“So, remind me again why I chose the eco-friendly option and have to deal with Vietnam’s tropical heat without an air-con?” I laughed over Skype to my partner while fanning myself.
My pool of sweat was excusable, for 10 metres away from my bungalow behind a centre stage banyan tree and shady vines laid the pristine waters of Vung Bao Bay, the secluded setting of Bamboo Cottages.
Chao from Phu Quoc! A Vietnamese island off the Cambodian coast in the Gulf of Thailand. Don’t worry, that confused me too. In big news, Mama Tran just got proposed to here! While I wasn’t planning to write about the destination during this short family endeavour, it was the first time a resort advertised on a tourist map I collected at the airport caught my attention: “Off The Grid: 100% Solar Powered Beachside Cottages”. The only one in Vietnam, and one of two in all of South East Asia I later learned.
With online research, Bamboo Cottages’ ethos sunk in: organic, sustainable, local, community. I wanted to sink my teeth into their eco-friendly practices because I’ve experienced my fair share of questionable claims. After all, being green is so much more than being mindful of teeth-brushing minutes and whether I want my towels replaced daily. Also, is being 45 minutes north from the city’s hustle worth it?
Shortly after turning off the main road onto a bumpy, dusty dirt track past rural homes and shops, I arrived at a rustic, open-air bungalow serving as the check-in point and communal area that was once the isolated vacation home of a Vietnamese-American family who seasonally live on-site. Having slowly transformed into a humble homestay, today Bamboo Cottages hosts 20 rooms for the eco-conscious traveller.
“My name’s Charles, the guy who acts like the boss who isn’t really the boss,” the American general manager in a summery, short sleeve button-up and sandals introduces himself. “The real boss is over there, Ms Ngan with the glasses,” pointing at the reception desk. “Cam on,” thank you in Vietnamese, he says to staff collecting my bag. “Just so you know, I’ve just shaved off my beard.”
Charles was young, passionate, and hella funny. He showcased the 80 solar panels and batteries – the precious life force for the property – and walked me through the grounds graced with spruced greenery and cottages behind a silhouette of palm trees and lounge chairs. Catching my attention was The Woodhouse, a love monument built by nearby stripped trees as the mother at 69 said to her hubby, “You never built anything for me.” There were hanging orchids, woven bamboo recycling bins and a hydroponics garden growing herbs.
I was surprised. Research on Phu Quoc warned me about a trash issue on the island but this was truly clean.
“We partner up with local businesses and hold community clean-ups that are also open for guest involvement every 3 months,” Charles said. “We did it once a month for a year but it’s hard work networking with residents, getting government approval and looking for sponsors to provide equipment.”
Keep Phu Quoc Clean & Green’s concept went on to being organised in Hoi An, Ho Chi Minh City and Mui Ne, an initiative now called Keep Vietnam Clean & Green.
The son of an environmental conservationist tells me about his recent 15 seconds of fame where his video recording of a local dumping a truckload of rubbish onto a side street made it onto a news site.
“I was shaking. That’s how angry I was. I followed the driver home and even tried speaking to his wife and kids. The police aren’t going to make any changes but at least the media got a hold of it.”
Wondering about the many steps taken back after strong community efforts, “How effective are we if our contributions clash with an ingrained way of living from certain residents?”
With optimism: “More than half the population of Vietnam is under 25 years old. More youth education, more public awareness, more media.”
At Bamboo Cottages, most of the time the generated solar energy is enough to sustain the entire property. However, if too much energy is consumed at night the electricity will cut off. The mindful consumption of energy together with our neighbours and living within our means energy-wise breeds gratitude and fulfilment as you feel aligned with the sun and the seasons. Interestingly, 2.5 months of rainy season can collect a whole year’s supply of water. Guests, too, are encouraged to share their creative ideas such as reusing wine bottles to store drinking water and slurping out of bamboo straws instead of plastic.
Raising the bench on responsible tourism, earnings at Bamboo Cottages are also aimed at the expansion of the family’s long-running educational scholarship program, The Phung Su Foundation, for disadvantaged children in Phu Quoc and Ho Chi Minh City.
“Being eco-conscious every step of the way doesn’t actually save us money. It helps to bring in money. For $140 per night, which is fairly top dollar for Phu Quoc, you’ve gotta really care to come here.”
I breathed in tropical seaside living in a bright, spacious, minimalistic beachfront cottage fit with bamboo furniture and an open-air bathroom providing solar-heated water with a couple of my gecko friends. They got the moody lighting all right, a chance for me to treasure a night in by myself taking in the lapping waves heard through vent holes. I was cocooned on a comfy bed inside a mosquito net, the air filled with pleasant incense.
Fun fact from Charles: “Swallow raw garlic and down it with ginger. I’ve been mozzie-bite-free for four years.”
There was no fridge and TV, but there was a fan, yoga mat and, well, nature’s playground in front of you. WiFi was available throughout the property as well as unlimited drinking water – a simple yet rare luxury in South East Asian accommodation.
The restaurant on-site boasts an array of homemade vegetarian and vegan Vietnamese options headed by a local chef who prides in locally sourced organic foods, “never ever using MSG.” I trusted to eat tasty, nutritional herbs and vegetables. Something I was too afraid of doing in Saigon the previous week.
Every day should start with a glass of fresh iced ginger, honey, lemon tea with Duong Dong city in far sight, while the evenings are to escape barefoot into the honey hues soaking up the casually amorous seating area. I wish their bar stayed open after 10pm. I also wish I had more time to partake in complimentary on-site activities: yoga twice daily in nature, kayaking, a game of pool, culture exchange workshops, movie nights and more.
I was a trek out but enjoyed Phu Quoc’s quieter north: bush trails, organic bee farms, secluded beaches and fresh seafood at picturesque fishermen’s’ villages.
I’ve not only left Bamboo Cottages feeling nourished amongst my tribe, but feel inspired to find how I, too, can bring more of this green lifestyle to my everyday.
MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
Uniqueness: It’s the little details of genuine eco-friendliness, 5/5
Sense of place: Phu Quoc’s off-the-grid beach beauty, 4/5
General vibe: Quiet and intimate, 4/5
Room comfort: Simple tastefulness, 4/5
Service: Polite, professional and carried with dignity 5/5
The writer stayed as a guest of Bamboo Cottages.
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Bamboo Cottages, Phu Quoc, Vietnam. Double beachfront cottages from US$140/pn.
Keep Phu Quoc Clean & Green, an initiative started by Bamboo Cottages together with local businesses. The community clean up is now organised in Hoi An, Ho Chi Minh City and Mui Ne. Click here to find how you can get involved.