gap year

The House of Laughter and Joy, My ETHOS Sapa Experience

Ecotourism is: "Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people." The International Ecotourism Society

This is So. She's a Black Hmong guide (pronounced "mong") in Sapa, Vietnam and has been for over 13 years. She's 31, married, and has 3 beautiful kids. She makes the 2-hour trek from her house to town by foot at least twice a day, and she learned English over the years, on her own, through interacting with her guests.

I was blessed to meet this incredible woman and have her be my guide when I was in Sapa this past July. Honestly, all I expected to see was Sapa's famous rice paddy terraces and to taste delicious "Vietnamese" food I had come to know abroad, which I quickly learned was a marketing gimmick...

Well, So and her family shared so much more, more than I could ever expect.


In researching different Sapa tours, ETHOS came highly recommended on TripAdvisor. Some reviewers said their experiences were "life-changing" or "the most impactful of [their] life." In this day and age, it's hard not to take reviews with a grain of salt, but I decided to go ahead and book a tour with them and that's how I met So.

Sapa is a popular getaway for local Vietnamese and foreigners alike. It's a town north of Hanoi and is fairly "untouched" by Vietnamese standards. The locals are a number of ethnic minorities like the Hmong, who migrated and settled in the area about 300 years ago. Every Hanoi travel agency advertises daily trips to Sapa complete with a "local homestay" experience and trekking. What they mean by "local homestay" is having a Hmong guide and staying in a local village guesthouse. All of this seemed no different to what we were doing with ETHOS until we arrived in Sapa.

After an overnight train from Hanoi and a minibus ride through the mountains, we arrived at the town center, and instantly, the vibe shouted ski resort, tourist destination, and very Vietnamese. There was construction everywhere, even for a theme park in the center of town! I was so confused about the place, but it finally made sense when we sat down with Phil at the ETHOS house.

Phil and his wife, Hoa, run ETHOS as a social enterprise because the Hmong community is poor, underserved, and discriminated against due to past and present circumstances. Most Sapa businesses are Vietnamese-run and will not hire Hmong locals. They look to change that by empowering and strengthening the community, and one way is to practice responsible tourism that supports the community more directly. I was surprised to learn that if we had booked our trip with an agency in Hanoi, the advertised "local experiences" would have been Vietnamese-run too.


This concept of ecotourism did not hit home for me until we were having lunch at So's house. She explained that wealth is measured by how much rice a family can grow to sustain themselves. Unfortunately, some families can only grow enough for four months. Since our trips cover the cost of meals, So and the other guides will bring guests to prepare and share lunch with the families in the most need.

No one was home when we initially arrived, but when the kids did come home, the house suddenly came alive with excitement. Clearly, our arrival was a treat. To them, having guests meant eating special dishes besides rice, but more importantly: having cool new playmates. Despite the language barrier, we connected like a band of thieves. We ran through the mountains, hid in the bushes, and tickled each other until we couldn't laugh anymore.

I handed my camera to La, So's 7-year-old, and after watching me handle it for a few minutes, she quickly picked up how to use it. The kids got so much entertainment from seeing themselves on the tiny screen. A few of La's photos:


Life is not easy as a Hmong villager. So did not have hot water or heat, and during the winters, the house gets very cold, especially at their altitude. Life revolves around growing food. So's husband works the fields almost everyday. So only guides tours when she is not needed on the farm. So's children go to school, but in other families, children may be pulled out to help on the farm. And for most Hmong children, they grow up to become farmers because that's the only way to sustain life there.

Despite these realities, there was so much love and joy in that house. It transported all of us and made all the hardships melt out of view. So's family reaffirmed that finding happiness is not by having things, but by having meaningful and deep relationships with the people around you. Sure, a fridge, hot water, or heat would make their lives better and more convenient, but when I think about some of my friends, even finding solutions to their first world problems probably wouldn't make them as happy as So and her family. I don't deny that I was only there for a weekend. I am sure there are plenty of hard times in that house as well, but the love was in such plain sight that you could see it in So and her husband's eyes even after more than 11 years of marriage.

