Bamboo Cottages is Vietnam's first 100% off the grid solar-powered eco-resort. flowful meets… talks with Charles Vaught, former general manager, about how everything started, about challenges, and about what Bamboo Cottages does to make your holiday as sustainable as possible. Read the full interview here.
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- sustainable tourism
- off the grid
- renewable energy
- fossil free
- solar powered business
- local value creation
- sustainable business
- 100% renewable energy
- Southeast Asia
- Bamboo Cottage
- Phu Quoc
- bamboo straw
Information about Bamboo Cottage:
Music is by Andrew Healy:
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Read the full interview here:
Hey! Welcome to the new episode of flowful meets… And gosh, I can’t believe it, this is the 10th episode already! If this is the first episode you’re listen to let me quickly explain what this podcast talks about. Well, flowful meets... is a platform for people and their projects or organisations that contribute in whatever way to a more mindful, to a greener, to a better world. On flowful meets… people share their theory of change, their mistakes and lessons learnt, and how they keep motivated.
Today, flowful meets… Charles Vaught, former general manager of the family owned Bamboo Cottages in Phu Quoc, an island in the South of Vietnam. Charles lived in Vietnam for around 6 years and worked at different eco resorts before he, together with the owners, turned Bamboo Cottages into the very first off the grid solar powered resort in Vietnam that committed to live in harmony with nature.
This is very special for the island; a place where tourism, besides fish sauce and black pepper, plays an important role. It has stunning beaches, and a very divers countryside, Phu Quoc became very popular among local and foreign tourists. Last year it counted almost 2 million visitors, which is a 35% year-on-year increase!
Unfortunately, this rapid growth is not very well managed. There’s loads of construction going on, following a mass tourism development, building more and more hotels, high-rise apartments, and several new towns and suburbs, and whatsoever. The airport got renewed in 2012 and is now holding 70-80 flights every day, including 8 to 10 international flights. And during the high season the number can reach even 100 flights per day.
So you can imagine how busy it can get in Phu Quoc. And you know what? There’s no waste management on the island. No wonder, Phu Quoc has a severe domestic waste problem.
Still, the island is beautiful, tho. And luckily there are places like Bamboo Cottages and people like Charles and Felise, who is one of the owners of the place. People who want to make a change and put a lot of effort into being a sustainable resort and inspiration for future developments.
So yes, Bamboo Cottages with its 22 rooms is 100% off the grid, they use resources consciously, recycle and reuse, support local businesses and local communities. This might sound like a super basic and hippie-esque resort to you, but Bamboo Cottages is such a beautiful, authentic and luxurious resort. I know, that’s me saying, living in an ecovillage with compost toilets, but it’s true!
Charles: This used to be my go-to-spot on my day off because nobody was here and it wasn't very developed in the local area and I became friends with the Vietnamese-American family that owned it. It is a mom, a dad, and a daughter. The mom and dad escaped to the US during the war and the daughter was born there. So the daughter wanted to know where she was from essentially, so when she finished university she came to Vietnam for the first time, travelled around for four or five months, found Phu Quoc, found this piece of land, convinced her mom to come back the following year and they bought this piece of land and they built a house here than they actually moved here for a little bit, then it became a seasonal house, and when they would leave they have letters underneath the door of people asking if they could stay here, so they built six rooms one year, four rooms the next year, two rooms. So now it's 22 rooms in total. It won't expand any further most likely just space-wise but also concept wise. You know if it's too many people it really changes the vibe.
Anyway, I used to come up here on my day off just to relax because no one was here and I came to have a goodbye lunch with the daughter because I was planning on leaving the following week; I was gonna bicycle to Myanmar and she asked if I could stay for the season because her and her family had managed it themselves for the previous 5 or 6 years and they couldn't afford to spend the amount of time that they needed to hear that following year. So I said no originally, but just because, in all honesty, I was ready to leave and in was a smaller place and at that time they hadn't really pursued an eco approach but they agreed to install the solar system.
