In the heart of Vietnam, there are hidden gems that beckon travelers seeking authentic adventures and unforgettable experiences. Join Niall Mackay, The Podcast Guy, as he uncovers the magic of these destinations in this episode of the Vietnam is Awesome podcast.
Niall’s guest for this episode is Ben Mitchell, the visionary behind Phong Nha Farm State and the luxurious Victory Road Villas. Ben’s journey in transforming these locations into must-visit spots on the tourist map is nothing short of inspiring. With Niall’s lively interview style, you’ll get to know Ben and his incredible achievements.
Why Ben Mitchell is a Phong Nha Expert:
- Founder of Phong Nha Farm Stay and Victory Road Villas.
- Champion of responsible tourism in remote rural Vietnam.
- Combining contemporary elegance with traditional Vietnamese architecture.
- Impacting the Vietnamese tourism landscape.
- The inspiration behind Phong Nha Farm Stay and Victory Road Villas.
- The unforgettable experiences these destinations offer.
- Responsible tourism and its impact on the beautiful regions of Vietnam.
- Ben Mitchell’s personal journey in Vietnam.
Discover the real Vietnam in Phong Nha through the eyes of Ben Mitchell and learn about the authentic adventures and hidden gems waiting to be explored in this captivating episode of the Vietnam is Awesome podcast.
Places To Visit
- Phong Ke Bang National Park
- Phong Nha Loop
- Easy Riders
- Jungle Treks
- Oxalis Adventure
- Jungle Boss Tours
- Greenland Tours
- Phong Nha Cave
- Bong Lai Valley
- Dark Cave
- Paradise Cave
- Eight Lady Cave
- Nuk Mok Eco Trail
- Botanical Gardens.
- Victory Road Villas Restaurant
- Pub with cold beer
- Phong Nha Funky Beach
- Hoi An
- Da Nang
- Ho Chi Minh Trail
Niall Mackay: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Vietnam is awesome podcast. We’ll help you discover the real Vietnam with awesome experiences.
I’m Niall Mackay, your host. I’ve lived in Vietnam since 2016, and I’m the host of a Vietnam podcast, A comedian, and now brand ambassador for Vietnam is awesome. I came to Vietnam for a two week vacation in 2015 and was immediately taken by the beauty, friendliness, energy, and even all the quirks of Vietnam. Today I have a special guest
who’s truly left his mark on Vietnamese tourism. Joining me today is Ben Mitchell, the founder of not one, but two remarkable destinations that have inspired travelers seeking both [00:01:00] adventure and relaxation in the heart of Vietnam. He’s the mastermind behind Phong Nha Farm State and Victory Road Villages, and we’re here to delve into his journey of transforming these locations into must visit spots on the tourist map.
At Phong Nha Farmstay, guests are immersed in the magic of remote rural Vietnam with rice paddy fields and the stunning Ho Chi Minh Trail on their doorstep. Victory Road Villas, on the other hand, brings together contemporary elegance and traditional Vietnamese architecture nestled in the midst of jungle clad karst mountains.
So we’re going to explore Ben’s inspiration for these unique establishments, the unforgettable experiences that they offer and the impact of responsible tourism in these beautiful regions. So if you’re a traveler seeking authentic adventures or you’re just simply curious about the hidden gems of Vietnam, this episode is a must listen.
Thank you very much for joining [00:02:00] me today, Ben Mitchell. How are you?
Ben Mitchell: Good. Thanks, Niall. Thanks for the, opportunity to talk about
Niall Mackay: Phuong Nga today. No, you’re very welcome.
It’s one place I’ve not been to yet in Vietnam and I really want to go to. So tell the listener what is Phuong Nga, where is it, and why should they visit there?
Ben Mitchell: Well there’s a few, few reasons why Phong Nha would probably be good to add to your itinerary as you move through Vietnam. one would be its geographical location.
It’s located, breaking the journey from the Hue Hoi An region up to the Hanoi region to see the north. Phong Nha’s in between. if you’re getting a Night train from Phong Nha. It’s a lot shorter than getting a night train between Hanoi and Hoi An or Da Nang. It’d be better to get a night train down to Phong Nha, see a bit of stuff and then move on.
