My most memorable stay of 2019 - Mu Cang Chai Ecolodge, Vietnam - Rusty Compass travel blog

My most memorable stay of 2019 - Mu Cang Chai Ecolodge, Vietnam

| 21 Jan 2020
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21 Jan 2020

As 2019 ended, I thought about the dozens of places I stayed during my many months on the road. It struck me that my most memorable stay was at a place that cost less than $50 a night, with few comforts thrown in.

Vietnam's far north is the country's most spectacular region. Happily, I spent a lot of time there in 2019.

There was one thing though. As I took the big journey through breathtaking mountains from Lang Son in the east to Dien Bien Phu and the Lao border in the west, finding places to stay that were in tune with the beauty of the area was a challenge. We often ended up in bland concrete blocks in quirky provincial towns. They were fun too - in small doses. But they missed an opportunity for something more special.

Mu Cang Chai Eco Lodge, in Yen Bai province, was a highlight, not only of northern Vietnam, but in all my travels in 2019. Its beauty was in its connection with its setting. More fancy resorts shield guests from local life. This place puts you in the centre of it.

The lodge's importance is heightened by the fact that it's located in a fragile area that's likely to see a surge in tourist arrivals in the coming years. Tourism development in similar places - like Sapa further north - hasn't been pretty. Low key developments like this that sit gently in the local environment, are rare. Sapa, not so long ago the unspoiled the gem of this region - and still okay once you leave the town - provides a stark example of what unregulated overdevelopment looks like.

Vietnam needs a new tourism development model for fragile regions like Yen Bai. This place stands as a pretty good model - even more so in a travel universe likely to become more concerned about carbon emissions.

Mu Cang Chai Ecolodge is so precious that I created a new award, the Busted Compass. Busted Compasses (a certificate will be created soon...) will be awarded on an ad-hoc basis to hotels, restaurants, people and any tourism business doing cool things. They're places you'd be happy to find yourself marooned with a busted compass.

A few key things make Mu Cang Chai Eco Lodge special. They're mostly the same things that make any place special in a remote and fragile environment. But they're worth noting.

 

1. The Setting - Vietnam's north

The lodge looks over a valley dotted with villages and surrounded by rice terraces. Exploring the area by bike or on foot is a delight. The setting comes free with the lodge - but it's the most valuable feature of the place.

Mu Cang Chai Eco Lodge, Yen Bai
Photo: Mark Bowyer Mu Cang Chai Eco Lodge, Yen Bai
 
Winter approaches and the colours change - Mu Cang Chai Eco Lodge, Yen Bai
Photo: Mark Bowyer Winter approaches and the colours change - Mu Cang Chai Eco Lodge, Yen Bai
 

2. Low impact, low concrete and local materials

You could easily miss Mu Cang Chai Eco Lodge. It deliberately lays low in its environment. What you can see looks like a local village. And most of its land holding is consumed by garden. Big commerce may not value invisibility, but we sure do - especially where a poorly thought out development can degrade the entire place.

Add to that the use of local materials, minimal use of cement, the absence of single-use plastic, and local food on offer, and you've got a place that's managing its footprint carefully.

Looking forward to a time in the not too distant future when places like this can generate their own power and recycle water too!

This stuff will only become more important as global alarm about climate change begins to impact people's travel choices.

Barely visible - Mu Cang Chai Eco Lodge, Yen Bai
Photo: Mark Bowyer Barely visible - Mu Cang Chai Eco Lodge, Yen Bai
 

3. Local character

This part of Vietnam is home to diverse ethnic minorities who've lived here for centuries. Mu Cang Chai Eco Lodge is built in harmony with their traditions and it is run by friendly local Hmong villagers.

 

I imagine some travellers will curse me for drawing attention to this gem - preferring it stay a secret. I share their concern. But my visits to this area also convince me that the word is out about Mu Cang Chai and Yen Bai. Change is coming. The best hope is that the value of places like this be recognised and replicated - by governments and businesses. If this model isn't championed, the grim alternative, more unsightly concrete castles, will dominate here as it has elsewhere.

Cool clear morning - Mu Cang Chai Eco Lodge, Yen Bai
Photo: Mark Bowyer Cool clear morning - Mu Cang Chai Eco Lodge, Yen Bai
Mu Cang Chai Eco Lodge, Yen Bai - simple rooms
Photo: Mark Bowyer Mu Cang Chai Eco Lodge, Yen Bai - simple rooms
 
Mu Cang Chai - the next big thing, Yen Bai
Photo: Mark Bowyer Mu Cang Chai - the next big thing, Yen Bai
 

On balance, I'd rather celebrate this lovely spot in the hope that it becomes the standard. Local Vietnamese travellers and many in Vietnam's travel industry are concerned about the impact of mass tourism on the environment. There have been some positive decisions in recent years. These people are the best hope for a more restrained approach to development than what has occurred in Sapa and elsewhere over the past decade. Yen Bai is destined to change. The question now is how?

Congratulations Mu Cang Chai Eco Lodge!

If you know other businesses in Vietnam deserving of a Busted Compass award for sustainability, design or creativity, let us know.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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