That’s what English graduate-turned-tourism entrepreneur Pham Thi Ngoc Trinh did in 2006 to start her business. Born in 1978 the youngest of 10 children from Ben Tre province, she had a sneak preview as a tour guide in Vinh Long. After six years as employees, she and her husband started their own operation on An Binh island, the jewel of this luxuriant crown.
At first, competition from established state-owned companies made it difficult but the couple persevered. Providing good service to and from existing homestays and fostering links to local communes, they and their boats managed to stay afloat. And three years later, Madam Trinh was able to say: “By 2009, I noticed the company was on the rise. We owned 12 boats and the demand among international visitors had increased.” But with it, came a problem.
She explains: “While homestay owners overcome many obstacles, the quality of the rooms and sanitation facilities was not guaranteed. Nor were food safety and hygiene standards. Therefore, I decided to have my own homestay where I could make sure it met the tourists’ requirements. And I called it ‘Ut Trinh’, the name my family gave me.”
A year earlier, she had had the foresight to buy 7,000m2 of land and construction was soon under way. “At first, I built a completely wooden house, antique style, with five rooms and a maximum of four people in each room. But after a while more travel companies got to know us and sent more customers. Demand to stay over increased so we had to build a second house and then a third”.
The third was made of brick but from [broken-down] ancient houses wherever my husband could find them. He travelled widely to collect all this material and have it brought back. It took three years but the house was built with bare brick and stone, and had a unique, rustic look that was very beautiful.
“We continue to buy land to expand the campus to meet development needs. By 2012, the family had three hectares of land. I continued to do the homestays, all of which are built in the ancient style of Nam Bo, and connected to the back yard and kitchen with a small wooden bridge over the artificial canal.
“The space between the front and back houses is a pretty garden with rows of trees. In front the gardens overlook the romantic Co Chien river. All the houses were designed by my husband. Although he studied economics and tourism, he is very knowledgeable about construction and architecture, especially in the river areas.”
To keep things “in-house” and provide jobs for the community, Madam Trinh hires local people to work in her homestays. “I try to give them stable jobs with a good income,” she says. “This has been an important factor in our winning the ASEAN Standard Award in 2018 [one of three such accolades won by Viet Nam].
The company is certainly on the rise now with 100 employees in both the travel department and homestays. They include carpenters, chefs and gardeners many of whose children receive gifts from the owner on special days of the year. Says Madam Trinh: “I do it to motivate them.”
Motivation is something she and her husband were never short of and she is proud of what they have done for the area. “More importantly,” she insists, “tourism has opened up a “bridge” connecting “donors” from many countries to poor people in the Mekong Delta area.
“I have also connected with many charity organizations. They do things like repair schools and build houses for people in difficult circumstances. I act as a bridge in finding the right ones to help. They are happy to find the right person in need, that person is happy to have been helped and I feel happy too because I have done a very meaningful job.”
On what is a win-win-win situation, she adds: “Every year, these charitable initiatives can build up to ten houses. So far, they have built nearly 100, each worth about VND 40 million.”
Nothing illustrates her attention to detail better than the fruits she grows. One of the differences between the Ut Trinh homestay and others is the sheer variety. “It’s one of the key factors I think of when building a homestay,” she explains. “There are many gardeners with one or two hectares of land, but they do not invest in tourist activities or even create a path for visitors.
“They also only specialize in a certain kind of fruit, as here the specialty is the rambutan. But in the whole year there is only one rambutan season so visitors who do not come at the right time will not have anything to see. So, I try to grow at least ten different types such as jackfruit, mango, papaya, banana, dragon fruit... to create richness, variety, and to have fruits to serve all year round.”
It is the same with the tours. She says: “Local people guide visitors on a tour around the village. They can explore, take part in the activities, take pictures and then have a rest. At night, they can cook together with the family and even have a hand in making simple dishes such as spring rolls or shapes from fruit. After the meal the group will be treated to a visit from traditional singers.”
In a rare moment of reflection, she says: “At this time, what satisfies me the most is that the travel industry is expanding, the family economy is growing, and I am happy that I have created many jobs for local workers.
Besides, through travel activities I have connected philanthropists abroad to social charities helping people in difficult circumstances. My own two children grew up in an environment of communicating with foreigners since childhood, so their English is very good. Self-confidence and self-esteem are naturally formed”.
With work, of course I’m very busy. I am happy to say: “happy and busy, busy and happy”. “Busy and happy” because I am a woman and have to raise children and then work at home, run the company, and do social work at the same time.
I feel happy to be trusted by customers. Visitors that come to Vinh Long have to home stay at Ut Trinh, so in the evening I have to greet the guests, whether it’s just greetings, small talk or drinking with them, I have to be there. I also speak French so French guests feel especially welcome when talking to me.
“At present, Ut Trinh homestay is just enough to serve our guests. I do not intend to expand any more but will upgrade services, people and facilities. In addition, I want to open a homestay in Ben Tre, at Tam Hiep island, that is expected to provide 12 rooms to accommodate international guests.” “Ut Trinh” has made such a name for herself, they could be going just to see her birthplace.