Six years ago Vu Thanh Minh, 32, kicked off his idea of setting a different example of what could be done on Co To Island in Quang Ninh province given the number of budget accommodations that had been opened. An intrepid traveller himself, Minh wanted to design an eco site that was in balance with the local landscape, using only environmentally-friendly materials and with an efficient sewage system and minimal energy use. It took him several years to bring his unique Coto Eco Lodge to life on Hong Van Beach, with six wooden bungalows and an open-air bar.
Whereas wi-fi, air conditioning, flat-screen TVs, mini-bars, swimming pools, and spa facilities are common amenities travellers look for when booking a holiday, Coto Eco Lodge has none of these. It does, however, have a romantic space and atmosphere for a truly secluded vacation and turquoise water is literally at your doorstep.
Like many other eco-tourism enterprises, Coto Eco Lodge aims at a different market segment. His guests are people who have become increasingly conscious about their carbon footprint. For them, a rustic stay at a farmhouse or a bamboo cottage without hi-tech facilities or basic conveniences is no major headache, even in there are cuts to power or water supply. Their main concern is to be in a far-off, unusual location with spectacular views and lots of unique opportunities to go off the beaten track and get as close to nature as possible, absorb the local culture, and lessen their environmental impact by travelling responsibly.
An increasing number of people are taking to eco-tourism as an alternative holiday that recalls a simpler, healthier life or, at its core, satisfies a desire for a less-complicated and demanding trip.
Mango Bay Resort in Phu Quoc Island, Kien Giang province
Eco-tourism has continued to gain momentum around the globe, not only among green enthusiasts but among people from different walks of life. Worldwide, demand for nature-based tourism is growing rapidly, with the industry now worth an estimated $600 billion a year.
But there is no identified design model for low-impact tourism in natural, protected areas. Depending on budget, preference, and available options, eco-tourism can appear in different forms, from experiencing wildlife on African safaris to hiking the Appalachian Trail in the US, from heading to the string of glorious islands in the south of Thailand to rambling through England’s Lakes District, and from visiting an igloo village in Switzerland to staying in a jungle lodge deep within the Ecuadorian Amazon. Whatever your choice of environmentally-friendly travel may be, eco-tourism revolves around the guiding principle of minimising your impact while sustaining the well-being of local people.
With large areas of various ecosystems, including spectacular mountain scenery, an extensive coastline, beautiful rural landscapes, rare plants and indigenous animal species, Vietnam boasts enormous potential for developing eco-tourism. Although there has been little pressure placed on the tourism industry to develop sustainable practices, there have been various grassroots initiatives such as Minh’s Coto Eco Lodge that are taking the first important steps to go green and follow the inspiring movement.
Head to the north of the country to the lake-side La Vie Vu Linh Ecolodge and you’ll find yourself surrounded by the verdant countryside of Yen Bai province and immersed in Dao ethnic minority culture. At the heart of it, the project has three main threads: education, environment, and eco-tourism. Young local apprentices are trained in English, French, hospitality and other skills so they can run the lodge and also actively participate in the development of their community. Stay here for a weekend getaway and you can get a real sense of the beauty and serenity of Thac Ba Lake, collect herbs and wild plants in the mountains, practice cooking Dao cuisine, and see local crafts. The lodge itself, which is made of earth, has a number of eco-friendly features. If you’ve never heard of a water-saving dry toilet, for example, here is somewhere to gain first-hand experience.
In a more upmarket scale, Topas Ecolodge, 18 km from Sapa on Vietnam’s northern border, is a great choice if you wish to savour spectacular mountain scenery from the comfort of a balcony chair.
There has been a more ambitious push for eco characteristics in foreign-invested resorts in the south of the country. While Ana Mandara in Nha Trang sells all the food waste from its kitchens and restaurants to a farm for composting, Mango Bay on Phu Quoc Island has taken ecotourism a step further by supporting the Wildlife At Risk (WAR) NGO in the conservation of the island’s biodiversity, documenting its flora and fauna, repopulating native plant species, and educating young local people about conservation.
Eco-tourism, though, is not to everyone’s taste and the journey for the pioneers is not straightforward. In Minh’s opinion, most eco-friendly accommodations are run on a small scale and are isolated from each other. The lack of eco-rating systems or certification programs from government agencies or environmental groups means that eco-tourism businesses are driven mostly by the owner’s inspiration and ideas.
It’s also still a relatively new and abstract concept in Vietnam, with many people unable to appreciate natural beauty and being quick to complain about the absence of certain luxuries. Along with a requirement to engage with local communities in the development of eco-tourism projects, there is also a need to educate people about this type of travel, so that they can make a choice between basic campsites or high-end mountain lodges.
Though most would agree that eco-tourism has had a significant impact around the world and in Vietnam, the term itself, along with the buzz surrounding it, can be easily misinterpreted and even be used in ‘greenwashing’ marketing programs by travel agencies and self-proclaimed eco-friendly accommodation sites. A hiking trip into the mountains of northern Ha Giang province is only eco-tourism if it is done with the least possible impact and to the benefit of the local ethnic minorities. Likewise, a trip to the Can Gio Mangrove Forest in the Mekong Delta is not eco-tourism unless it raises awareness and helps protect the site.
So if you’re serious about the footprint your travel leaves, be sure to have your questions answered before booking any trip that bills itself as ‘eco-tourism’.