Getting from Phong Nha [00:03:00] down to Hue and Hoi An, there’s a lot of really cool stuff to see along the way. Most people skip that area. especially between, anywhere between, Hanoi and, and Hue or Hanoi and Da Nang. But there is a lot of really interesting stuff to see. There’s, depending on which way you go, you’ve got the Ho Chi Minh Trail running through the mountains to the south from here.
you can go down to Khe San, where there’s a really good museum. You’ve got the DMZ, you’ve got the Vinh Moc Tunnels, which I believe are probably one of Vietnam’s best and most underrated tourism destinations. It’s a tunnel complex on the beach, halfway between Phong And you can, as you explore the tunnels, you come in and out on the beach.
So there’s a lot to see in between here and heading south and breaking the journey here between Hanoi and what’s south of us.
Niall Mackay: I’ve never heard of those tunnels. That [00:04:00] sounds amazing.
Ben Mitchell: Yeah, they’re, they’re pretty wicked. They’ve got like. All entrances coming out onto the beach all the way along and you walk through them all and explore them on your own with a, with a, torch.
You just wander around. It’s all quite well set up for it. They’ve got a brand new museum there. Great thing to do, on the way south or the way north to or from Phong Nha. the, the Phong Nha region, I mean, to start talking about that, why you should come here. Phong Nha’s got a lot to offer. It’s, it’s become famous because of the caves.
It’s all, all of the marketing for Phong Nha really is about the caves, but there is a lot more on offer here. I find, you know, riding a bicycle around in the, in the buffer zone of the National Park is up there with riding a buffer zone around the, the, the areas behind Hoi An 15 years ago. It’s all undeveloped.
It’s all small laneways and concrete roads everywhere through the countryside [00:05:00] to explore from. You’ve got the Bong Lai Valley to aim for from any of the accommodation destinations up the Bong Lai Valley. You’ve got different community based tourism activities. So on top of the caves of the National Park, there’s also a lot of other things here to experience.
You know, the old inverted commas. The real Vietnam is here, at the undeveloped, beautiful, rural Vietnam.
Niall Mackay: This is absolutely perfect and amazing, and I’m already inspired. I’ve not been up there, and as you’re speaking, I’m already like, When’s the next holiday? How can I get there? We’ll have
Ben Mitchell: to remedy, we’ll have to remedy your not having been here.
Niall Mackay: I know, I’ve been to, you know, people ask, Oh, where have you been in Vietnam? And I’m kind of like, I’ve been most places, but it’s mostly… No, you know, not off the beaten track. It’s all the tourist places and they are amazing. And I love Hoi An. I’ve been several times and it is stunningly beautiful. And I do feel like a complete, I can’t think of a better word than a complete [00:06:00] wanker when I’m like, I want to be off the beaten track or I’m not off the beaten track.
Cause everybody wants that. But then. You know, we all end up following the same tourist spots because it’s where people have been and what you know, but everything that you’ve just said there, I’m like, this is like you said, quote, unquote, the real Vietnam. And,
Ben Mitchell: unique experience here.
Niall Mackay: It’s exciting to be somewhere that is a little bit.
More remote, more rural. Like I went to Ly Son Island a couple of years ago and I absolutely loved that. and again, sounding like a total wanker, but it was like, I was the only expat on the island. I think my wife and I, we didn’t see anybody else. And so I don’t want to be all elitist and be like, Oh, I went there and I was the only non Vietnamese person.
But it is a cool experience in this touristy world where everything is full of tourists. Like one of my funniest experiences was going to Angkor Wat and you go for the sunrise picture and you get this beautiful picture of the sunrise over Angkor Wat. But then, you know, you look to your left, to your right, and there’s about a thousand other people there all jostling for the same position.
And [00:07:00] that happens all too often, and especially places like Hoi An, you get these beautiful pictures, but at the same time, it’s absolutely packed. So, definitely inspiring to hear that, and I definitely already listed off a place, a few places that I’m going to make sure I put in the notes of this. podcast and I’m already writing them down for myself to visit.
I wanted to pick up on how do you get there because you mentioned, so is the train the best way to get there?
Ben Mitchell: Train from Hanoi to Dong Hoi and all of the different accommodations in Phong Nha have their ways of picking people up and dropping them off to both the train station and the airport in Dong Hoi, which is about a 40 minute drive away. You can also get an overnight bus if you’re on a budget, both with time or end or money, you can get an overnight bus, which will do a, do a, from Hanoi straight to Phong Nha, and drop you off very early in the morning, [00:08:00] or drop you off in Hanoi very early in the morning.
