The other remarkable thing about Pu Luong Vietnam? No piles of plastic - Rusty Compass travel blog

The other remarkable thing about Pu Luong Vietnam? No piles of plastic

| 07 May 2019
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07 May 2019

Pu Luong, around four hours south of Hanoi, looks set to become the “next’ destination in Vietnam’s breathtaking mountainous north. And one of the many striking things about this area is the lack of plastic rubbish.

I’ve been posting a bit of late about Pu Luong - another magical place in Vietnam’s mountainous north. This is glorious country inhabited by wonderfully welcoming ethnic Thai people.

And there was something else that struck me about Pu Luong.

Over three days of walking through villages and along mountain roads, I didn’t encounter any of the hideous piles of plastic rubbish blighting the landscape in most other tourism destinations in Vietnam.

Plastic waste is a global problem. The big difference between Vietnam and places in the developed world like Australia, where I am at the moment, is that in Vietnam, the problem is plain to see. Not only does Vietnam consume huge amounts of plastic, it’s not very good at disposing of it.

There’s no cause for eco-sanctimony from Westerners.

While we’ve been producing disastrous amounts of plastic waste for decades, we tend to be better at its disposal - including shipping it to places like China and Vietnam.

Most Western travellers I meet are shocked to know we ship our waste to the developing world. Both China and Vietnam are having second thoughts about this deal now - which is why “recycling” is in crisis in many Western countries.

Pu Luong Vietnam - rural beauty minus the plastic
Photo: Mark Bowyer Pu Luong Vietnam - rural beauty minus the plastic
 
Pu Luong Vietnam - rural beauty minus the plastic
Photo: Mark Bowyer Pu Luong Vietnam - rural beauty minus the plastic
 
Pu Luong Vietnam - rural beauty minus the plastic
Photo: Mark Bowyer Pu Luong Vietnam - rural beauty minus the plastic
 
Pu Luong Vietnam - rural beauty minus the plastic
Photo: Mark Bowyer Pu Luong Vietnam - rural beauty minus the plastic

 

Travelling in Pu Luong reminded me what it was like to explore Vietnam minus the piles of plastic rubbish. It was bliss.

I asked a few locals why there was so little plastic waste but didn’t really get to the reason. It did occur to me that Vietnam’s plastic crisis is relatively recent. Fifteen years ago plastic rubbish was nowhere near as pervasive as it is today. Something has changed in the way ordinary Vietnamese people live that has caused a sharp rise in single use plastic. And most of it ends up lying around and spoiling the environment.

It’s no coincidence that Vietnam’s boom in plastic use has coincided with its booming, globalised economy. And Western brands have helped create the idea that plastic is cheap - because the real cost of plastic isn’t paid by producers or consumers, but by the natural environment and future generations. It’s the same problem with carbon pollution.

Global giants like Starbucks have normalised the idea of sitting in a cafe drinking coffee from a plastic container. In a developing country looking to multinationals for leads in how to operate, that example is a disaster. Starbucks is talking about action now. But after lowering the bar for years, and spawning many local imitators they’ve got a lot of ground to make up.

A beautiful Vietnam coastal scene spoiled by plastic - and that's before it hits the ocean
Photo: Mark Bowyer A beautiful Vietnam coastal scene spoiled by plastic - and that's before it hits the ocean

 

The Guardian wrote last year about global packaging giant Tetra Pak’s part in Vietnam's plastic crisis.

It reaches way beyond the cities. You’ll stumble across mountains of plastic rubbish in remote places too. Sometimes you’ll feel like you’ve discovered a piece of paradise, only to have it ruined by a pile of plastic rubbish.

All this plastic isn’t just an environmental problem. It’s an economic problem too. Plastic waste is damaging Vietnam’s reputation as a tourism destination.

The tourism industry is only a small player in Vietnam’s plastic waste problem. But it is inordinately impacted. If government officials can’t be convinced to protect the oceans - perhaps they can be persuaded to protect their own local patch in the interests of tourism.

As I thought more about the seeming accident of plastic-free Pu Luong, I wondered how it might stay that way - even as it develops economically and as a tourism destination?

The tourism industry can play a part. 

I spoke with one of the owners of a new resort and he told me he was going to run plastic free. He was still selling plastic water bottles during my stay but said he planned to switch to reusable plastic tanks so travellers can use their own water bottles.

That single action makes a huge difference. Plastic water bottles are the biggest source of plastic waste from travellers. And they’re completely unnecessary.

Getting the tourism industry motivated is an essential step. The plastic straw campaign in Vietnam has been remarkably successful in the tourism sector - from small cafes to cocktail bars and 5 star hotels. And it reaches beyond the big cities too.

There’s still a long way to go. Eliminating the plastic water bottle from hotels, cafes and restaurants (and I am a repeat offender over two decades here) would have real meaning.

Here at Rusty Compass, we’ve been thinking and writing about this stuff for years. In Saigon we have a list of plastic-free eateries. When we opened The Old Compass Cafe in Saigon, we were plastic-free in-house from the start (it hasn't happened in the kitchen yet since shifting local markets on this will be a monumental effort). We've never sold water in plastic bottles.

The time seems right for a more concerted effort. Cities and countries around the world are setting targets for the elimination of single-use plastic in tourism. Young Vietnamese are participating in clean-up campaigns and the tourism industry is very aware of this issue. Vietnam's press is full of stories about the harm caused by plastic waste.

Perhaps plastic-free Pu Luong can become a thing? Plastic free Phong Nha? Plastic free Cat Ba? Plastic free Hoi An? Hue? Hanoi? Ho Chi Minh City?

Eliminating single-use plastic waste bottles from the tourism industry seems like a reasonable short term objective. And there will be a flow-on in the wider community. Tourism reaches into the most remote places. It’s a superb way to spread a message. It’s true that these actions in isolation are not enough to solve the problem. But these initiatives create the groundswell that reaches communities, businesses and ultimately governments.

For information about travel to Pu Luong, head over to our Pu Luong Travel Guide here.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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