Every family is unique, and perhaps So's family is extra special. But I think the lesson to be learned here is that happiness can be found anywhere regardless of the circumstances. We cannot choose the life we are born into, but we can choose to find happiness if we desire it. And sometimes, finding it is just as simple as being with the people you love.


If you decide to go to Sapa, I highly highly recommend experiencing it with ETHOS. The next time you travel, look for other organizations that practice ecotourism because the way we spend our dollars matters, and it can make a huge impact on the locale and its communities.

A FAQ for First-Time Travelers to Japan: Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo

This June, I traveled to Japan for the first time and spent two weeks traveling from Osaka, Kyoto, to Tokyo -- a very popular itinerary for first-timers. I had a lot of questions that were eventually answered when I got there, so I thought I would share what I wish I knew before my trip to help other fellow first-timers decide what’s best for their trip!

Q: When is the best time to go to Japan?

A: If you want to see the cherry blossoms and other cultural festivities, line it up with the popular times such as spring, July for Tanabata, or December/January for New Year's. But be prepared for other tourists... lots of them. Hotels will be booked, tourist sites will be crowded, and there will be tons of kimono-dressed tourists walking around. I went during slow season (late June) and I still thought certain places were packed, but I did have shorter wait times compared to reports in travel forums. So your call. I hear it's beautiful in the winter too!

Q: If I am doing the same itinerary (Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo or reverse), how much time should I spend in each city?

A: If you’re looking for a direct answer, I'd say 2-3 days in Osaka, 6-8 days in Kyoto, and 4-6 days in Tokyo.

That being said, it depends on the trip you're looking for. If you are only sticking to the city areas or prefectures, I would spend only a few days in Osaka and the bulk in Kyoto or Tokyo. Osaka and Kyoto are 40-50 minutes away from each other, so you could make Osaka your base and travel to Kyoto or vice versa. One advantage of staying in Osaka is things tend to be cheaper plus the food is awesome — the area is known for takoyaki and okonomiyaki. If you are a city person (and planning this trip in advance, see “Should I plan?” below), I would spend at least the same amount of days between Tokyo and Kyoto.

If you are not a city person, I would plan on spending more time in Kyoto because you can spend hours wandering through the numerous temples and gardens, and go hiking around the surrounding mountains.

Q: Should I buy a JR pass?

A: If you will not be traveling to other prefectures besides Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo, the answer is no. Each city has its own local transit system, so even buying the JR Pass outside of Japan may not be worth it. The JR Pass at the time of this posting costs $257 USD for 7 days and $411 USD for 14 days. And the passes must be used in consecutive days. Please note that the JR Pass cannot be used on the Nozomi Shinkansen, the fastest and most frequent train, which costs $130 USD for a one-way ticket between Tokyo and Kyoto.

Here's the math: get an Osaka Amazing Pass (see Other Tips below), which includes all Osaka public transit: $30 USD. I averaged $5/day in public transit while in Kyoto and Tokyo (a conservative estimate): $60 USD.

So $90 (public transit) + $130 (Shinkansen) = $220, which is still less than the JR Pass.

Why buy a JR pass then? If you will be going back and forth, say between Kyoto and Osaka because one of the cities is your base or traveling to other prefectures like Nara, Kobe, Nagoya or Hiroshima, then the JR Pass will definitely be a savings. You can use the JR Pass to travel on the Hikari and Kodama Shinkansen trains between Tokyo and Kyoto, and there are major JR trains within the cities too.

Q: Should I fly or take the Shinkansen between Kyoto/Osaka and Tokyo if I don't have the JR Pass?

A: If you’re trying to save money, definitely fly. There are multiple flights a day between Osaka and Tokyo that cost around $40-70 USD one-way. If you’re looking for the experience or to save time, then choose the Shinkansen. It will run you $130 USD for an unreserved seat on the Nozomi, but it’s really fast and you don’t have to deal with commuting to the airport and security.

Q: What area should I stay in each city?