I’ve caught the overnight bus a couple of times recently. Let’s not say it’s the best night you’ve ever had, but it is very convenient and quite short.
Niall Mackay: One of the things I heard recently from somebody was that, they’d heard that the trains were unsafe, but I’ve used the train before and I didn’t find that and I’ve used the sleeper cabin on the train and absolutely loved it.
What, what would you recommend to people who are worried about the safety of the trains in terms of theft, I guess, and in terms of How safe the trains are to use. Yeah, I
Ben Mitchell: love the train. I think the train’s great. I don’t like the buses because I think they’re sort of unsafe really, because the, you know, the, the night bus drives flat out all the way up.
It’s a bit of a, you don’t wanna look out the front window. But, um, the train is pretty cool, pretty old fashioned, really feels like you’re travelling when you’re on the train. You can get up and have a walk around, you’ve [00:09:00] got your beds, put your bags in there. I’ve never had any problems, I’ve caught the train in Vietnam now for about…
in the 18 years and I’ve always loved it. the flights obviously is very quick, it’s an hour. But it still ends up taking a lot of your time. Like, if you get the night train or night bus down, you, you end up, from a, from a, travel perspective, it sort of gets you there and gets you a night at the same time.
Rather than the flight eating into your day by the time you. Get to the airport, get through the airport, get out of the airport, get to the next destination. It can take a lot of time too. Wastes a day, even for an hour flight. But getting from here to the south, you can do an amazing two day…
Motorbike trip between Hue and Phong Nha, you can do an amazing two day motorbike trip staying overnight at Khe San with the Easy Riders. You sit on the back. , they take you to all different interesting destinations along the way. [00:10:00] I’d say that’s a really amazing trip to do.
It’s a two day, easy rider trip from Hue to Phong Nha or Phong Nha to Hue via Khe San, the Ho Chi Minh Trail West. it gives you a really good cross section of Central Vietnam, the jungles, the minority villages, the war history, the coastal fishing villages, the amazing tombs along the coastline north of Hue.
yeah, really good. exposure to a lot of different things about Central Vietnam in those two days. Finishing at Phong Nha or starting at Phong Nha between Phong Nha and Hue. One day, if you’re, if you’re on the move, you don’t want to do that. You would be best to get a private car to or from Phong Nha from the south.
So you could see the Vinh Moc tunnels. What we try to do with our businesses is help people pull together to cut the cost of that. So they can sort of leave. Whatever time they want [00:11:00] after breakfast down to Hue is a, is a, about a four hour drive with, with an hour at the tunnels and, and, Ben High River Museum added into the trip, gets you down to Hue for a late lunch, and then you can see the Citadel in the afternoon, leaving Hue coming north.
You can get up here, have a late lunch and go and see the Phong Nha cave in the afternoon, you know, so, that’s a good way to do it. There is also the bus and the train. You can go back into Dong Hoi and get the train down to Hoi An, or to Da Nang to go straight to Hoi An, or you can, you can get a, bus, tourist bus down to Hoi An, Da Nang and Hoi An.
I think breaking the journey in Hoi An is good though, because as I said, there is some stuff to see along the way. It’s, often these, destinations have got really cool things in between them, which are hard to sort of get back out to once you’ve caught the, the cheap, Bus transport between the two, then you’ve got to try and get [00:12:00] back out to see those things that are in between so sometimes it’s good to see them along the way and I believe the best way to do that’s with an easy rider on a motorbike or rent a motorbike one way between destinations if you’re a competent motorbike rider and if not the easy riders are there to be utilized you know they’re They’re guys that’ll put you on the back of their bike and ride very safely and, get you to the next destination.
Niall Mackay: It’s absolutely incredible. I’m, I’m writing all these down and I’m like, I’ve got to get to these places before this podcast comes out. So, so it doesn’t get full of tourists. No one, no one telling people all these secrets,
Ben Mitchell: the Ho Chi Minh Trail West between. Way between Khe San and Phong Nha, riding through that Ho Chi Minh Trail West region there.
That 240 kilometers would probably be the most remote part of Vietnam. There’s just, you don’t, you can ride along on your motorbike, on the back of a rider. for 40 [00:13:00] minutes to an hour at times and not see another person just through the jungle between the minority villages.
Niall Mackay: Amazing. Well I’m coming up soon so I’ll let you know.
So tell me then what was your inspiration then for starting the Fung Yau Farmstead in Victoria Road Village?
