When Ben Mitchell and his wife Bich set up their farmstay on the edge of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, people thought they had a screw loose. Six years later and they have a thriving business
What brought you to Phong Nha?
My then-girlfriend, now wife, Bich, bought me here to meet the family for Tet in January 2007. When we got to the train station in Dong Hoi, there was nothing there but two beat-up small cars moonlighting as taxis, and a shop selling coffee and warm beer. We squeezed into one of the old cars to go to Phong Nha and when we arrived, I met the family.
What was it like when you first arrived?
Rural Quang Binh was remote, had no internet, very few landline phones, no mobile network, very few motorbikes, no cars, trucks, buses, and very few fridges or TVs. The locals lived in small wooden houses, normally consisting of one big room and a kitchen.
Why did you and your wife decide to set up a farmstay there?
In 2008 I was working on a project in the Middle East when the global financial crisis hit. Bich and I decided to move back and start a business in Phong Nha. I wanted to be able to stay in the area without having to go overseas to earn money, and both of us wanted to make a business that shared Phong Nha with outsiders. We bought a block of land next to her brother’s house that had one of the best sunset views I’d ever seen. We built the farmstay there.
What difficulties did you have to deal with when you first opened?
I’d been working in construction around the world for years and thought myself quite experienced. Yet I found myself on a huge learning curve. What these guys can do with the simplest of products and equipment made me a student from day one. Then there was the opposition to the project from both the community and some family members. Some people didn’t want the business to be built, because they thought it would be an embarrassment to the community and the family. Bich’s brothers stuck by her, though, and threw themselves at the project. The four of us run the business together.
How did you manage to get the tourists in?
Any way we could think of. As we’d been working in different parts of Vietnam and we’d done a few road trips, we’d met other people who were ahead of us on our learning curve. Guys who worked at places including Hoi An Motorbike Adventures, Vietnam Backpacker Hostels, Sleepy Gecko Hoi An, Jungle Beach, VIP Bikes, Wide Eyed Tours and Le Pub to name a few. These guys also provided us with access to journalists and travel writers that they knew. At first it was primarily backpackers who were on the road for a long time and who were told about it. People came for a night and tended to stay on.
When did your venture really start taking off?
We opened the Farmstay in December 2010. The business built gradually through word of mouth, and then in early 2012 we got mentioned in the newly released Lonely Planet and Rough Guide travel books.
How did the opening of Son Doong, the largest cave in the world, help both your own businesses and Phong Nha as a whole?
It got the area a lot of publicity. In December, 2010, National Geographic released a documentary about the exploration of the cave and in January 2011 they did an editorial on it. By 2013, when Oxalis Tour Company ran the first tour to the cave, we were prepared to make the most of the moment.
How well has the area developed over the past few years?
There are many more accommodation, eating and entertainment options in the area. There are many more tours and activities, and much more infrastructure for getting in and out. A lot of local people have benefited through a massive increase in employment and small business opportunities. This means a lot to me personally.
Why should people visit Phong Nha instead of, say, Sapa, Halong Bay or elsewhere in Vietnam?
Compared to elsewhere, there are still very few tourists. And Phong Nha isn’t only a place to see caves or go trekking, but an opportunity to visit rural Vietnam on a bicycle or a motorbike taxi. People who spend a few days here find a variety of things to do at different budgets, levels of fitness and ability.
For more info on Phong Nha Farmstay and visiting the caves, click on phong-nha-cave.com