It was summer 2017 when I visited South-east Asia for the first time. I had high expectations that crushed the first day I arrived in Thailand.

I was looking forward to those picturesque sandy beaches with turquoise waters and smiley Thais handing me coconuts all day long. I imagined myself jumping around barefoot and hanging on every palm-tree.

You know, just like Instagram makes you believe it would be.

Well, it was nothing like those naive imaginations in my head. Instead, it was mostly parties, disrespectful tourists trashing around, and mad Thais trying to rip off every white person they saw.

I was 19 years old, all alone and never more disappointed. I kept asking myself what on Earth was I doing here? Did I really travel this far just to see all this rubbish and drunks around me?

We have enough of that in Slovakia too. And without the extra sweaty heat.

While I wasn’t realizing it yet back then, going there and seeing the polluted beaches and jungles live, the impact of our lifestyles was one of the best things that could ever happen to me.

This was when my zero-waste journey began

After three months of my eventually amazing ‘South-east Asia trip,’ I decided to quit rubbish for good as soon as I left. I was happy I saw how bad the damage was.

Since then, I never bought anything in plastic again.

I did the best I could to avoid any kind of waste. Sure, I wasn’t perfect. Though in the western world, with a bit of effort and all the information online, my lifestyle as an ‘eco-warrior’ was not that difficult.

Time for a little challenge and live waste-free in Vietnam

Now, two years later, I got back to SEA to visit the one country I skipped the last time. Vietnam. I already knew what to expect. I knew it would be far away from easy since here you get plastic with literally everything.

If you buy food, drinks, clothes, even water…it’s going to come in plastic. Also, most Vietnamese speak very little English. Good luck with explaining that you’re trying to save the planet.

However, since I knew what to expect, I made sure I was ready for it.

This post will help you to prepare for it too so that you could inspire other travelers and maybe even locals to stop all the trashing. 🙂

My top tips to help you stay away from plastics in South-east Asia

1. Give them the tourist they won’t forget (always bring your reusables)

I always carry my chopsticks, bamboo bowl, wooden spoon, handkerchief, bamboo keep-cup, and a stainless steel water bottle with me. 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 hippie zero-waste cafes like Vietnam Sustainable space, ‘Go eco Hanoi’, or many others.

Southeast Asia is becoming slightly touristy so in the bigger cities, it should be easy to buy your own zero-waste kit.

When I go to night markets or anywhere with the ‘Plastic fever danger’, I just hand my bowl to the lady selling me the food, smile, and hope for the best.

There are times when my own containers make the sellers ‘angrish’ because they got caught off guard. Don’t worry though! Usually, they’re sweet and happy they’re saving their own.

If you do this, you’ll be the weird tourist they’ll never forget. Hope you’re excited hah!

My morning smoothie in a bamboo coffee cup

2. Learn the local phrases

Everybody can say hello and thank you. But why not to add a few phrases more? Learn these: No straw, please; No bag; No plastic; Use mine; Drinking water refill. Google translate is all you need here.

It won’t only ease the whole process for you, but also all the locals will love you for trying to learn their language!

3. Refill everywhere. (Hostel, homestay, restaurant, bar..)

At first, I was thinking of investing in Lifestraw water filter which filters away all the bacteria allowing you to drink the tap water. Luckily, I found out there was no need for that.

Everywhere you go they usually have free water or tea. It’s totally normal, you can refill your bottle anywhere you are. Nobody frowns upon it. With the heat, we all drink like crazy and have to refill all the time.

4. Smile. 🙂

The most important thing of all! Be kind and smile! A lot.

If you smile people won’t think you’re rude or weird but rather sweet. They’ll do their best to cooperate and keep you happy.

5. Don’t give up!

Close to An bang beach, Hoi An, Vietnam

Don’t beat yourself up if there’s still some plastic here and there slipping in.

Sometimes, you can be 100% prepared and misunderstandings will happen.

I remember I wanted to buy a Banh mi (the famous Vietnamese baguette) at a street-food stall. Most often they put it in a paper napkin and a little plastic bag.

I gave the lady my own little plastic bag that I’ve been reusing for ages (already kind of attached to it). I told her in advance to put it in mine. Unfortunately, the lady misunderstood threw my plastic baggie away and put the Banh mi in a new one.

I thought I’d cry when I saw it. Soon I realized that well, she misunderstood. Shit happens. Move on Kristina. Just make sure the next one understands what you’re actually doing.

Later on, I had less and less situations like these.

Practice makes perfect

Once you get in a habit of doing these things, zero-waste lifestyle while being a traveler in SEA is not that hard. I’d say it’s even easier since no one judges you and you don’t have to explain yourself to everyone.

When I got to Vietnam I had a few slips but now I don’t even need to think about it.

Simply, I just don’t shop for packaged food, say no to bags, bring my utensils, know my seller ladies already, speak enough to be able to get around and that’s it. Give it time, and you’ll get used to it too.

If I can do it, anyone can.

Happy travels!


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living plastic-free in South East Asia