Mention Haiphong (Hải Phòng in Vietnamese) to many people and they probably haven’t heard of it. In fact, if it wasn’t for friends I have from the city, it would be off my radar too. However, it’s a charming city with colonial architecture, grand boulevards and a lively café scene. A visit here also gives the traveller a glimpse of the real Vietnam, away from not only the tourist haunts but the tourists themselves.
I flew into Haiphong’s Cat Bi International Airport from Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam Airlines, VietJet and Jetstar all offer good schedules and prices between the two cities) and then left the following day on a fast hydrofoil ferry to Cat Ba Island, which is possibly the main reason why foreigners would visit Haiphong, often taking a bus from nearby Hanoi to make the connection to the ferry. Indeed, making a trip especially to Haiphong alone is probably not on most people’s wishlist, but spending an afternoon, evening and/or morning in the city is enough time to see the highlights and soak in the atmosphere.
The thing that stuck me about Haiphong was its streetlife. Markets take place in the tightest of spaces at the edge of roads, under makeshift tarpaulin roofs, with locals in the traditional conical hat, the nón lá, selling all manner of fresh produce. Alongside them on the pavement, a line of what look like barbershop chairs occupied by men not having a hair cut, but a thorough ear clean.
Even in the narrowest of streets, the amount of activity is immense, with the all-too-common Vietnamese scooter riders squeezing through any gap possible. The railway system gets in on the act too – railway lines seem to pass through impossibly small ‘alleyways’ in-between buildings in the city centre, something I’d also seen in the capital, Hanoi. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see trains use the lines, but am well informed that they regularly still do so, which must be some sight to witness!
As in the rest of Vietnam, café culture is everywhere, with outdoor seating spilling out onto the city’s boulevards and squares well into the night. A favourite street food item is the bread inspired by the French colonists – bánh mì – normally a baguette style roll, often filled with a spicy spread (for the Vietnamese, it tended to be a case of the hotter the better!). Before the coffee and bread, my friends had treated me to a Korean barbecue, so there are many options other than Vietnamese if you’re all Phở’ed out by the time you reach here.
The centre of the city is taken up by the long, thin lake Hồ Tam Bạc, at night called the ‘pearl necklace’ due to the street lights shining around its perimeter. At its eastern end a park (Vườn hoa) continues in the same direction, leading almost all the way to river and passing the hotel I stayed at, Harbour View, a beautiful colonial style property with good rooms and a decent rate. It’s also within walking distance of the river port (Bến tàu khách Bến Bính) for that early ferry to Cat Ba in the morning.
If you’d like to get away from the tourists when in Vietnam, consider stopping by here for a night, especially if en-route to or from Cat Ba and Lan Ha Bay region. The city’s charm and traditional, local sights might well entrance you.