VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE: Cầu Rào 1 (Rào 1 Bridge) with a total investment of US$97 million, which was opened in January this year, has helped boost traffic in Hải Phòng.VNS Photos Anh Đức
To be honest, this is not my first time visiting Hải Phòng.
My last visit was in 2019, about half a year before the Great Pause happened. I was going through depression back then and was advised by my therapist to travel out of the capital for a change of scene.
Three years on, I returned to this coastal land, and many things have changed. But one thing has not, and that is how Hải Phòng's atmosphere healed me.
My 2019 trip was somewhat unplanned and thrilling: on my own for one day with only a mere VNĐ500,000 (US$20) budget to spend, and I almost missed the last train back to Hà Nội. This time, the trip was planned carefully with a group of close friends, with double the budget and double the time.
LIFE'S A BEACH: Đồ Sơn Beach, a 50-minute motorbike ride from the city centre, is one of Hải Phòng's favourite destinations for the young. It is home to Việt Nam's only casino and many luxury resorts.
The stops on the trip were almost the same as three years ago: a trip to the city centre, trying street food, and finally to Đồ Sơn Beach to catch the first sunrays of the day.
We'd love to have got to Cát Bà Islands -- a grand work of nature that shares the features of Hạ Long Bay -- but it would take us one more day, so perhaps that is a story for another time.
One of the reasons why I'd recommend Hải Phòng to others, especially those living in Hà Nội, is that you can easily travel to and in Hải Phòng by various means. A one-hour-and-50-minute drive on the Hà Nội-Hải Phòng expressway, a motorbike ride on the nearly identical Route 5B, and tourists in the South can take a direct flight to Cát Bi International Airport. For me, however, I took the oldest, slowest way: a three-hour train ride.
Sitting on the train set out the vibe of the trip: a time to slow down, unwind, be mindful of what's around and appreciate the beauty of nature and life. Whenever I can I read, and I settled in with 'Leading' by Alex Ferguson. I glanced out at the train window, and northern Việt Nam's countryside unfurled before my eyes.
Travelling by train is quite economical too. A two-way ticket costs about VNĐ180,000 (US$7.7), and should you have a motorbike, you can bring it with you on the train to travel around Hải Phòng later, depending on the weight, at a cost of around VNĐ110,000 (US$4.70). If you don't, rental services are available right at Hải Phòng Station for around VNĐ70,000 (US$3) per day for a normal motorcycle.
Almost every place of interest in Hải Phòng is accessible by road, except for Cát Bà, which would require a ferry from Cát Hải Island. In the past, people had to cross by two ferries to get to Cát Bà, but thanks to the Tân Vũ - Lạch Huyện bridge built in 2017, the trip is now made easier.
Rich history and culture
Hải Phòng, a port city in the north-east, is also part of the Northern economic-tourism triangle along with Hà Nội and Quảng Ninh. Although established in 1888, the city was known long before for her wartime heroes, such as the female general Lê Chân, whose statue is located in the city centre, and the victories on the Bạch Đằng River against northern invaders.
COLONIAL BUILD: Hải Phòng Opera House – one of three Opera Houses (along with Hà Nội's and HCM City's) built by the French in the 1900s.
Hải Phòng is nicknamed 'The City of Red Poinciana' due to the flower being grown all around the city and how it brilliantly blooms during summertime.
In 1975, it was recognised as one of the first three municipalities of modern-day Việt Nam, along with Hà Nội and Hồ Chí Minh City. This gave a big economic boost to Hải Phòng over the last few decades and helped transform the city tremendously.
Culturally, Hải Phòng is home to many celebrities, such as composer Văn Cao and writer Nguyên Hồng. The city is also known for its exotic buffalo fighting festival in Đồ Sơn, held annually in autumn.
If you are a football fan, Hải Phòng's atmosphere will also not disappoint. Hải Phòng Football Club, a top team in the V-League, is the club with the biggest fanbase in Việt Nam. The fans here even called themselves the 'Vietnamese Liverpool FC', since both teams are based in a port city and wear red. Wherever Hải Phòng football fans go, no matter if it's their home stadium Lạch Tray or away, they always bring their passion with them.
