I may have mentioned that I’ve recently moved to Vietnam. In our first few weeks, we took a little holiday in Phu Quoc (not ‘Poo Cock’ as my brother says). It’s a beautiful island situated in the Gulf of Thailand, just 15km from Cambodia. Pretty much what you’d expect a tropical island to be like – palm trees, white sand, clear sea, and ‘Dog Wars’ live on the beach every night (the hotel dogs were very territorial). On a break from doing, well, nothing, we wondered into the town, Duong Dong, where I saw a leaflet for a boutique selling natural skincare. As this was a nice change from shops selling fish, we wondered down and I had a little chat with the owner. My skin tends to go to crap in the sunshine so Ut very kindly provided me with a fresh aloe vera leaf (‘ello Vera) which really helping me a lot. She had such an fascinating life story behind the store that I sought her out a few days later to talk more about running her natural skincare business, ‘The Green Boutique’ from a small Vietnamese island.
Ut, owner of The Green Boutique
Can you tell me a bit about your background and reasons for starting The Green Boutique?
I lived in Holland for a few years with my husband, but now he has passed away. I came back (to Vietnam) and started working in different fields: a restaurant, coffee bar and so on. But then I ended up with a job at Chanel in cosmetics and fashion. I was a VM (visual merchandiser) for one of the perfumes. They have really nice cosmetic lines, but my skin didn’t really suit it. Of course every day I had to wear very heavy make-up for serving my customers. My skin really reacted badly and so I went to hospital; acupuncture; I even went to Thailand for my acne during my travelling, but it didn’t help. One day I met a friend who lives on the island. She gave me tea tree oil and I found out that other cosmetic lines sell tea tree oil too – but only with like 20% or something. I didn’t know that there is a lot of tea tree oil in my adoptive father’s country, Australia. So he bought me some stuff and I started using that and then of course I started Googling things for my skin. Finally I stopped using all cosmetics and started using plain yogurt, honey, lime, tea tree, lavender and so on. It took a lot of time but my skin was getting a little better, but not really how I wanted, although I think I’m patient enough to get my skin better slowly. I believe in cosmetics too and of course I want to have a beautiful face, but cosmetics don’t help me so then I started using natural skin care. My friend really gave me a lot of passion for it so I thought, ‘Well, I can do something for myself’. It helped (my skin) and then I started doing more things for people who come to the island. That’s the reason I started ‘The Green Boutique’ last January and now it’s been one year…
And you already have two stores!
Yes, so I just opened this one January 18th (her newest store). It took one month to build up instead of two weeks so I’m taking care of this new one and there are still small things like decorations to do. But maybe I will get more later on when it’s low season and I have more time. My brother helped me a lot with making the walls, bamboo walls and everything else is in bamboo too.
The new store
It’s so beautiful, I really love it. How do you make the products? Is it really difficult? Does it take a very long time?
Well my husband said ‘why don’t you start something that you like, something for yourself?’ And I said ‘well, I don’t know’. He could support me – financially or translating, but at the time I said I was still too young you know. Then after time I thought, ‘Why don’t I do something to remind me of my husband? I can do something myself and I could use the internet to find ingredients.’ First, how could I could find pure 100% essential oil? In Vietnam we couldn’t find it, but then I have a friend who lives in a different country and asked them to bring it back for me so I could try it out and make products. Of course I knew how to do it but I couldn’t see the ‘real product’ before. So then I started with something simple: making scrub for the body using sea salt or sugar. It’s a basic thing which gives no harm to your skin later on. Of course a scrub needs to have base oil – I try to have different base oils from different companies, you know sometimes the price is like $40 for one litre, some like $50 or some like $10, so you have to find out how to have the quality. At the beginning I started with only two scrubs – base oil and sea salt or brown sugar. I found out that sugar is good for soft skin and normal or sensitive skin, salt for a little bit of rough skin. It depends what people like. Of course it depends on scent too with essential oil, like lavender, rose or a mix you know. You have to see how the customer reacts: girls like lemongrass or flowers, and the men like orange. Now I make almost 10 different scrubs with different base oils and essential oils. If you say ‘I like only orange’ then I can mix it for you. You can pick it up in half an hour or the next day – it depends on making the label. That’s the most important thing as I have to go into town or email the lady to say ‘ok, bring the labels to me’. But I can mix it in 10 minutes or so.
Beautiful bamboo walls
Do you have all the products here to make everything?
Yes, I can make everything here, it’s not too difficult. Just base oil, essential oil and then salt or sugar. And then something else, like if you have sensitive skin I can add more powder like potato, pumpkin, soya bean powder…
How do you find doing business here? Is it very different to other countries or cities you’ve worked in?
Well, I lived in Ho Chi Minh for ten years but I got a little tired and I said, ‘Well, this is my home town here (Phu Quoc) and everybody lives here, plus I had personal reasons, etc’ so I came back. My parents are happy I’m running a small business. And I thought well you can have another business like a restaurant or bar but sometimes I see expats with that and they have problems with drinking alcohol, whatever, you know? So then I said, ‘I’m not going to do a restaurant or anything ‘cos I don’t want that.’ On the island we have a new chance for having this kind of business that’s new even for local people, though tourists of course from different countries already use products like this. So I started my other shop with 50% commercial product ‘cos at the beginning I didn’t have much product to present in my shop. But now I like to have 80% home-made products.
(Really bad photo) of The Green Boutique products and their all important labels
Do you find that your customers are expats, tourists or Vietnamese?
I do have like 10% – 15% Vietnamese from Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi, like 20% are expats here, and the rest tourists. But with tourists it doesn’t mean they only buy one time, they could come back one or two times when they travel or ask a friend to get something for them. So I have a lot of return customers.
Would you like to see your products online one day?
I would love to, but tax in Vietnam is quite strict. My friend is helping me with the website, but it’s still pending. When I look at the website I say, ‘no this is not what I want’. I want to take it easy and focus on it and then in a few months maybe I will have low season so then I will have more time for that.
Brilliant! I was so fascinated with your story when we spoke the other day that I wanted to capture it a little bit better and write it down. Thank you for your time.
Ut is pretty inspiring hey? She certainly given me a lot to think about regarding the products I use. Next time you’re in Phu Quoc, be sure to check out The Green Boutique at 92 & 143 Tran Hung Dao Str, Duong Dong, Phu Quoc. More information on the products Ut makes can be found on the website.
Note: I’m going to blame the fairly mediocre photography here on my phone, rather than my lack of photography skills *cough*.