Ben Mitchell: Well to start with At Phong Nha Farmstay, I, I, my now wife brought me here to meet the family back early 2007. And, when we, got here, we ended up staying for a few months. And, uh, I explored the area a lot.
First on a bicycle and then on a motorbike. And going around the area, I just thought, I wonder why there’s no tourism here. This is crazy. This place is amazing. And the more I learned, the more I wondered about it, you know, and then over the next few years, I did a lot of work away from this area, but kept coming back all the time.
, and I just thought, wow, there’s so much potential there. And [00:14:00] then during that, economic crisis in 2008, me and, uh, my wife sort of thought, right, we’re going to go back to Phong Nha and do something, you know, by 2010, we opened our first business here. we really started to push the backpacker market to try and get people come here.
There was no infrastructure or anything at the time, but we really wanted people to come. We felt that it had a lot to offer. And people who did come, they all went away and told more people. And it expanded, you know, very quickly. the Lonely Planet writer came and visited the area. And, he was terribly excited about what he found, and he wrote so in the book at the time that was sort of, that book came out about the end of 2011.
then, just grew from there. I mean, we, we had a lot of support originally from the, the teams at, at Vietnam [00:15:00] Backpackers Hostels and some of the other guys. at some of the established tourism areas, tourism destinations along the coastline of Vietnam that I knew from the years I’d spent in Vietnam.
We had support with them sending people initially, but I really felt that that Phong Nha deserved to be a tourism destination from the moment I got here. I just thought, wow, this place is amazing. And everyone’s going to, you know, your Halong Bay, Sapa, Your Hoi An, your Nha Trang in those days, they were the big spots and I was thinking, wow, people would really like this and they’d spend their money and you could see that it could make a huge difference to the local economy too.
’cause. It was very undeveloped and very poor here at
Niall Mackay: And what unique experiences then would backpackers and travellers get when they come and stay with you? That they might not find somewhere
Ben Mitchell: else? there’s the Karst Mountains and there’s what we call the Phong Nha [00:16:00] Loop.
It’s a day trip around the park where you can visit different caves, swimming spots, activity areas, historical sites around the park. We’ve made a podcast for people, so they can come and they can go with a Phong Nha rider for a day trip, or they can rent a scooter, if they’re a competent scooter rider, and they can, travel round that, loop of about 60 kilometers, visiting different places, and listen to the podcast on the podcast we’ve made, It’s just in short chapters discussing different places and topics of, historical, biological, geographical, geological, things about the area, cultural things about the area, just for people to, get, like, sort of like a guide, you know, like, just like they’ve got a guide talking to them.
so they can do that. [00:17:00] That’s a great day out. There’s the Phong Nha Cave, which is, you know, easily accessible from all the different accommodations , in the region. You can just go there and get on a boat and go seven kilometres up river on a boat trip and then go one kilometre into Phong Nha Cave.
Phong Nha Cave being very interesting, not just for its geological shape and everything, but also because it has had so much human history. Some of the caves in Phong Nha have been discovered. You know, the world’s biggest cave had its first humans go into it in 2009. Paradise Cave, which you can visit was discovered in 2005, but then Phong Nha Cave has had human interaction, dating back through the war, through the French era, dating back through the Sino Vietnamese Empire, Cham Empire, and back to prehistoric years, so it’s right on the edge of the mountains, [00:18:00] facing the coastal,plain, you know, so it’s, it’s very, highly used by, by people over the years, so it’s interesting.
So there’s those things. Then, beyond the caves, we’ve got things like being able to go out and just explore rural and, and natural Vietnam, you know. Both agriculture and the National Park and different things you can do around the area. as I said, there’s the community based tourism of Bong Lai Valley.
there’s also a lot of, cheap, budget,accommodations in Phong Nha set up based around the backpacker market that was, very prominent here prior to COVID. Things have been a bit slow coming back post COVID, but everything’s opening back up now and opened back up, so. It is a good time to visit the region.
it gets very busy [00:19:00] on the long weekends in summer with domestic tourism. besides that though, outside those long weekends in summer, it is quite, quite a, relaxed place.
Niall Mackay: How long would you recommend somebody spends in the region?
Ben Mitchell: I’d say two to three days As a tourist, just enjoying the region, sort of in a more do it yourself way.
It depends, because what we have here that is super unique in Fong Nha, is the jungle trekking, cave trekking combination tours. They’re run by certain companies to exclusive locations within the park. There’s Oxalis, there’s Jungle Boss, there’s Greenland, to name a few. And they run tours. trekking to the caves.
