By late Saturday afternoon Steve and I had cycled into Haiphong (Hải Phòng). Somewhat embarrassingly I had not even heard of the city before planning this trip! As the most important major port for the region and Viet Nam’s third largest city it is a bright and busy commercial centre. Once a nineteenth century French colonial acquisition it was fire bombed by the returning French navy following the retreat of the defeated Japanese forces at the end of the second world war. The ensuing first Indo-China war and negotiated settlement in which the communists took control of the region then provided the background to the US miltary intervention during the 1970’s. Haiphong, as the major port controlled by the Vietcong, was bombed heavily by the US army and navy. It was subject to a naval blockade and sea mines for much of the Viet Nam war. The museum in Hai Phong (pictured below) bears witness to these tragic events. The French architectural heritage now provides a charming backdrop to a modern vibrant city and deep water port. It lies on the Southern banks of the Cấm river which connects Hanoi with the Gulf of Tonkin in the China Sea. It also is the regional administrative centre serving the island of Cat Ba in Halong Bay with a connecting ferry service which brought Steve and myself there.
We checked into the posh looking but reasonably priced Bao Anh hotel a short distance from the Cat Ba ferry terminal. I figured a couple of nights stay to check out the city and take a ferry to the island. I had initially anticipated taking the bikes to use on the island but given the timescale it was more practical to leave them at the hotel and stay an extra night on our return.
As night fell we hit the streets bright with new year holiday lights to explore and find food. Our search for dinner was less than successful as we found ourself at a street cafe with a limited and slightly expensive tourist menu. But the evening walk was fun. The city centre,roads, parks, trees and fountains are lit up in spectacular fashion for the new year festivities. Kids were breakdancing in the park under the gaze of a statue of Lê Chân; the female warrior general who led a successful battle against the mongols and, as legend would have it, founded the city.
Up first thing the next morning I grabbed breakfast from street vendors close to the hotel before cycling to the early market spread out along Tam Bạc road next to the canal leading to the river Cấm. The local cafe scene would not have been out of place in Montparnasse in Paris. I couldn’t resist the fresh iced coffee at the excellent Giải Khát cafe that would, should I have stayed in Haiphong, have become my regular spot for morning coffee every day. Then on to the market that extends along the canal and the streets behind. Wow! Amazing displays of fruit and veg together with seafood and everything imaginable. I met so many wonderful friendly people along the way and found lots of happy smiles. It is a special place and a focus for the local community. Once again, and like Hanoi, whole streets were often devoted to particular trades or skills. I found the street (Ký Con) for bicycles repairs and parts with large displays of cycling kit spread out spilling onto the road situated between Tam Bạc and Hồ Tam Bạc lake pictured above.
I made a mental note to return with Steve as he had said he needed to sort out a few things on his bike.
In the afternoon we walked and walked to take in a little more of the city. This led us to explore our options with regard the ferry to Cat Ba and then circle the old town partially via the disused railway line. Once again I was met so often by happy smiling people. Steve felt the urge to get back to the hotel and find some ‘relief’. At one point I was invited to join a small gathering by the railway line and eat but declined the hospitality to catch up Steve who had walked with some urgency ahead. But I couldn’t refuse a quick strong drink and a scallop. Some potential relief appeared for Steve in the guise of an automated public toilet but at this point we discovered that coins do exist in Viet Nam and we, of course, did not have any. He made a beeline for the hotel and I wandered a little more past stalls of flower sellers and partially back over the places we had walked during the evening before. A tidy little restaurant just along from the Bao Anh hotel provided our evening meal. It was pretty good and the staff were super attentive.
The hotel had an underground car park and attendant. I arranged to leave the bikes locked up there and gave the attendant a little money to keep an eye on them. The reception was kind enough to allow us to deposit surplus items in a small room behind the front desk. All we needed was enough stuff for a few days on the island of Cat Ba. I had booked a place to stay well in advance but we had not quite worked out the final details in terms of crossing the island to the resort’s location on the remote Eastern side. That would prove to be interesting. But with all the excitement of the boat trip ahead it did not seem to matter much.. and all part of the adventure. We would be back.
I would certainly recommend Hải Phòng as an excellent place to visit. Although often seen as simply a gateway for visitors to Halong Bay and Cat Ba I felt that in many respects, and like Hanoi, it holds a lot of attraction for anyone seeking a slice of everyday life in Viet Nam.