a night’s stay at the last minute. You will only be able to find those gems if you explore the area yourself. It will definitely be tiring, but could be worth the trouble!

We stayed in a local homestay hosted by a family of the White Thai ethnic minority. According to our lovely homestay owner, Huong, most of the villages nearby are White Thais. As it was a rather small homestay, we had many opportunities to interact with the family. We got to explore their backyard farm (where they rear their farm animals) and kitchen (where they prepared all our meals) and chatted over meal times. Sometimes, we would have meals with the other travellers who were staying as well! Huong has been a great pleasure to be around, and we learnt so much about Mai Chau from her!

Nugget of info!

Mai Chau is blessed with bountiful paddy fields with farmers spotted almost everywhere. Mai Chau farmers do not use pesticides on their crops as they believe that it is not good for health. Instead, they manually catch grasshoppers and other pests at night, with a helmet light and a plastic bottle. These insects also serve as alternative food sources for them! In the early mornings when the sun has risen (around 6am, sun rises early in Vietnam), the farmers tend to their crops. All farming stops in the afternoon due to the hot weather and work only continues in the evening.

by Nicholas and Sim Eng on June 27

Just a short 10-minute walk away, one would see a beautiful row of villas situated on a hill. That perfectly curated villa is Ecolodge, the main accommodation that would pop up on your page when you search for Mai Chau as a travel destination. Ecolodge markets itself as ecotourism, attracting tourists who are interested in living close to nature and experiencing the local culture. However, Ecolodge has many commercialised features specially curated for tourists, such as spas, bars and an indoor pool. According to Huong who used to be a former employee of Ecolodge, the owner of Ecolodge is in fact not a villager from Mai Chau but a local from Hanoi. She has made several opinions about her former workplace which led to her decision to leave and support her own local business. Firstly, ecolodge seems to not promote the authentic culture of the White Thai minority in the village, but rather uses the fact that their employees are locals and their culture as a marketing feature. Secondly, the wages and benefits to the local community are not very much, thus she made the switch to start her own homestay. Finally, the ecolodge seems to have its own activities lined up for you, and does not have authentic and genuine interactions with the local folk. In our honest opinion, Ecolodge is not representative of the local community in Mai Chau as compared to our homestay. Ecolodge seems to provide an overly curated exploration of the village which takes away the authenticity of an actual local homestay. Of course, if you prefer something more comfortable and developed, then Ecolodge would be a good choice for you! But if you were to embody the true spirit of regenerative travelling, then we would suggest searching for less commercialised homestays that actually represent the local community and their culture. Moreover, you can be assured that all proceeds will go 100% to a person from the local community, rather than filtered through a hotel management chain run by a third party. 

by Nicholas and Sim Eng on June 27

Many small local homestays like Huong’s homestay are facing huge competition from big franchises like Ecolodge. Many tourists only know of Ecolodge and miss out on the chance to explore other smaller homestays. To fully immerse in regenerative travel, you can do your part to avoid big franchises and give smaller local homestays a chance, while there should also be efforts on the homestays’ side to voice their presence on platforms. This leads us to our next point.

Regenerative travel is not easy

Apart from local experiences, regenerative travel encourages community-based experiences, where we immerse ourselves in the local community and have exchanges with other like-minded travellers. Clearly, more efforts are needed to onboard communities to participate in the regenerative travel movement. In Mai Chau, most people lead very routine lives (such as the farmers we mentioned above). Most of the villagers are not aware of regenerative travel. People that contribute to regenerative experiences are the homestay owners who offer local abodes to travellers, but that is after all their business. To encourage more locals to board the community voluntarily, more efforts need to be carried out, such as contacting locals and providing them with opportunities to offer travellers (life as a farmer programme, a cultural tour around their village etc), or getting locals with the same interests to initiate by having conversations with them.  

As we pivot towards community-based travelling and experiences, we understand that these experiences might not be the most ‘comfortable’ for city folk and might be patroned only by adventure or experience seekers or perhaps others that share the same passion and vision as Terraformers. For example, taking train rides between cities is a good way to immerse oneself in the community – not only do you experience the way locals travel, but you also get to meet like-minded travellers who too prefer to take the slow, scenic route. We took a 25-hour train ride from Hue city to Ho Chi Minh city, and it was a painful experience. Perhaps as city dwellers, we were unfamiliar with the setting of Vietnam trains. Having to squeeze with 4 other people in a 4 pax cabin, only able to lie down on dirty bed sheets for a whole day, with unsanitary toilets and walkways – it was a really uncomfortable experience for us. One must learn to lower their expectations and seek new experiences with an open mind! Travelling regeneratively is bound to be cut back on convenience as seeking raw, authentic experiences require us to go out of our comfort zone more often than not. However, the result is rewarding. The small interactions matter! Yes, it was painful to travel long hours in a cramped space, however, the train ride was a story on its own!