Some of those tours are day trips so they can pick you up in your hotel or your homestay or your guesthouse in the morning and they can pick you up in the morning and they’ll take you out [00:20:00] and you’ll go trekking and caving and swimming and doing all things jungle with jungle people. And then you’ll come back and have a gin and tonic shower and a gin and tonic back at your hotel, you know, but then there’s other tours that those companies run where they’re one or two nights out there camping, which, you know, it’s tough, it’s hard work, but it is very rewarding to go out and trek in the jungle and.
Camp in the jungle and the caves, sleeping in either hammocks or tents, depending on the location of the camp and the, and the company running it. you know, the porters who are cooking your food and carrying your equipment with you, the porters on those jungle tracks were hunters and timber cutters previously camping in the jungle and working up there. And now they’ve gone over into a much more conservation sort of role where they’re [00:21:00] They’re still working in the jungle and that, but now they’re in a, you know, it’s in their best interest to keep it protected because it’s for tourism.
So, yeah, very interesting guys who know the jungle well and, as a tourist, you’re learning from them as you’re trekking and as you’re caving as well. Now, with the caving, there has been some,help from people from the British Caving Association and from American Caving Associations coming here and training locals in safety, using the ropes, recognizing the risks, doing that sort of thing.
And that’s been really good to sort of, help. Very quickly develop an industry, a unique tourism industry here of caving and jungle trekking. So, that’s another unique activity that people can do here. But how, you’re asking me how long people come, should come for, if they just want to come and do some tourism stuff themselves, [00:22:00] either going on the back of licensed riders, renting a scooter, or using bicycles to get around the area.
I think three days is very easily filled in, like with the one day they can do a bicycle ride around and they can go to the, Phong Nha Cave. Another day they can go around the park and visit the Botanical Gardens, or the Dark Cave, or the Paradise Cave, or the Eight Lady Cave, or the Nuk Mok Eco Trail.
Ben Mitchell: Another day, they can go up Bong Lai Valley and visit some of the community based tourism up there, which is local farmers, farming families, opening up their land to tourism. One of them has, gone and got his duck farm and made that into an activity where people come and, I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s very popular.
They come and do things with the ducks. He also has, a buffalo, which people ride and, they ride it around. And yeah, it’s quite interesting. A big [00:23:00] male buffalo that’s very strong, who no longer drags timber out of the forest, but actually carries tourists around the farm he’s got there.
there’s another place up there called the pub with cold beer. where the owner has turned her property into like a big restaurant and bar with a swimming pool and all the houses in the valley around her feed her restaurant with the ingredients which is all farm to table cooking. So she has barbecued pork, barbecued chicken, spring rolls, peanut sauce, special local style dipping sauce called Moichelle, the rice, the vegetables, everything is from the farms that you can see from the restaurant and, the local people there all feed that farm with their ingredients and make an income off it.
of that restaurant. It’s called the pub with cold beer, which has, become a bit of a, iconic name. the, [00:24:00] further up the valley is another, community based tourism project by a local man called Kung. And his, his farm is called, Kung Rong Farm, which means in the, Kung’s Jungle Farm.
And he has rubber tapping. He has some other activities up there that the tourists can do on his farm, and he grows wild boar up there, in sort of free range pens, big free range pens, he grows up there, and he, yeah, his house is right up on the edge of the wilderness sort of thing, so yeah, there’s a few different days different days that don’t sort of overlap one another with different activities that you can do.
So three days would be very easy to fill in and that would be without physically going on one of the very unique trekking and caving jungle experiences with one of the companies.
Niall Mackay: You’ve absolutely inspired me. The whole time you’re talking, I’m thinking, right, when’s the next time I can go? Could I get the night train on a Friday night and come up for the weekend, even if it’s not a long [00:25:00] weekend?
And I feel completely embarrassed because I’ve been here for seven years and like I said, I’ve traveled quite a bit of the country. But then when you know what it’s like once you get into your normal routine in your life and there’s so much to explore in Southeast Asia alone, and then on top of that you want to go back home and visit your own family.
the time to visit places like Phong Nha, Phong Nha becomes less and less, but this conversation has absolutely inspired me to make sure that I, that I get up there soon. And you can tell that I’m Scottish because my ears pricked up when you mentioned gin and tonic and then a pub with cold beer. So, that, that’s good to know.
