When I started this blog, I knew that an integral part of it would be about food shopping. Ingredients, mostly, to enable me to cook my home version of whatever dishes I enjoyed while traveling.
What I didn’t imagine was that I would eventually find myself writing about non-food shopping. It started with bags, of all things, because Sam bought so many bags in Hanoi.
I didn’t realize it at the time. When you’re in the thick of travel, there’s hardly time to think. I try to do that at the end of each day, make notes, review those notes later, organize my thoughts and try to make sense of everything we’d seen and done. Otherwise, documenting would be a nightmare. The dates in the EXIF data of the photos offer some help but, sometimes, they’re not enough.
It wasn’t until more than a week after arriving home from Hanoi when I realized that those stories about buying bags aren’t as trivial nor as frivolous as I felt earlier. Subconsciously, taken all together, they spelled environment-friendly shopping, support for local artisans and thoughtful consumerism.
I’ve written about Tohe and the wonderful things it is doing for underprivileged children. But I have not written about all the items we bought there. Apart from the passport case that I got for Alex, there were bags for both Alex and Sam. For Alex, it was a pouch bag made from hemp. Sam chose the eco cross body bag made with sedge grass and cotton strap printed with children’s artwork.
A few days later at the Old Quarter in Hanoi, Sam saw backpacks that, despite the price, she couldn’t leave the store without buying.
You should have seen her in action.
We had already spent most of the day at Bat Trang Village touring pottery factories and learning how to make pottery. She was carrying a shopping bag heavy with pottery we had bought earlier, we were dinner-less past the normal dinner hour and she was still raring to shop. I don’t think she was on nodding acquaintance with weariness. Aaahhh! To be 26 and indefatigable when shopping.
I, on the other hand, just wanted dinner, a shower, bed in an air-conditioned room and never mind if Death Wish (the remake with Bruce Willis) was on again on the only channel with English movies on cable TV. Maybe, we’d get lucky and see a replay of Speed instead.
Sam haggled as best as she could but the shop owner, a lovely young Vietnamese lady who spoke English, explained the price by saying the backpacks were made by The H’Mong people by hand using hemp.
So, the backpacks were made with hemp. Made of hemp, actually. Industrial hemp, to be more precise. Scientific name Cannabis sativa. A strain of the plant that produces marijuana but with lower concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Hemp bags are natural and durable. Industrial hemp has been grown for centuries, it has multiple uses (including the ability to remove contaminants in the soil) but it still isn’t legal to grow in some parts of the world because of a misunderstanding of its nature and its association with marijuana.
Growing and cultivating industrial hemp is legal in Vietnam. There is at least one claim that it is a dying industry in the country but the proliferation of products made from hemp fiber belies that claim. Many of these products are made by The H’Mong people in the north.
Did Sam buy the backpacks? Yes. She finally chose two backpacks and paid for them.
Support for local artisans
Another few days later, we went back to Tohe to buy four sets of bamboo cutlery for everyone in the family. It’s for traveling. Sam insists that we don’t have to use plastic cutlery often supplied by street food vendors and pop-up stalls. Instead, we should being our own, use them, wash them and re-wash them. Her father agreed so I bought four sets of bamboo cutlery. But they weren’t the only ones I bought at Tohe on that second visit.
I finally bought that lovely laptop case I drooled over days earlier. It wasn’t cheap (the reason why I didn’t buy it immediately on our first visit) but I convinced myself that I needed it because the one I had was too snug. Putting in and pulling out the Macbook Pro scratched the corners where they touched the zippers. The laptop case from Tohe was a bit larger, so, the zipper didn’t need to touch any part of the laptop.
I bought the laptop case without inspecting the label attached to it. It wasn’t until later, back at the apartment, when I was removing the label that I realized the impact of the choice I had made.
And I had an epiphany. An aha! moment, if you will.
Tourism is a state-sponsored business. Governments spend millions to attract tourists to infuse money into local economies. But, in many cases, this has led to the displacement of locals as big corporations partner with governments to develop properties and turn them into luxury resorts and hotels. Generating employment has been used so many times to justify such projects but the “trickle down” strategy rarely benefits those in the grassroots.
There are people and organizations though that are mindful of the situation. And they exert effort to turn tourism, and the concomitant consumerism, into opportunities to create livelihood for those who need it most.
I want to consciously support those efforts. If I have to choose between a cheap Adidas knockoff produced in a factory owned by some rich businessman and a pricier pair of slippers made from dried grass by locals in some remote village, I’d choose the latter. There’s more nuance in those pair of slippers than in ten pairs of Adidas knockoff.
It’s like an extension of thoughtful consumerism, a term that has been used to challenge mass production and the exploitation of labor in Third World countries.
In the context of tourism and shopping, thoughtful consumerism means understanding the essence of a product and how purchasing it impacts its creator, the environment and the economy of the host country or community. It is the opposite of mindless shopping and the anti-thesis of impulse buying to which tourists are often prone.
While I cannot claim to have been a truly thoughtful consumer in the past, I’d really like to become one now.