Upon entering our cabin, our first impression was that the train was not very clean. The bedsheets were blotted with dark stains and filled with hair. We spent a good 10 minutes trying to sweep the hair off. The floors were also littered with some rubbish which was most probably left behind by the previous people. However, this is the reality of Vietnam trains. The cleanliness in Vietnam, of course, cannot be compared to Singapore’s, and we have since then learned to adjust our expectations. 

With us in the cabin, was a middle-aged man who was reading his book. Shortly after greeting one another, a staff member of the train entered the cabin, speaking panicked in Vietnamese. With him were a mother and her 2 children, a young boy and a girl both around ten years. It turns out, the mother had purchased tickets for the wrong date but needed to travel urgently. The staff kindly allowed her to board, and the man gave up his spot to the mother and her children, while he went to seek extra space in other cabins. We were initially shocked at how flexible the train system was in Vietnam. However, upon second thought, what we witnessed was something heartwarming, admirable and inspiring. Yes, oversharing a cabin is definitely uncomfortable for everyone. However, the kindness that Vietnamese people have for one another really touched our hearts and left us speechless at times. In tough times, they thought about how they could make this long tiring trip a little bit better for one another. Witnessing their interactions made our ride a little more rewarding. 

Ecotourism can be done

We have only read about ecotourism but you always see the negatives on it. The greenwashing and the capitalistic motives behind the idea made us feel that ecotourism is an unachievable goal. Yet, our experience with Hang En Cave exploration changed our mindsets. 

We connected with a local company in Phong Nha called ‘Oxalis’ (https://oxalisadventure.com). It is an adventure tour operator in Vietnam and a pioneer in caving and jungle exploration. Through a 2 day 1 night caving journey with Oxalis, we observed the efforts they made first-hand to live up to the ‘Ecotourism’ label. 

1. They limit the pax size during each hike so that the strain on the environment is at a cap. 

2. They demarcate specific hiking trails to and in the cave so that human erosion is kept to a minimum.

3. They don’t leave ANY waste along the hiking trail, or in the cave, every piece of trash is properly disposed of or carried until it can be thrown properly. They leave the place as pristine as it originally was. 

4. They even promote the usage of sustainable equipment such as the rice husk compostable toilet that is not only sustainable but also does not compromise the comfort of travellers. 

5. The company is also local and provides jobs for many local individuals in the town of Phong Nha! They also have a foundation to help less fortunate individuals.

by Nicholas and Sim Eng on July 07

Their efforts to minimise human impact on the environment but also promote a mode of travelling that conserves the environment are commendable! We highly suggest going for experiences like what Oxalis has to offer. Not only did we get to explore one of the largest caves on Earth in a sustainable manner, but we also made friends who share the same passion for exploration. But of course, sign up at your own comfort level as the expedition requires a certain level of fitness. 

Impromptu local meets can lead to interesting connections

If you only kept to your own comfort zone and avoided contact with the locals in the area, then you really are missing out on so many things! We gained many things along the way because we made meaningful connections with the people. Having friends in a foreign country can go a long way. We made friends who suggested activities we could do based on our preferences, accompanied us for meals, gave us insights about Vietnam through the eyes of a local, and had interesting conversations and exchanges with us! All these heartwarming experiences made us feel very welcome. Interacting with locals allows one to further understand their culture and livelihoods. 

“ A deeper level of understanding towards the place enriches one’s travelling experience. With connections made, we felt as though we were part of the place, and not just a visitor passing by and admiring from afar. “

Especially in the village, people are genuinely friendly and treat others around them as part of the same community. They are also really eager to meet outsiders and connect! Don’t be shy and just try to go along with locals every so often! But still be careful and be aware of the situation. 

That reminds us of the time when we were invited by a group of locals to sit down and have a picnic with them, completely out of nowhere! They offered us beef noodles, Vietnamese rice wine and of course, the famous grasshoppers. It was definitely a culture shock! We couldn’t speak each other’s languages and had to communicate with sign languages the whole way (there was no signal at that place hence no google translate)! The spontaneity of random interactions with strangers is something that only travelling regeneratively can offer. Being away from a curated enclave tourism setting was a very refreshing experience for us and we recommend everyone to experience it at least once!

by Nicholas and Sim Eng on June 23

In conclusion…

Regenerative travel requires one to not only travel slowly and sustainably but also to get out of your comfort zones and interact with the locals, to really immerse oneself in the local community and support local efforts. We believe this new paradigm of travel will be the future of travel and is what will transition us away from mass tourism. One just needs to put themselves out there and one will realise that there is so much the world is trying to teach us. We just need to face it with an open mind and give regenerative travel a chance. 

by Nicholas and Sim Eng on August 2

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Nick Chan

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