Do you have any like memorable stories? I know as a backpacker myself in the past, it can be so much fun and some fun nights. Have you got any memorable stories or moments from guests who’ve stayed with you?
Ben Mitchell: I’m not sure where to start with that after 15 years of running bars and guest houses and restaurants and trekking tours and all sorts of things here over the years.
Some of the amazing things that happened. We had a guest one time. His name was Kim from Holland. [00:26:00] And, he stayed in a dorm room at our Phong Nha farmstay. And, he was telling me that he was traveling all around the world. And he was just going to stay in cheap accommodation and that, but he would spend money on really cool activities if he could find them, you know, he was looking for the really cool stuff and, he went out on an overnight trekking tour with a company here in in Phong Nha called Oxalis, who was, hadn’t been running overnight trekking tours for very long, even though they were the first one to do that properly.
it was all quite new, the, the whole idea of what we were doing at the time. And he went out and he stayed overnight and then in the morning he said he got out of bed, out of his hammock and he went to go for a wee behind some, some jungle. And he walked off behind, not far from the camp. And then he come back and he said to the guide, you know, there’s a cave over there.
And the guide said, I didn’t know that. The guide said to the [00:27:00] actual jungle men who were from that valley. there’s a cave over there. And the jungle man said, no, there’s no cave over there. No, no, no, not, not there. And he said, come on. And he dragged them all over and not far from where they’d been camping, where they, the company had camped a few times and those jungle men had been going through that valley all their life.
There’s a cave. So Kim and Kim, then they went in and explored it a bit, and then the jungle men, and then the British cavers were there, came there another time, and the, the Oxalis company, and they found that that cave went through the mountain and came out on the other side, at a point that they didn’t realize that the one on the other side went that way.
And then the locals were like, this is so cool because now we don’t have to walk over that mountain anymore. We can just walk straight through it. And the cave got called Hang Kim, which means Kim’s cave. And it’s, you know, it’s marked now as Hang Kim. So this backpacker actually found and got a [00:28:00] cave named after him in an area.
And it became like a real thoroughfare. It’s actually quite a. Andy Cave. I’ve been through it myself. I love it. That
Niall Mackay: is a great story. Great
Ben Mitchell: motivation. One other thing I’d say about, like, you mentioned that Phong Nha is sort of not on the main tourism trail. Like yes, we’re getting a bit of tourism infrastructure out here and it’s a lot to do and things like that.
But a lot of expats didn’t actually get here, you know, like because yeah, it’s, it’s a little bit out of the way and it’s not one of the major points, but during COVID. We had a lot of expats in Saigon and Hanoi that started to come here and they fell in love with it and now post COVID, anyone is visiting and asking them what to do in Vietnam, they’re putting that at the top of the list.
So I’m getting, since this, you know, just over the last sort of seven to eight months, I’ve been getting a lot of guests coming through. And they’re [00:29:00] saying, Oh, we were told to come by such and such, and we were told to come by such and such, and those such and such, those people that are telling them are people who couldn’t, you know, go out of Vietnam for the, for during the COVID period.
So they’re exploring within Vietnam. And that, that’s sort of, I think. In some ways, maybe put us a little bit more, well known, you know, as a, as a destination.
Niall Mackay: And I can completely relate to that because I mentioned L Island earlier. That’s the reason that we went there because it was during COVID times, couldn’t leave the country.
So where could we go within Vietnam that wasn’t on the usual, you know, on the usual trail? And that, that was, I love that, you know, that was, we Phuong Nghia is now. on my list. I mentioned earlier, you know, as bringing tourism, we talked about it is amazing for the local economy, but obviously it brings us challenges in terms of its effects on the environment and, eco [00:30:00] and sustainability.
So what efforts have you made to ensure, you know, the sustainable and responsible tourism with your properties and the business and what you do?
Ben Mitchell: Well, one thing that really stands out to me is, plastic waste, you know, like as the tourism came to the area, I remember when tourism first came to the area, you couldn’t buy a plastic bottle of water.
You couldn’t buy them here. they didn’t sell them. No one had ever thought that. It’d be a good idea to buy plastic bottles of water. And, when the tourism started up, we were approached by one of the big bottled water companies. And, we started to sell their product and we were making good money from it.
