A child working selling souvenirs on the streets of Hoi An. Photo by Lucy Aulich, World Vision
I recently spent two weeks travelling through Vietnam as a World Vision Youth Ambassador. While I was there to see the work World Vision does with communities I also had some opportunities to see the more touristy side of Vietnam. I saw the ancient temples of Mỹ Sơn, and strolled through Hoi An’s lively street markets and Old Town. I got lost in the hustle and bustle of street vendors, shops everywhere selling souvenirs, the smells and sounds of city life. This was a stark contrast to what I saw in the remote communities we visited.
All along the streets of Hoi An were shops and little stalls selling all manner of knick-knacks and gifts to bring back home, from wooden chopsticks and beautiful bowls to fridge magnets of Ho Chi Minh.
Sadly these types of products are usually mass-produced, often by people working for little pay and in dangerous conditions – not unlike many of the products available at your local shops.
As we walked down a jam-packed street one evening a young boy ran up to us. Calling out he asked us to buy one of the floating lanterns he was pushing in our direction. This little boy was adorable – and we’d seen how beautiful the lit lanterns look as they float down the river at night – so at first, it seemed like a good idea.
Thinking on it for a moment showed us that behind the harmless exterior there were questions that needed to be answered. Aside from the environmental impact of the lanterns floating down stream and damaging the natural environment, given everything we were learning about child protection and child labour, it was concerning that there was a young boy selling things to strangers on the street at night.
While I don’t know the exact circumstances that led to that particular boy trying to sell lanterns, we know child labour is a widespread problem and is prevalent across many of the industries that supply to tourist markets. He was no more than 12 and appeared to be alone on the street.
Unfortunately situations like this are not uncommon. Often poverty means that children must work in order to help support their families. Among other things, young people may work directly selling products to tourists or in manufacturing the products.
Rather than assuming that he must need the money and naively buying from him, we had learnt to question the risks first, to make sure we were actually acting in the best interests of the child. Because whilst simply giving to the child or buying what they are selling seems like a good option, at best, it is a quick fix. If we truly want to help that child, we need to address the issues that may be keeping them up working late at night, rather than reinforcing that cycle, by literally buying into it.
I was really challenged by all of this. Whether it is the conditions that people have worked in to produce an item, or the person selling it, the potential risks of labour exploitation were becoming so much more obvious.
There’s good news though. I discovered that tourism doesn’t have to negatively impact on the lives of children and other vulnerable people in places like Vietnam. Money from tourists is great for the economy and from what I saw in Vietnam, tourism is very welcome. What’s important is that you think about the impact your purchases will have on the people that brought them to you.
So if you’re travelling overseas and want to have a more positive impact on the communities you visit I highly recommend buying souvenirs from fair trade organisations. This will make sure your exciting travel experience doesn’t take away from the people you meet.
Seek out World Fair Trade Organisation certified shops or social enterprises that work with marginalized groups. These shops are not hard to find – there are even restaurants founded on the same principle. A quick Google search or a flick through the Lonely Planet will point you in the right direction!
If you’re ever in Vietnam check these out:
Craft Link – a handicraft store that stocks and promotes products such as homewares, toys, clothing and accessories produced by ethnic minorities across Vietnam. Each product is ethically produced and comes with a description of life in the province where it was made.
Reaching Out – a social enterprise that makes hand-crafted and eco-friendly souvenirs in a workshop at the back of the store. You can even walk through and see the employees work! By employing people with a disability they’re also helping to empower some of Vietnam’s most vulnerable people.
Streets Restaurant – a social enterprise providing hospitality training for street children and other disadvantaged youth. It was wonderful to watch the trainees learn and to know that the profits from your meal are being invested into a valuable program. And best of all – the food tastes great!