A: Here's what I recommend...

  • Osaka: near any subway station close to the city. Most tourists will be staying around Umeda/Osaka Station.
  • Kyoto: close to Gion-Shijo and Kawaramachi Stations. Although touristy, this is where most of the city's action takes place, and its central to the subway and train that will take you around the Kyoto area.
  • Tokyo: Ginza if you want to see Tsukiji Market, Shibuya/Shinjuku area for all the food, shopping, and people-watching.

Q: I want to see the tuna auction at Tsukiji Market! What time do I have to line up?

A: 120 visitors split into 2 viewing times (5:30 and 5:50 am) are allowed to watch the tuna auction each morning. The sign outside of the information kiosk said registration time was 2:15 - 3:00 am. I arrived at 2 am, and there were about 8 people ahead of me. People arriving at 4:15 am were still able to get into the second viewing group. Keep in mind I did go during slow season. During the spring or busy season, I would expect the quota to fill up much faster.

It would be wise to find accommodations for the night near the market, so you can walk over in the early morning, but if not, there is a Jonathan's 24-hour diner around the corner where you can hang out until you're ready to stand in line. I brought my laptop and had tea and dessert there. Also, bring something to keep you occupied while you sit in the waiting room until viewing time. It could be a couple hours.

Here's what you would see if you decide to go. You can make up your mind if this is enough to satiate your curiosity or you would rather experience it yourself!

Q: What are these symbols on these electric toilets?!

A: Japanese electric toilets are quite fun... and efficient! Knowing the functions beforehand will help you take advantage of them your entire trip: TOTO's electric toilet guide.

Q: Can I enter an onsen with a tattoo?

A: If your tattoo is larger than a quarter in a visible area, it might be difficult. Bathing at an onsen is a completely nude experience, so locals might get uncomfortable. I have a small one on the inside of my arm and initially used a band-aid, but was able to hide it with my locker key bracelet instead. There are discussions online of using bandages or surgical tape (where I initially got the idea), but it's considered unsanitary to keep them on in the bath and a local will call you out. In Tokyo, onsens are pretty strict because of potential gang relations, but in other areas like Osaka, people are more understanding. Foreigner-friendly onsens do exist though! So do a little research because going to an onsen is totally worth it.

Q: Should I plan for my trip?

A: If you are going to spend time in Tokyo, planning will be essential. Japan requires reservations for everything, so booking cooking classes, shows, or tours in advance will ensure you get the full experience you were hoping for. Additionally, most non-online reservations need to be made in Japanese, so if you book your hotel in advance, you can ask them to make reservations for you.

I did not plan my trip and had a great time, but a little research to find out what I know now would have changed my itinerary a bit like not staying in Tokyo as long. Overall, you can definitely do this itinerary without planning, but it definitely helps if you want to dine at well-known restaurants or watch cultural shows.

Q: Any other tips?

  • Japan is still a cash country, so make sure you always have cash on-hand. Major train stations and 7-Elevens will usually have ATMs.
  • If you want privacy on a budget, look at private rooms at hostels. The bathrooms may be shared, but there are always enough facilities to accommodate all guests and always very clean!
  • Get data or a SIM card for Google Maps. There is public Wifi in most places, but I could never get it to work.
  • There are very few trash bins on the streets. You'll have to bring your trash with you until you see one.
  • In Osaka, get the Amazing Pass. Besides public transportation, the pass also includes many attractions that are free or discounted with the pass!
  • Bring an umbrella. Borrow one from the hotel or buy one from Daiso. The weather can change unexpectedly.
  • If you make it out to Uji near Kyoto, visit the Taihoan Tea House. It was the best ¥500 I spent during my trip.
  • Climb to the top of Mount Inari to get away from the crowds at the Fushimi Inari Shrine.

Gap Year Updates

As I embark on my travels around the world, I will be sending out monthly email updates, which you can sign up for here, and they will go straight to your inbox! Otherwise, you can check back here or the sidebar from time to time to see my most recent updates.

Thanks for all your support and happy reading!