And, Our tourists bought it because we didn’t want to have to boil water and then put it in bottles as we became busier when we first started our business, we did that every day, every morning, my mother in law would boil water and put it in plastic bottles for the [00:31:00] guests. because you couldn’t buy bottled water out here, and then we’d reuse those plastic bottles each day and that was just sort of normal, but then when we had the truck pull up out the front of our businesses and start unloading boxes of bottled water and we started selling it, well then all of a sudden it became a big part of our revenue and we made money on it.
And then a few years went by and everyone in the area, any, any home, anyone, local people that opened a homestay or anything, I mean, we’d share the information, go with this company, they’ll give you a fridge and they’ll do this if you sell their product and they’ll give you, they’ll, you know, you’ll make money off it, whatever.
And, I was down the beach looking at all the plastic bottles and the on the beach and I just thought, man, like I bet some of these are out. This is crazy. If they’re not, well, they could be, like, because this is really bad, like what we’re doing. It’s just sort of hit me and it might have taken, I think it took me a good few months before I could work out what we could [00:32:00] do, because it was a big part of our revenue and it’s a big part of every.
You know, hotel, backpackers, whatever, in Vietnam, that selling small plastic bottles of water is part of the revenue raiser. It’s part of the business plan. So, I said to my wife and to a few partners and that, we’ve got to stop selling plastic bottles, you know. You know, it was really hard to do. How would you do it?
So what we do now at both our businesses is, is we supply our customers with glass bottles of water that we wash and refill ourselves. And we’ve bought our own water purifiers and we don’t sell plastic bottles. it’s a difficult one because you lose all that revenue. and other businesses around us, they need to sell plastic bottles to have that revenue.
So at Phong Nha Farmstay, we, charge 40, 000 dong onto the room [00:33:00] rate each day, but we add it on after, not before. We don’t include it. We make a point of saying, you’re paying 40, 000 dong for not having plastic bottles of water here, but you can just have as much water as you want. and then we keep the glass bottles in a special fridge in the bar and restaurant areas and we have them in your fridge in your rooms and then we just say that we charge the money and then on the very odd occurrence, someone kicks up a stink about it and says you can’t do this and then my staff are instructed to just say to them don’t pay it.
That’s cool. Just just let it leave it. You don’t have to pay it, but it is a very, very rare occurrence when someone says that’s not cool. That’s cool. Most people go, yeah, that makes sense. Yeah. Yeah. Because I’ve got signs up. I mean, everyone’s, everyone’s told about it when they check in. It’s in the book there that you read when you’re deciding what you’ll do in the area.
[00:34:00] And, and it’s just a thing, like I just said, well, you know, if a staff are going to make the effort to refill the bottles and all that, it needs to be charged and paid for, but we just need to be very upfront about it. And that’s one thing that we’ve done. I mean, there’s other things, but just that was, probably one of the more controversial ones in some ways, because we just work out what to do and how to get around it, you know, but so we just charge what we call a fee for bottled water.
And, and you can refill your own water bottle. You can use that water as much as you like, but we try to then. not sell plastic bottles. And often I’ll have people say, but we really want to buy a plastic bottle of water to go out and do something for the day. And I’m like, well, there’s a shop down the street.
They’re just going to rub one down there , you know, we don’t sell them.
Niall Mackay: I would personally love that. I mean, 40, 000 dong is less than two US dollars for unlimited
Ben Mitchell: it seems to work for most of it. For the vast majority of our guests, it seems to work and it works for us.
And it just [00:35:00] means that I haven’t got a truck pulling up out the front, unloading boxes of plastic bottles of water into my place, you know.
Niall Mackay: One of the most frustrating things for my wife and I, when we stay in anywhere in Vietnam and around the world as well, not just Vietnam, is when you go in and they give you like a 300 milliliter bottle of water.
And that’s like the free water and you’re like, yeah. And then what more annoys me the most though, is then they give you a kettle with. And you’re like, well, how am I meant to make tea and coffee and have water to drink with this 300
Ben Mitchell: mils? I can relate to this, Niall, I can relate. Every time, you know, I just spent two weeks on the road and I carry thermoses with me so I can refill my hot water and make.
Tea, coffee as I ride, you know, and I, I had my son with me two weeks on the road, and every place you just described it, , you had 2, 3, 300 mil [00:36:00] bottles of water. You had big plastic bottles of water, or bigger, maybe a little bit bigger, 500 mil in the fridge that you could buy. You had a kettle for tea and coffee, but you got, yeah.