COME ON YOU REDS: Lạch Tray Stadium in Hải Phòng is one of the largest stadiums in Việt Nam with a capacity of about 30,000 spectators. It has been selected for organising national, and regional sports events, particularly in football.
An exotic selection of cuisine
"If it's from the sea, it's edible," said a local friend of mine. Being a coastal city, Hải Phòng has the gift of seafood bestowed upon her. Everything from clams, oysters, mantis shrimps, and snails down to the smallest of molluscs can be cooked, all with a delicious fresh taste.
Snails in Hà Nội are nothing compared to snails in Hải Phòng. Outside of common dishes such as snail noodles and steamed snails, Hải Phòng has a bigger menu of snails than the capital. Snail restaurants, uncommon in Hà Nội, are way more popular here and a must-visit according to locals.
SHELLING OUT: Grilled oyster satisfies even the most fastidious visitors to Hải Phòng.
But Hải Phòng is not all about seafood. Surprisingly, a famous Hải Phòng dish is Bánh mì que (Breadsticks). Small breadsticks the size of a sharpie in diameter are packed with a special kind of pâté inside. The dish is eaten by dipping the breadsticks in chilli sauce, which gives it a sweet and spicy taste. They cost VNĐ3,000 (13 US cents) each, and tourists often purchase hundreds of them to head home with.
Just to name but a few, and there is lots and lots more Hải Phòng cuisine to be explored.
A place to find inner peace
The average temperature of Hải Phòng is always one degree (Celsius) lower than Hà Nội. This is due to the city's proximity to the sea and is evident when I step off the train. The cooling breeze of the wind gets better when you move closer to Đồ Sơn Beach, even with the sun shining brightly at noon.
It seems to me that this chill, cool atmosphere even translates to how the people here interact with others. Everything and everyone goes slowly. A local told me that traffic jams are rare here, and should they happen, they are never to the excruciating point of Hà Nội's jams.
As a sucker for all things vintage and nostalgic to boot, Hải Phòng is like a trip back in time for me. You can see more bicycles in the city centre than in Hà Nội, and almost all of them are old!
But out of all that, the trip to Đồ Sơn Beach is what I hold most dear. I spent an hour sitting in a chair nearby, just meditating on the sound of the waves and the breeze. The 50-minute motorbike trip from the city centre from 3am was tiresome, but to catch the sunrise and find my inner peace, it was well worth it. I even recorded an hour of sound to playback, should I ever need that feeling again.
A potential tourist magnet
A municipality, a port city with 125 kilometres of coastal lines and an industrial centre with cultural values, one questions why tourists often seem to prefer faraway places to Hải Phòng. Although highly rated by experts, the city still has not reached its full potential.
A new "food tour" trend is steadily attracting tourists to Hải Phòng every weekend. The city's tourism industry has capitalised on it, resulting in international guest numbers doubling in five months and total guest numbers rising by 14 per cent. With Hải Phòng housing Việt Nam's only casino in Đồ Sơn, the potential to attract international guests is much higher again.
However, the city needs to keep a close eye on the preservation of the environment in light of new resort projects and the attraction of ever more tourists.
"Hải Phòng today is small, but it will be bigger. We will rise to a level with Sài Gòn and Đà Nẵng," goes a popular song about Hải Phòng. With the will of its people, it's no surprise that this city will develop vigorously.
But for now, Hải Phòng is a jewel of the north, and will remain my secret place to find tranquillity, my 'fortress of solitude'. VNS
Hải Phòng Opera House
One of three Opera House (along with Hà Nội's and Hồ Chí Minh City's) built by the French in the 1900s, the Opera House is modelled after the Paris Opera House with Baroque architecture.
Hải Phòng Old Quarter
Located on both sides of the Tam Bạc River near the city centre, the Old Quarter still keeps the old French architecture of the 1900s and is a must-go for vintage lovers.
Đồ Sơn Beach
A 50-minute motorbike ride from the city centre, Đồ Sơn Beach is home to Việt Nam's only casino and many luxury resorts. An old villa of Emperor Bảo Đại is also located here.
Cát Bà Islands
A UNESCO Nature Reserve, Cát Bà, shares many similarities with Hạ Long Bay. With proximity to Hạ Long, many foreign tourists come here for short vacations.