So yeah, I mean they agreed to take an eco approach. They wanted to invest more, I mean they had already been investing in the community, they have a scholarship program in the States but they also have one here on the island for the local Cua Can area, and they agreed to take more of an eco approach and for me it was the situation where I was about 2 - 2,5 years out of college, I had worked at 2 different resorts before and it's the opportunity to see okay have I really learned from my degree and from my experiences in the past 2 places if it was the perfect place to start.
Charles gave it go and started working at Bamboo Cottages. He started with six staff, nobody spoke English, so he started to learn Vietnamese, experienced that they don’t have enough chairs when fully occupied, and made it through the first season with only one computer. But besides all these challenges he had the plan to make Bamboo Cottages Vietnam’s first off the grid eco resort. With solar PV not really being common in Vietnam, this was quite an innovative decision for a small family owned place.
Charles: As I said before, it's a mom, a dad, and a daughter who own the place. She's an eco-freak. She is an environmental lawyer in the States for a few years kind of thing, I mean she's the one who wants the organic compost and all that kind of stuff as well. For her, it was just like, hey you know, well if you know if we can do a solar system yeah that I'd be happy. For her, it was an instant yes. The mom and the dad, I mean it's just one of those things they never grew up on solar systems or anything like that. They completely understand the importance of protecting the environment and what not but it was it was a challenge to convince them.
Because we don't really save money. I don't save money using solar if I break out, if I have the system and I let's say I put on a 5 year depreciation with two sets of battery changes in between that one set, you know, two different batteries, I'm still paying more per month than I probably would if I was just connected to the government electricity. But the whole other aspect which is kinda hard to statistically or empirically calculate is that we get more guests coming here for this concept kind of thing. So the revenue that comes in it just puts us in a completely different market than any other property because of that. And people do specifically come here for this market that we offer.
It's completely coincidental timing that the government was gonna bring the electric grid to this area of the island at the same time that I had started working here and was trying to get a solar system going. So actually, I say I lost face is the term I would use in this country, I lost face with a few of the other properties nearby because everyone wanted to share the costs together of bringing the electric government here, a hundreds of millions of Dong. And I was the only one to say no. Because we didn't want to be connected to it. So obviously that didn't make the nearby places happy.
But yeah at the time yes, they brought in government electricity about a 1,5 months before we installed the solar system. That being said we had ordered the solar system like 4 months before that. Even if the electricity was already here for sure it would have been installed.
But being off the grid is not the only thing the resort does. Following their vision to invest in and be in harmony with the traveler’s experience of Vietnam, the staff, the environment and the community, they recycle, they save water as much as possible, they compost, and avoid plastic. They buy locally to support the island’s community. They even decided to build a couple more rooms when the government cut down 13 trees on the main road to install the electric lines for the neighbouring resort to make use of the extra wood.
But coming back to the solar power. Here are some facts for all you techies and geeks out there: Bamboo Cottages has 80 150 watt panels, 20 deep cycle gel batteries, 400 amp, 3 inverters, and 8 power grid boxes. So how did they end up with that system? And what did they learn on their way?
Charles: Yeah, we made a lot of mistakes. I completely underestimated the usage of water. Not how much we would use but when we would use it... It's common sense, you know. It's one of those things when you shoot yourself in the foot now; everyone showers right after dark basically. Everyone you know hang out on the beach all day, quick shower just before dark or right after dark, and they come to dinner. So that means if everyone showers at dark our water tanks go empty which means I gotta pump the water using our pump in the night time which is only off battery storage, not from energy coming in the solar panel. It took me four months to learn that. I kept wondering why are we losing so much energy in the first few hours of the sun going down.
We now have a very efficient water pump. Still working on the inverters situation. We blow fuses every other month or so. Battery wise... I mean we work out the batteries into a 2 to 3 year cycle. So for the first set of batteries that we had people to have them for about 2 years and 8 months. I should have replace those two months earlier to be honest but live and learn...
