Small ways to help while traveling in Southeast Asia

After spending some of my youth in Singapore and traveling around Thailand and Malaysia a young adult, Southeast Asia beckoned me back in the winter of 2002-2003.

This time I decided to visit Vietnam, a place I had missed during my time in Asia in the early ’90s.

When the initial plan to travel with friends fell through, I went straight to the Web to see if I could find a group trip going to the right place at the right time. I’d never traveled with a “tour group” before, so the idea of picking a tour company randomly on the Web frightened me.

I would be spending weeks traveling through Asia with a group of strangers, entrusting my precious travel experience to people who didn’t know a thing about me. Nevertheless, I had my heart set on going to Vietnam, and I just didn’t feel like going it alone this time.

My main requirements were flexibility and affordability; I also liked seeing the words “responsible travel” somewhere in the description. After looking for a week or so, I hit upon Intrepid Travel, which advertised a trip from northern to southern Vietnam, mostly by train.

It was relatively cheap, offered a lot of flexibility and talked a good talk on the topic of traveling responsibly and supporting local communities. So, I took a deep breath, pulled out my charge card and, in early January 2003, found myself on a plane headed from Austin to Hanoi.

The Vietnam trip was so incredible that I actually went back to Cambodia with Intrepid the next year. Though there is much to say about both trips, I’d like to share here what I learned about how a traveler can help local people, even on a relatively short trip.

This is all the more important when traveling in a place such as Cambodia, where tourists constantly encounter extreme poverty in the faces of children asking you for money or to buy their trinkets.

Here are some simple ideas for “giving back”:

  • Eat responsibly. In both Vietnam and Cambodia, there are plenty of places to enjoy an incredible meal, while giving to a cause that helps people in need. KOTO in Hanoi and Pour Sourire d’Enfant in Phnom Penh are two NGOs with restaurants that serve as training grounds for disadvantaged youths to learn culinary skills. For more restaurant ideas, see the links below.
  • Give with awareness. It is tough not to buy from kids who seem to be in need, but you never know who is collecting the money at the end of the day. It is often not the kids or their families. One alternative is to donate notebooks, pencils, rice, drinking water and other supplies to local families while you are there.
  • Leave with a connection. At the end of our first trip to Vietnam, we all wondered how we could continue to help and perhaps to forge a stronger connection to a country we had grown to love. One of my German traveling companions and I decide to adopt a child through Saigon Children’s Charity. My contribution went to funding a teenage girl’s school supplies throughout 2003. The next year when I passed through Ho Chi Minh City again, I was able to visit their offices and meet the staff, who even offered to take us out to rural areas to meet the children they serve. For more information, see the links below.

Helping Links

Intrepid Travel offers trips all over the world for all types of travelers. The company’s commitment to “grass roots responsible travel practices” has resulted in a foundation that supports all sorts of aid projects in Asia. See

Starfish Bakery in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, serves delicious breakfasts and baked goods. The Starfish Project offers housing and medical and business assistance to people in need. For more information, check out the following links: or

KOTO in Hanoi, Vietnam, isn’t simply a restaurant. Check out their Web site for more details on how their hospitality training programs benefit Vietnamese youth: or

Lotus Blanc is a restaurant affiliated with the French NGO Pour un Sourire D’Enfant, which supports children and families who work in a garbage dump in Phnom Penh. Its programs provide medical assistance and basic care to those working the dump, education programs that reach more than 2,000 children and much more. (in French) or

Saigon Children’s Charity helps the poorest children and families of Vietnam: