The ever-charming adventurer by David Lloyd Take me there
Asger Koppen first came to Vietnam to work in the jungle for WWF, setting up a sustainable community based tourism project on the edge of Cat Tien National Park. A former mountain guide, he is now director of Topas Travel, a Danish adventure company. He is also founder of the Vietnam Mountain Marathon, so few know the hills of Lao Cai province as well as him.
The mountains are very different here - they are beautifully green and covered with rice fields and jungle, even at 3000m+. Here you will normally hike from one minority village to another and stay in homestays instead of mountain huts. Staying with an ethnic minority family and eating food cooked over a fire is obviously very different to a fondu in a typical Alpine mountain hut! That said, the concept of getting close to nature and local people is somehow the same in Europe and in the Alps.
I once went out scouting for a new Vietnam Mountain Marathon trail, a jungle part followed by a mountain pass. I had been there before in summer and thought it was drivable by off road motorbike; however I ended up in a big, muddy mess, dragging and lifting a motorbike through the mountains for the whole day and into the night. With no drinking water and limited energy is was a serious challenge, but looking back now it was also a lot of fun.
As a runner and adventure racer I instantly recognised the uniqueness of the nature and local culture in Sapa and I wanted to share my own great adventures with other like-minded people.
The Vietnam Mountain Marathon is something completely different. The mountains are very tough, but very beautiful with the rice terraces and stunning river crossings and of course the local ethnic minority cultures which fill the race with colour and interest.
The finish line is particularly unique and special. Runners arrive at the end at the Topas Ecolodge, situated on a mountain top in the middle of the big mountains, with music, camp fires and an amazing social atmosphere. It really feels like you are in a running/adventure bubble a million miles from reality and surrounded with your best running friends.
The Sapa mountains are great for mountain biking, especially if you are ready for some challenging climbs and maybe a bit of adventure - expect to carrying your bike through steep minority villages and ride through rivers and mud.
There are plenty of opportunities for day trips on mountains bikes year-round, but in November 2016 the first Vietnam Mountain Bike Marathon will take place, so for serious riders, that it the best time to come and check out the trails.
In Sapa, I would visit Hill Station signature restaurant, a quite special concept focusing on local Black Hmong food turned into modern dishes.
Ha Giang is remote, very beautiful and adventurous, but a guide and planning via a travel agent is needed if you want to go for serious hiking. Quang Binh province with its amazing cave systems is another great option.
Travel light! You can always buy clothes in Vietnam if needed, but bring more technical stuff such as pedals for serious biking and footwear in general if you need bigger sizes.
It may sound strange for a outdoors kind of guy like me, but I like biking around West Lake in Hanoi in a the warm late afternoon. Watching all the young romantic couples alongside the lake is fantastic and somehow fills me with life!
To learn more about Asger's work with Topas Travel, visit topastravel.vn.