The technology in the batteries is increasing so fast in comparison. Solar in general but I think the battery technology is expanding the most and the fastest. We really consider doing lithium batteries. Like really really considered it. There's a guy, mostly guests actually because we have a lot of solar freaks that come here so it's good to network with them. We had one guy in the UK, 1 guy in Switzerland, 1 woman in China and they all work for solar companies or lithium companies, batteries whatever, and we compared all the different ways we could do it and even though lithium you could argue is more eco-friendly, they last longer, they're more energy efficient, etcetera, there's not that much research done on off the grid-based solar lithium power places or lithium battery storage places, so yeah, it's kind of a safety net for us just to go back to the batteries we already know, you know what I mean, how they work. And it's set up now to wear with these deep cycle ones when we're at about 40/50% energy left in the batteries it automatically shuts off the system. Anyway, just to extend the longevity of them.
As said earlier, waste is a big thing on the island anyway. As a response to Phu Quoc’s current domestic waste situation, Charles founded an initiative called Phu Quoc Clean and Green together with a bunch of other people that care about the environment and organize monthly beach clean-ups all around the island.
But Bamboo Cottages also started an anti-plastic straw campaign that promotes using bamboo straws. And guess what, the straws are grown and produced on a nearby ecological permaculture farm, the Phu Quoc Bee Farm.
Charles: For me, when I went to the Bee Farm and I saw the bamboo straw I'm thinking this is awesome! Like why doesn't everyone just use bamboo? I thought of not using straws. If I go to a restaurant I try to remember if I order a drink with a straw that doesn't contain alcohol, if it contains alcohol I like a straw, that's just me. Anyway, but if it's just a normal coke or whatever I try to say no straw but with the bamboo is this is neat and let's be real, our name is bamboo.
But the reality is that I was tired of seeing on the comment cards you should have bamboo straws, you should have bamboo straws and me every time emailing back 'I know we should, I'm just waiting for them to grow', and 'I know we should I'm just waiting for them to grow' and it's the situation where yes I could have ordered enox straws from China, I could have got bamboo straws from Bali, I could have gone them from a different place but it fits into supporting the island's economy to that extent.
Same thing with our massage oils. I pay a ridiculous for our massage oils currently. It's a ridiculous price but that being said she was born on the island, she handmakes them herself with her family, you know what I mean? Like it supports that. Same thing with the honey and I pay ten times more for honey from the Bee Farm on the island that I do in any other supplier I could probably get honey from. But it supports them.
But the straws actually, we're using it as a case study. I'm trying to do a case study through the year I can financially prove that after I think it's about eight months right now we make money on these straws. Plastics straws are so cheap but we were using a thousand a month, x amount of bags, and as long as I'm under a 15% theft rate or breakage rate...
People steal them, mate, people steal them and people bite them too.
So as long as I'm operating under a 15% theft or breakage with the bamboo straws I actually save money with bamboo straws. So what we're trying to do now is, he's got a bunch of bamboo, he is making a bunch of straws and we're trying to do this anti-plastic straw campaign with a few other resorts. Actually fusion resort just down the beach here, 92 rooms; they're only using bamboo straws as well, 2nd property on the island.
What an amazing impact!
Charles: I think one of our greatest impact we have is simply based on our networking. Doing not only these clean-up things but I mean I've got maybe 6 resorts now working on the entire plastic straw campaign. In the northern town, Ganh Dau, in the village just north of us we try working with 6 different governments on the island now. But in the northern town they are giving a proposal, they let us teach in environmental awareness; not us Bamboo Cottages specifically but with people that I have met because of the concept of the company I represent, you know what I mean, like similar interest and those kind of things. We've got permission to teach in environmental awareness course. We're calling it Tidy Town Project in the North. And honestly, we're gonna try to work out... I'm completely against incinerators and there's no waste management system on the island and I'm just so afraid and in all honesty it's probably gonna freakin' happen anyway. But the government is just gonna buy an incinerator and say okay, that's the solution. The dream is if we set up a waste management system in the northern community, it is like 15,000 people, then if we can prove that that works if it is net profitable for not only for the local community but also for the businesses who are doing this as well.
