NOTHING can disturb an urban traveller more than silence.
Real silence. This is my early morning thought on the balcony of a stone cabin perched atop a peak in north Vietnam.
On a nearby mountain, hand-carved rice terraces spill down into the valley and farther away there are chiselled ranges that will change colour and texture as the sun moves across a giant sky. Then I hear the distant chatter of women passing the cabin on their way to breakfast, the first sounds I’ve heard since dinner last night. Television and telephones are forbidden around here. The manager tells me there’s no wild night life either, apart from frogs.
Most people come to Topas Ecolodge in a shuttle bus from nearby Sapa, but I hire a local motorbike taxi for a slow ride through intermittent heavy mist along 23km of a runnelled dirt road that is regularly washed by clear-water run-off from the mountains.
We pass through the Muong Hoa Valley, strewn with mysterious, ancient carved stones; the origin and meaning of their inscribed patterns of couples in sexual embrace, the sun and parallel lines still baffle scientists.
This region is home to about 30 Vietnamese minority groups, some of whom moved here from China during the past 200 years. A carved stone, metres long, is fenced off opposite the small local museum. Somewhere around here a French scientist is taking stone impressions the old-fashioned way, with carbon paper and ink, while assigning locations to each one via GPS.
The road snakes through the Hoang Lien Mountains, now recognised as one of the most biologically rich in Vietnam. There’s a race to preserve what is left: years ago, poor Vietnamese used to kill, stuff and sell birds and animals to tourists in the local markets. That seems to have stopped, but the Indochinese tiger has become a prized stock for pharmacies across the border in China and there are fewer than 2000 left here.
Every now and again a human form takes shape out of the mist and is swallowed again. Then the curtain rises and a series of fairytale valleys is revealed. I glance down on earthen terraces of rice stubble and turbid water. Once or twice we dismount the bike to ford a gushing stream: my taxi driver, Hahn, walks through and I jump across rocks.
I want to ride forever but we run out of road and into the Ecolodge. Brilliantly clothed Red Dzao women are sitting and sewing at the entrance. They look so much more relaxed than the Hmong and Red Dzao women in Sapa, trapped in their created cultural villages.
The lodge features 25 white granite and hardwood cabins clustered on one side of the mountain top, all with solar panels. The surprise centrepiece is a huge, reconstructed Tay (minority) meeting house that now houses the bar, upstairs restaurant and office. On the restaurant’s doorstep is a rice field and down the path is the lodge’s organic garden, which supplies ingredients for contemporary Vietnamese dishes: lime and chilli-splashed salads and spiced seasonal vegetables served with tender beef and chicken on silver platters.
The bar is fire-warmed and there is a menu of local rice wines, crystal clear or tinged pink, which slide delicately down the throat like the best malt whisky.
So much of life in rural Vietnam revolves around rice-growing and to every thing there is a season. In July the Red Dzao harvest the rice around the lodge; months later they will plant young rice shoots again. In just two days, the average stay here, you can slip easily into this seasonal rhythm. Or get active. A group of Danes straggle in from a morning walk to nearby villages: the difference between a walk and trek is that the latter, apart from being longer, comes with a swarm of porters drawn from local villages.
“When we have a rush of visitors, we can always call on our neighbours to help us out at short notice,” says manager Walter Ariesen. “That’s one of the many benefits of having built a strong relationship with people in our community.” That philosophy, and the sublime location, is what makes Topas Ecolodoge unique.
Topas Ecolodge, near Sapa, north Vietnam. Phone +8420 872 404; http://www.topasecolodge.com. Tariff: Depends on the season and package inclusions. In December, for example, double or twin is $US115 ($145), including all food and transport.
Getting there: Topas Ecolodge will transfer guests by bus from Sapa.
Checking in: International guests, mostly Germans, Australians, Danes, French, Canadians, Japanese and Taiwanese.
Wheelchair access: All cabins are accessible from a footpath, but there’s a lot of uphill. Suggest an advance request for wheelchair assistance.
Bedtime reading: The Light of the Capital, three short Vietnamese classics from the 1930s (Oxford), translated by Australians Greg and Monique Lockhart.
Stepping out: Breathtaking treks, biking, kayaking, walks to nearby minority villages. Climb Vietnam’s highest peak, Fansipan (3143m).
Brickbats: A torch and umbrella should be standard additions for each room, given the distance from the restaurant. Menu could do with more variety.
Bouquets: Staff are friendly and relaxed and the lodge has a community feel. Vietnamese-grown Arabica coffee is brewed here and served with the Western breakfast. In 2004, the lodge joined Australia’s GreenGlobe21, a worldwide benchmarking and certification program facilitating sustainable tourism.
Article from: The Australian
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