I’d intended to stay in Cat Ba town for a couple more days, then head back to Hanoi for one more night before my flight to Vientiane. Cat Ba is supposedly a backpacker-oriented place with lots of adventure activities on offer such as kayaking, rock-climbing and trekking through the national park. But other travellers I’d met had said that it was a dirty, unattractive town and I shouldn’t bother to stay there. I seriously considered hanging out on the private island instead as it’s a very peaceful place, with its comfortably rustic beachfront bungalows, kayaks available and several walking trails behind the resort. But the price was an eye-popping US$70 a night – too much to contemplate in an area where fine hotel rooms with all mod cons and harbour views can be had for just $15-20. And the weather was still cold and grey, so even the kayaking wouldn’t have been much fun. The reports were right about Cat Ba town, too. As part of the tour we had half an hour to wander around it before some mountain biking, and it was decidedly uninviting. Judging by the number of hotels it must be pumping during high summer, but this time of year is definitely the off-season and there were few tourists about. The locals were taking advantage by building or renovating hotels and the roads and sidewalks were being upgraded; it was a like living in a giant construction site.
With a few extra days in Hanoi I’ve been quite content to just relax and enjoy the benefits of this large city while I can. Good western food (including some sensational gnocchi al pesto at an Italian restaurant, and roast New Zealand lamb with garlic potatoes at La), book and DVD shops to browse, a modern cinema where I saw Avatar in 3D today, cruisy bars and cafes for socialising, street food and wandering the lanes and alleys when I want another taste of Vietnam, and reliable internet connections to keep in touch with the world. All these things will be rare or non-existent once I leave Vientiane and won’t be common again until Phnom Penh or Bangkok, so I’ve made the most of the opportunities.
I’ve also had some time to reflect on my first month in Asia. One of the main reasons why I wanted to come here, and to Laos in particular, is that I want to experience first-hand what it’s like to live in a developing country. Not live as most locals do, of course: as a westerner I have far more money than they could ever dream of having, and staying even in basic guesthouses and eating modestly I would still be indulging a lifestyle far removed from their day-to-day existence. But we have to share the same infrastructure – roads, buses, electricity, water, shops, etc – and from this I can gain some understanding. I didn’t expect it to be easy all the time, and it’s not. But 80% of the world’s people live in circumstances that are at best challenging, and at worst appalling. I wanted to see this for myself and not just watch it on television or read about it in a book.
Even the term “developing country” has taken on new meaning. It’s certainly better than using outdated phrases such as “third world” (ie. really poor) and “second world” (not really poor, but not western either), or slightly improved versions such as LDC (“less developed country)”, though I admit to using those myself as easy shorthand classifiers at times. But “developing country” is more appropriate because these countries really are changing, and sometimes quite fast. A few days ago at a bookshop I was talking to the owner, an older Australian man with extensive knowledge of Asia who has lived here for nine years. He was describing the changes seen in Hanoi since he arrived, and said that when he came there were virtually no cars, about half the population got around on bicycles and the other half on scooters. Three to four years ago the bicycles had largely disappeared as most people could now afford scooters, then gradually cars started creeping in as well. Now cars are quite common here, and in his opinion they are one of the biggest causes of Hanoi’s infamous traffic congestion. “What’s really needed is an elevated mass transit system like they have in Bangkok”, he said, “so that people can get around without using scooters”. He says that such a system will come, and in fact the latest Lonely Planet notes that work on a metro system is due to begin soon. “Change is inevitable, and it changes the character of the city. The pinnacle they’re aiming for is to be like Singapore, but when you get to that level a city loses its soul. But you can’t stop progress, and nor should you as it makes peoples’ lives better. We just have to accept that things won’t always be the same here.”
I’ve experienced many different stages of development already, from tiny villages north of Phongsali where there is no electricity nor any shops, to modest Lao towns with an unpaved main street and just a handful of guesthouses and restaurants, to the electrifying buzz of Hanoi. It’s nice here but I’ve had enough of the bustle of Vietnam to be honest, and I’m really looking forward to getting back to the laid-back charm and gentle people of Laos. And I’ve worked out that I really do enjoy doing certain adventure-type activities, so I’ll be going out of my way to do more kayaking, mountain-biking and trekking when I get there 🙂