I was recently in Vietnam to learn about new models for verifying the sustainability of shrimp farms (stay tuned for that post). I saw great progress being made toward solving a complex set of supply-chain issues. And I saw something else that filled me with a sense of hope I wasn’t expecting. Something that had nothing to do with seafood at all. I actually felt like I was seeing the world changing before my eyes.
Here’s the remarkable part: It all started with Airbnb.*
During a couple of lengthy layovers in Ho Chi Minh City, I booked three Airbnb Experiences hoping to fill some time and connect with locals to get a real, if brief, sense of the place. I was surprised to learn that two of my three sets of experience hosts were young people who had given up their jobs to be full-time Airbnb hosts and experience leaders — and the third was a young corporate lawyer hosting on nights and weekends.
All were smart, competent people with college degrees, but they had no capital or tourism experience other than a desire to show people what they love. And they had started real businesses! It reminded me of the impact eBay and Etsy have had on job creation and on keeping rural American (and global) communities intact by giving people the ability to start businesses anywhere. According to a study done by eBay, the platform has created 690,000 jobs and 36% of sellers on eBay live in rural communities. Etsy brags that 88% of its U.S. sellers are women. They have empowered a whole new set of entrepreneurs and now Airbnb is doing the same.
My first Experience was an exploration of the “Hidden Gems of Saigon” (the former name of Ho Chi Minh City) led by James, a guide in his early twenties who clearly loved showing off the less touristy parts of his city. He told me he’d also rented a house solely for the purpose of being an Airbnb host. Airbnb was his full-time gig. From his profile: “I used to have a really busy life before, with papers in an empty room. However, after going to many places, meeting many people, and being able to talk and confide, I realized that this life should not be empty with those meaningless papers. Get rid of it and make life more interesting, because we only live once.”.
Next, Linh, the corporate lawyer took me mountain biking, or MTB as she called it repeatedly. “MTB is my happiness,” she said to me as a squad of her friends joined us for the ride. (For the record, “mountain” biking was a misnomer. The tour was really of flat roads around the perimeter of Ho Chi Minh City, but the streets are so rough that you need a mountain bike to handle them.) She explained the ins and outs of being a host with the attention to detail you’d expect from a lawyer. Even though Airbnb is a side-hustle, she’s working it like a serious venture.
The new face of global tourism: education
Finally, a young couple, Tien and Nguyen, showed me and my traveling companion how to make spring rolls, stir-fried chicken with lemongrass, and sour fish soup in their home. On the face of it, and as advertised on Airbnb, it was a cooking lesson. Really, it was a peek into modern Vietnam and, I think, a forbearer of a very interesting future for this communist country. As Tien showed us how to make Vietnamese coffee, he wove into the discussion the social impacts of coffee production. Being that I’m on the advisory board of Fair Trade Campaigns and also oversaw the development of my company’s coffee policy, I listened with great interest to this young man’s burgeoning social awareness. Also I noted that the water for the coffee came out of the water purifier in their kitchen. The plastic bottles of water ubiquitous all over Vietnam were absent from this household of self-described “minimalists.”
Next we headed to the market to shop for lunch — but not before Nguyen got her reusable bags and containers ready. She mentioned that the vendors don’t like to use them, as they’re accustomed to packing things in plastic bags. This was confirmed as I saw the butcher and fishmonger both decline Nguyen’s offer of the tupperware. She politely insisted, and they at last relented. I was seeing a cultural shift happening in real time.
Back at the house, as we fumbled while filling and folding our spring rolls, Tien did a deep dive into antibiotic use in shrimp production. This was especially apropos because, unknown to Tien, my travel buddy works for a sustainable seafood advocacy organization. He was smiling ear to ear as this young man eloquently explained the problems to him.
Tien and Nguyen had a map of the world ready for pins to record the places they’ve traveled. Even though visas are difficult to obtain from many countries, they’ve got a long wishlist and are actively planning a trek in the Himalayas of Nepal. I was incredibly impressed with their grand worldview. They clearly understood the power of their daily actions.
Later in the trip, while giving me a ride on his motorbike, another young entrepreneur asked me about the recent passing of a restrictive abortion law in Alabama. He spoke easily about the south being “deep red” and their support of President Trump. He knew more about U.S. politics than most Americans.
The face of Vietnam I saw on this trip was young, entrepreneurial, savvy, and globally minded. Not only did I get an opportunity to truly be educated about local life, my hosts are using Airbnb to catalyze their financial freedom and to connect with people from all over the world on a very intimate level. It gives me hope both for my hosts’ livelihoods and for how we all may be able to thrive and connect in the future.
*Full disclosure: Bon Appétit provides food service for Airbnb’s headquarters, and I rent out a part of my own home using the platform. However, I in no way consulted with Airbnb about this article.