Surround Yourself With Nature at Vietnam's Topas Ecolodge
Tourism is booming in Vietnam. All across the country there are examples of growth, both in terms of official arrival numbers as well as the eye test—the streets Hoi An, Ha Long Bay and Sapa, for example, are dotted with new construction projects as demand rises.
The latter, Sapa, has seen its popularity rise in the last five years as visitors have discovered its four-seasoned climate, rolling mountains, rice terraces and up-country villages. Most of the region’s visitors stay in the town of Sapa (Sapa is the name of the greater township and the city), but there are also opportunities in the surrounding mountains for homestays or an overnight at a wilderness lodge.
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One example is the Topas Ecolodge, built on a hilltop in the mountains of Hoang Lien National Park, forty-five minutes southeast of Sapa town. Recognized as a certified “Unique Lodge” by National Geographic, it is perhaps the crown jewel of the region.
Stunning, Remote Natural Location
Topas’ isolation away from Sapa Town, high in the mountains amongst the local villages, sets the tone for the experience one should expect when visiting: Adventurous, active days followed by relaxed afternoons and quiet evenings.
The days aren’t simply adventurous because of the tours you’ll take (see below); rather, because the lodge itself is literally built into and on top of the mountainside—meaning, as a guest, getting from the main lodge to your room is a hike in itself, with rolling hills, steep stairways and sweeping views of the valleys below and surrounding peaks.
This reality allows Topas to transcend to an entirely different kind of experience: It’s not a pretend wilderness lodge—you have to really want to experience the mountains, as getting around the property requires fitness.
A Basecamp of Bungalows
That said, comfort awaits in your dwelling. The 33 mountain bungalows are built as “chalet-style,” single bedroom houses from local white granite that sit on the edge of the mountain, the balconies looking out over the valley below. The accommodations are modern, with heating and cooling systems, hot water, daily housekeeping service, a desk and sitting area, in-room coffee and a small mini-bar.
Much of your downtime at the lodge can be spent enjoying the serenity of the balcony and its views, making it a nice basecamp for all the surrounding adventures. Tours of the local villages and rice terraces leave daily from the lodge, both half-day and full-day itineraries that include hiking, biking, culinary and cultural experiences.
For example, you can bike the winding mountain roads to a remote village, where you take a walking tour, visit local houses and have lunch. Or you can hike through the rice terraces, an auditorium-esque landscape that is teeming with water buffalo and local villagers.
Tours can be booked through a package before arriving, or ala carte upon arrival. If you prefer to explore on your own, you can borrow bikes (free) from the ecolodge or set off on one of the nearby footpaths.
The Pool of all Pools
It won’t take many words to sell you on this memorable aspect of Topas Ecolodge—in fact, the photo says it all. The heated, hilltop infinity pool overlooking the property and the surrounding peaks, a setting that’s as exciting as it is relaxing. At the end of each day, guests gather at the pool to refresh and recap their days over a drink before dinner.
A Lodge of Eco-Friendly Aspects
The main lodge of Topas is a two-story building. The main reception and bar are on the ground level, with the restaurant on the second. The bar features comfortable seating, a wood-burning fire and a selection of local products including craft beer, wine and spirits. The upstairs restaurant serves classic Vietnamese dishes—hot pots, pho, bun bowls, spring rolls—made from ingredients sourced locally, either from the on-site garden or a surrounding village.
Given the state of marketing and branding here in 2019, where myth and fact always seem intertwined, and the fact that tourism has the tendency to be anti-ecological by its very nature, it’s fair to ask a simple question: What about this place, with a heated pool and daily housekeeping, makes it an ecolodge, other than the name and location?
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Topas had a number of good answers to this question. Most of the energy used on property is renewable—it comes from a dam down in one of the valleys. They use a glass crusher to recycle, and will soon have an incinerator that will be used to heat water. They are single-use plastic free, use local materials in the building of the lodge and employ more than 90 people from the nearby villages.
Easy, Comfortable Transportation
Traveling in Southeast Asia is always exciting, but it’s not always comfortable. Buses can be crowded, trains tend to be old and there’s almost always something rattling you back and forth—bad roads and potholes are the biggest culprits.
In the case of getting to Topas Ecolodge, a five-hour drive from Hanoi, there’s a lot to navigate: traffic getting out of the city, long highways that are under construction and finally the steep, unmarked, confusing roads of the Northern Vietnam mountains.
There are a number of ways to get to Topas. You can take an overnight sleeper train or a long bus ride. The train sounds romantic, but reality sets in with the small size of the sleeper cars, the constant rocking that often prevents sleep, and the early-morning arrival (just ask some of the guests at Topas). A bus ride to Sapa Town from Hanoi requires another transfer from Sapa Town to the Ecolodge.
I say all this to explain why the private transportation offered by Topas is not just a throw in—it’s actually a solid service. The Topas Mountain Express is an eight-seat minibus with reclining leather seats, spacious leg room and charging ports, and the ride includes lunch and bottled water.
Transportation is included in most package tours, but can also be purchased ala carte for $50 per person each way. Compare this option to other forms of transportation (bus, train, private car) as you balance your priorities.