And it's been done before, it's not gonna be a pioneer project, a pioneer project for here and maybe Vietnam, but they're doing it in the Philippines and they're doing it in other places. We impact the place more through online marketing, people knowing about us but as well it is just networking and finding similar like-minded people around the island. The reality is a lot of people even if they are not working at this kind of a concept they completely support this kind of a concept.
They can't turn their place into an off the grid or anything like that but they can convince the company to help with the monthly cleanup or something like that and that is awesome.
It is! And by the way, the owners even use parts of the generated income from the cottages and the restaurant to expand the family’s long-running scholarship program for needy children in Phu Quoc and Saigon, The Phung Su Foundation, that provides educational scholarships to disadvantaged youth in Vietnam.
I cannot recommend Bamboo Cottages enough. Seriously, whenever you travel to Phu Quoc, make sure to go there at least for a meal, or drink, and enjoy the amazing vibes. Oh yeah, and don’t be confused when you get an email from the resort after you booked a room.
Charles: I mean when you guys book we send this dramatic email saying 'hey, don't come here and complain about these 11 things' so the whole idea is two things: 1) I want to slap you in the face with our concept. I want you to know you're coming to this kind of a place you know geckos in the room, like no electricity at night, etcetera, far away from town. And 2) I absolutely want to lower your expectations as well because when most people think eco I imagine them thinking 'okay do they have running water?' you know what I mean? Or do they have actual plumbing so it's kinda nice to try to lower the expectations as much as possible.
That being said, when people book because we cannot control what is said about us online with the online travel agencies Expedia, booking.com, they choose the descriptive text, so that's why when we receive the booking we immediately try to send this email of what our text would want to say if we could control. We have an attachable power point for it now. It's pretty dramatic but the literal photos of here's where you're going to sleep, and you know here's the construction next door, just so everyone can see and there's no surprise. And I would say we do get maybe 20 to 30% of our guests cancel once they receive that email. Just from online travel agencies but that's great for us because it means that okay cool they'll be happier somewhere else.
64% occupancy last year, Number 7 on tripadvisor very proud of that very proud I'll don't know how sometimes but for some reason people are happier here.
Well, I guess it’s because you can feel the calming connection with nature here, knowing that the money you’ve spent is used to serve Mother Earth as much as possible. Thanks Charles for your honesty and all your effort and love that you’ve put into this island! Thanks Bamboo Cottages for sharing this peaceful spot with us!
Bamboo Cottages theory of change is food for thought:
Tourism always, always, always, has a huge impact on the surrounding environment. On the nature and landscape, on resources, pollution, but also on communities, cultures, and social systems. And it never will be sustainable. But it can be conscious and balanced between limits and usages.
For Bamboo Cottages it is an absolute requirement that tourism needs an eco or self-sustaining approach including all their values; the traveler’s experience, the staff, the environment and the community.
And they take that very serious and one can feel the commitment of Bamboo Cottages. They’re not only 100% off the grid solar powered, they also support the local community and economy, they run the resort in balance with nature, organize beach clean-ups and awareness raising campaigns, and even do educational projects. Step by step, very organically, they start to have an impact on the island’s development.
And of course, they don’t forget the travellers! At Bamboo Cottages you get everything you need including that good feeling of doing good while relaxing. And what’s better than this?
By the way, Charles is now selling the reusable bamboo straws via bamboostep.com. Pretty cool!
Visit Bamboo Cottages’ website, check them out on facebook and insta and experience yourself how amazing they are! And if you’re in Phu Quoc, check if you can join one of the beach clean-ups to give some love to the island and Mother Earth.
As usual, you can find all links in the show notes below and on our website www.flowful.org. Please share this episode if you like it, our share our website or just spread the word. You can also find us on Instagram and twitter!
Music is by beautiful soul Andrew Healy.
Thanks for listening! Be flowful!