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TOPAS ECOLODGE

24 Muong Hoa, Sapa,

Lao Cai Province, Vietnam;

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84 (20) 871 331;

http://www.topas-eco-lodge.com.

Rooms and rates

25 bungalows starting at $110 a night (single) and $120 a night (double), including three meals a day. Prices go up slightly on weekends. Tourist cafés in Hanoi may be able to get a better rate.

Those travelling to Vietnam with visions of bicycle-filled boulevards and serene jungle rivers may be in for a surprise. With rapacious tourist-industry growth and a sizzling economy modernizing the country at a dizzying pace, this Southeast Asian hot spot is well on its way to becoming the next Thailand. If you're yearning for an escape from polluted resorts and swarms of buzzing motorbikes, the Danish-owned Topas Ecolodge is an ideal base to explore the unspoiled reaches of northwestern Vietnam.

Location With its remote location high in the Hoang Lien mountains just south of China, getting to the lodge is half the fun. A rickety night train from Hanoi takes you to the border town of Lao Cai. You'll have just enough time to rub your bleary eyes before boarding a minibus that careens its way up winding mountain roads at completely unsafe speeds. After arriving in the town of Sapa, the Topas shuttle will make the hour-long 18-kilometre journey to the lodge on a stretch of dirt road populated by napping water buffaloes.

Ambience The Topas Ecolodge takes full advantage of its jaw-dropping surroundings. Twenty-five bungalows and a central lodge with a dining room and bar are perched on a mountain slope amid terraced rice paddies and tribal villages. The refreshing mountain air and stunning vistas have more in common with the Swiss Alps than the sweltering cacophony of Hanoi or Saigon.

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Clientele The lodge's price makes it a luxury bargain and a great choice for a budget travel splurge. Honeymooners and hiking enthusiasts abound on weekends, but for those looking for more seclusion, traffic drops significantly on weekdays.

Design Basic luxury meets ecotourism and sustainable development. Built in 2003, the bungalows are solar-powered and constructed out of locally sourced white granite and hardwood. The aesthetic is modern and minimalist, but with a rustic simplicity befitting the untamed region. In an effort to keep its surroundings pristine, the lodge recycles its garbage, processes its own wastewater and provides guests with biodegradable soap.

Rooms Bungalows are spacious, airy and very basic, featuring little more than a bed and a mosquito net. But you'll forget about the lack of a television and mini-bar the moment you walk through the French doors onto your private hardwood balcony overhanging the valley below.

Bungalows 201 to 204 offer the most impressive views, but are also the farthest from the lodge. Luxury-seekers will appreciate the large, modern bathrooms, but may not be so keen on the unforgiving beds - plush mattresses are a rare find in a country where many locals sleep on the floor.

Food and Drink The lodge has become almost self-sustaining by creating rice paddies and a 5,000-square-foot farm with pigs, chickens, geese, goats and organic vegetables, all of which requires three full-time staff members to maintain. A local chef transforms this fresh bounty into some of the best food you're likely to find in Vietnam. Large spreads are provided thrice daily and range from delicious local specialties (succulent pork noodles, aromatic cilantro-laced salads) to the occasional incongruous side dish (french fries?). Eating elsewhere requires some planning - the nearest town, Sapa, is an hour away - but why would you want to?

Service Because the lodge hires almost solely from local tribes, service is charmingly unpolished. Staff are given training and language education, but what's lacking in experience and English is more than made up for in helpful attitudes and infectious smiles. From your bungalow, you can reach the lodge through walkie-talkie if you crave room service.

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Things to Do Tribal life and trekking are the main draws in this laid-back locale. Beware of Sapa's famous weekend market, which draws masses of tourists into the town's narrow alleys to buy handicrafts from colourfully garbed locals. The costumes and trinkets are of questionable authenticity, in many cases designed to appeal to the tour buses that descend upon the town every Saturday morning.

The lodge's remote location provides a more realistic view of tribal life. Bring your hiking boots and navigate through lush rice paddies into villages inhabited by Black Hmong, Red Dao and Tay ethnic minority tribes, many of which have been exposed to foreign tourists only in the past decade. Take a half-day jaunt to the Red Dao village of Thanh Kim, or down the valley into the Tay village of Ban Ho for a simple lunch of pho (noodle soup) in a local house. Largely hidden from the hordes of Sapa-based tourists, villagers dress in contemporary clothes and concentrate on farming rice rather than spectacle. If you're an avid trekker, try a gruelling three-day ascent to the peak of Mount Fansipan, Vietnam's highest mountain.

Bottom Line

For now, the Ecolodge flies just below the radar thanks to its location and to the splashy Victoria Sapa nearby, which offers a more accessible resort experience. But travellers seeking splendid isolation should make the trek to the Ecolodge soon. Road paving projects and hydro-dam construction visible in the valley below are harbingers for the future.

Hotel vitals

TOP DRAW

Otherworldly mountain landscapes make you feel like you've stumbled upon the resort at the end of the universe.

NEEDS WORK

The rock-hard beds aren't much better than the overnight train you just endured on the way from Hanoi. Watch your step on the lodge's stone paths, especially once the sun sets and you're navigating by moonlight.

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