Discovering Sapa, Vietnam with Topas Ecolodge

By: Aleksandr Smechov

Topas Travel has been leading authentic tours around Southeast Asia since 1973, and Topas Ecolodge in Sapa, Vietnam has been open for over a decade. Both are committed to providing as true a Sapa experience as possible. joined Topas to tour Sapa’s unbeaten path, and later reside in their ecolodge, located near several undisturbed hill tribes and cascading mountains.

Sapa, Vietnam is one of the country’s most beautiful cities, given its lush, man-made rice terraces, colorful minority villages, free range animal life, dreamy atmosphere, and rivers and rivulets giving way to silvery, icy waterfalls.

This beauty is in part due to a lack of overdevelopment throughout the region. Sapa town itself has not been spared, unfortunately, and although a sleepy, cozy resting place, is in no one of the region’s highlights. Even more sad, some minority villages and points of interest in Sapa (Cat Cat Village, namely) have been battered for over a decade with tourists. So much, that now these places have lost their charm and authenticity to both desperate haggling minorities and camera-trigger-happy passerby. recently joined Topas Travel to discover Sapa’s unbeaten path, avoiding any widely known Sapa tourist attractions and instead hiking among undisturbed, stunning vistas and minority village, no other tourist in sight. Although during our visit to Sapa the weather was foggy and clammy, as we descended in elevation and hiked the hours away, visibility and warmth grew favorable. Below is a taste of what you can expect from Topas Travel and Topas Ecolodge during your Sapa, Vietnam trip.

As Topas Travel’s Sapa office aims to avoid any kitschy stopovers, we drove out in a comfy van about an hour from Sapa town to Thanh Phu, where we stopped over to a Tay minority village for sightseeing and photo-ops.

We moved on to the area of Nam Nhiu. With little luck on relying on Google Maps (you can see below that Google hasn’t yet mapped this region), we instead put our faith into our expert guide Kien. A Northerner, Kien has lived in Sapa for 10 years, and has learned as much as he could about the region.

We trekked through the Red Dao village at Nam Nhiu, passing locals toiling at their daily farm work. Some smiled, some continued on, several were more than happy to get it on a photo - especially a Red Dao elder who was enthusiastic to view her beauty shots on our photographer’s DSLR. The overall impression we got was unspoiled. Unlike Sapa town, there are no groups of haggardly beggar children surrounding you with outstretched hands, or chains of Black H’mong women speaking to you in unison. It’s a breath of fresh air and a chance to calmly look at another way of life without it feeling like a human zoo.

Photographer: Juthamas Rodmuang

Although Sapa is chilly and foggy in the winter and spring months, our trek proved stunning thanks to a lower elevation than Sapa town, which was suffocated in fog so thick that at some points it was hard to see past 20 meters. Hiking with Topas rendered jackets all but unnecessary - we were more than warm after the first hour.

We waded through Sapa’s terraced rice valleys, crossing muddy obstacles, jumping to safety and adventuring through countless edges and narrow paths. Fun, active, and just safe enough for the older and heavier crowd, we had a great time and a great workout. Kien occasionally stopped to allow us to take photos and shoot some video, and sometimes to explain the scene. Buffalo and horses grazed healthily, free to wander - a refreshing sight of true free range farm stock.

Near the end of the nearly five hour trek we reached Nam Cang’s Red Dao village, where again we witnessed unperturbed minority life. The village, in fact, looked far from poor. Although aesthetically old fashioned, people had large, comfortable wooden homes, fruitful gardens, plenty of pigs, chickens and ducks, motorbikes, a school,and best yet an unending wave of smiles.

Photographer: Juthamas Rodmuang

Topas Ecolodge has a homestay located across a short walking bridge from the Red Dao village, part of their complete experience, which includes the tour and a night at their primary accommodation, the Topas Ecolodge. We had well-deserved lunch at the Nam Cang homestay, consisting of fresh Red Dao dishes, before making our way back to the village, with its older citizens at work and younger inhabitants at play. We waved goodbye, finishing our brief but gorgeous Sapa tour, and took the van back to Tapas Ecolodge.

Tapas Ecolodge, to put it candidly, is one of the best hotel/resorts in Sapa. Not that there is too much competition - most are in Sapa town and of those the better options are on the high-end range. But this does not stop this lodge hotel from being a top choice for anyone wanting to avoid the tired traffic of a once-decent townlet and instead immerse themselves in what Sapa is really about - the nature and the minorities.

Photographer: Juthamas Rodmuang

The lodge-style bungalows at the Tapas Ecolodge have no TV or Wi-Fi. An amusing paragraph on the Ecolodge website proclaims that this may not be the place for everyone, that conditions are not always perfect and the location is 45 minutes from Sapa town. But it’s hard to imagine going to Sapa just to stay in town and go through the motions of Cat Cat village, Silver Waterfall, the town markets, and so on. No Wi-Fi, no TV, no problem. Sapa is an immersive experience and should be treated as such.

Our lodge was cozy, cold for the first several hours, and wonderfully isolated. Part of a string of 25 bungalows all facing a stretch of mountains (shrouded in fog at the time of the visit, early in March - be sure to read our best time to visit Sapa guide before booking), our abode was completely quiet. Romantic, to say the least, this environment is conducive for honeymooners. In fact, we only saw couples at the resort - from Vietnamese to Scandinavian to French to American. In the morning we took a Red Dao herbal bath, with our window looking out into the valley below. The spa facilities are small, well-built and should definitely be part of your Topas Ecolodge experience - melting away in a hot herbal bath while you gaze out at the chilly rolling mountains is... cathartic, especially if you’re used to seeing high-rises and the backs of motorbikes like us.

Topas Ecolodge has a minority-cuisine-inspired restaurant above the main lounge, which gives off the feeling of a classy ski lodge restaurant. The food is well made and locally sourced - the manager and chef head down to the minority tribe and get their meat for barter. The portions are somewhat small and you must reserve well in advance, so be advised.

Looking to experience authentic Sapa and trying to avoid miserly Sapa town? Topas Travel and Topas Ecolodge are here for this very reason. We highly recommend you check out their tours and ecolodge - these are one-of-a-kind experiences that genuinely go off the beaten path.

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