And so my first thing, because we, we carry those water bags on our back when we ride the bike. So the first thing I try and hunt down when I get there, I go, I go out the back of your restaurant or out the back of your hotel, you’ve got the staff 20 liter bottle of water. Can I pay you money and use that, please?
Niall Mackay: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So final question, for travelers who are listening now, obviously are 100 percent going to come and visit Phong Nha because I’m going and this has just been so amazing. What would be your top reasons that they should come and stay with you at Fung Nya or Victory Road Villas for this day?
Ben Mitchell: Oh, probably for comfort and, for service. I mean, we [00:37:00] employ a lot of people so we can provide a higher level of service. that’s, that’s sort of what, what we try to do. We’ve tried to make the place, the area more accessible. We’ve always tried to improve what we’re… We’re doing in order to make people enjoy the area more, and, to employ, to structure the businesses so they can be a profitable, but also they can employ as many local people as possible and into the correct roles, paying the correct, insurances and wages and salaries and all that sort of thing.
We’ve tried to develop our businesses responsibly, as have other businesses in the area as well, namely, Oxalis Tour Company, Jungle Boss Tour Company, and other places in the area. There is more budget accommodation in the [00:38:00] area than there is a lot of budget accommodation, so it’s a really good place for people to come and spend some time who are traveling more on a budget and long term.
It’s a really, really good area for that. There is only about five or six businesses in the area that are sort of more aimed at the, tourist market than the traveler market. but that’s it. But everyone’s lifting their game as, as, as much as they can. But as far as our businesses go, I’d say what, what sets us apart is just a little bit higher with the service and the, product, you know, quality.
Niall Mackay: Ben, this has been absolutely amazing. I can’t wait to come up and visit. As soon as we finish, I’m going to go start looking up, the trains and the flights and find out when’s the next holiday.
Ben Mitchell: Yeah, from Saigon, you’re looking at about an hour, hour, hour and 15 minute flight to Dong Hoi City. And that would be, the key to doing it from Dong Hoi, to fly up.[00:39:00]
You could either fly up… and spend a few days here and then fly straight back down or you could fly up, do a day or two here and then do a two day motorbike tour with some easy riders via Khe San, via the Ho Chi Minh Trail West and the Vinh Moc Tunnels and the beaches and down the way and then fly back to Saigon out of Hue would be another option.
Niall Mackay: I love it. Ben, thank you so much. Make sure that when you do go and stay with Ben in Phong Nha, that you tell him that you heard this podcast and that’s why you were there. We want to know that this has inspired you, like me, to go up and visit and see Ben. And make sure you check out his podcast. Ben, remind everyone, remind me, what’s the name of your podcast?
Ben Mitchell: It’s not very professional. It’s called, it just hasn’t been sort of promoted with a name and everything. It’s on, Spotify and Google and SoundCloud and, Apple Podcasts. Apple Podcasts. And it’s, [00:40:00] it’s called, I’m going to have to get back to you. It’s called the K Podcasting.
I’ve just got a QR code on, on a poster that I, that I put people on to it with. Yeah, well,
Niall Mackay: we’ll put the, we’ll put the link
Ben Mitchell: for your podcast. I’m going to have to sort that
Niall Mackay: out. The National Park Loop Podcast. We’ll put a link in the show notes so people can go and find it. Check it out.
All right, Ben, thank you so much for this. Thank you for listening. Make sure you go to the Vietnam is awesome website to find more about Ben Mitchell and more about Fung Nha Farmstay and Victory Road Villas. If you want to book any tools. anywhere in Vietnam. Go to the Vietnam is Awesome website. Go to the Facebook page to find out more information.
The blog as well has heaps on there as well. And remember, make sure that you follow, subscribe, do all that good stuff. Turn on the notifications so that you do not miss an episode. Ben, thank you so much. This has been amazing.
Ben Mitchell: Yeah. Thanks for the opportunity, Niall. Loved it. [00:41:00] I’m Niall Mackay. I’m your host of the Vietnam is Awesome podcast. We are here to help you discover the real Vietnam with awesome experiences. So make sure you go check out our social media pages. Vietnam is awesome, and go to the website. Vietnam is awesome.com so you can see more about tools.
Niall Mackay: Read the blog, see pictures, give you everything you need to know about your trip to Vietnam. If you have enjoyed this podcast, don’t forget to follow. Subscribe, all of that good stuff. Share it with people. Send us any questions that you have, and we’ll be more than happy to help you.