Before going to Vietnam, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to keep living my plastic-free lifestyle also in South-east Asia. After all, my last trip to Southeast Asia was responsible for why I started to live this way in the first place. It was here where I realized how unnecessary all the plastic packaging and essentials were. Since the time I left, I’ve been committed to avoiding single-use plastic products for almost two years now.
Good news though!
With a little preparation ahead, living plastic-free in Southeast Asia is definitely possible
However, first, you should know what to expect.
The usual backpacker’s lifestyle in Southeast Asia (including me two years ago)
Imagine you get a meal packed in three plastic bags with plastic cutlery and a napkin (luckily it’s still a paper napkin!). Or that you buy five plastic bottles a day. (Because the tap water is not safe to drink and who’s going to carry the heavy 10L container that comes in plastic anyway right?) Let’s not forget every new plastic plate you get with each meal just because they give you the food on it.
Well, this is pretty much the way it usually goes around here. Travelers like to do everything the local way so they don’t put lots of thought into this. While this is a nice idea, I’m sticking to my values. Yes, it’s more difficult here (especially because very few people speak good English) but it’s still doable and fun! Let me show you how. 😉
**You can read more about the local Southeast Asian lifestyle here on Reuters. **
My top tips to help you stay away from plastics in Asia
Have your zero – waste kit always with you.
I carry my chopsticks, bamboo bowl, wooden spoon, handkerchief, bamboo keep cup, and a stainless steel water bottle with me all the time. While this may sound like heaps of stuff to carry around, they’re lightweight so it’s not a problem. If you don’t have these, they usually sell them at the markets or the fancy hipster zero-waste cafes like Vietnam Sustainable space or many others. Southeast Asia is becoming touristy so in the more famous towns, you shouldn’t have a problem to find these.
My brekky smoothie in my coffee cup. It tastes better and the size is about the same.
2. Learn the phrases!
Everybody can say hello, thank you, and bye. But do you want to be a superhuman? Learn these: ‘No straw please.’; ‘No bag’ ‘No plastic.’; ‘Use my container.’; ‘Water refill please?’;’Drinking water’. Google translate is all you need here.
3. Refill everywhere. (Hostel, homestay, restaurant, bar..)
Everywhere you go they usually have free water or tea. There’s absolutely no need to buy the plastic water bottles. Just ask and carry your water bottle always with you. I was so worried about the water but to be honest, it’s the easiest from all the waste challenges out there. If you want you can also buy a Lifestraw water filter which filters away all the bacteria allowing you to drink even the tap water. At first, I was thinking of investing in this cool thing but so far also the refilling option works.
4. Smile. 🙂
Smile and people will help you with anything. Even if they don’t understand. I know it’s a cliche but smile really is a universal language that all of us speak.
5. Never give up!
The important thing though is to not beat yourself up if there is still some plastic slipping in your way. Sometimes you can be 100% prepared and you’ll still get your food with a piece of that shit. Think of it as if every meal is a new challenge. You either win or lose. I remember I wanted to buy a Bahn mi (a yummy Vietnamese baguette) at a street food stall. Most often they put it in paper and then in a little plastic bag.
I gave the selling lady my own little plastic bag that I’ve been reusing and told her very much in advance to put it in that one. Unfortunately, the lady misunderstood threw my plastic bagie away and put my Bahn mi in a new one. Not to mention she was so sweet and smiling that I suddenly felt like I couldn’t say anything to her.
After this experience, I was quite mad at myself. I was so prepared. I brought my own plate, my own old plastic bagie, made sure to tell the lady in advance, said ‘no plastic’ in Vietnamese and I still managed to get a new one!! Anyhow, I realized it wasn’t the end of the world. Important is to keep doing your best and not give up. At this point, it’s about the little details that we all need to master on ourselves.