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.