The unseen Vietnam.
Just like my previous stop in Dong Hoi, this next part of Vietnam that I am going to visit is very unlikely to be on the tourist map. Named as the “coastal defence”, Hai Phong is a coastal city located at the mouth of the Cam River, in Vietnam’s northeastern coastal area, 120km east of Hanoi.
Hai Phong is the third largest city of population and plays an important role in economy of this country but tourism is not one of them. Hai Phong is not only the largest city of industry, but also one of the two biggest ports in Vietnam. If you look outside the grotty and greasy side of this industrial town, Hai Phong actually has an inner beauty that can be quite charming and attractive.
Hai Phong Wet Market
The Hai Phong Wet Market is one of the biggest I’ve visited in Vietnam. Food stalls sprawl out over two long streets, plus a sheltered hall for the dried and expensive goods. Fishery also plays a big part in Hai Phong with an output of 79,000 tons, mostly from fish farming rather than sea fish. I wasn’t particularly interested in the fishing topic until I stumbled across this little shop which supplies the seafood to some of the major restaurants in this city.
I do a quick head count, there are around 20 male teenagers outside peeling freshly cooked prawns. The whole process is time consuming, one guy is in charge of the cooking – he ladles out a school of prawns from a big fish tank and drop them into a big wok of hot boiling water. The prawns are cooked within a minute before ladle out again and quickly dunk them into another tank filled with icy cold water to stop the cooking process instantly. Then the peeling process begin by the rest of the crew.
The owners are friendly enough to come and have a chat with me. With language barrier and some hand signals, the owner explains to me that they will have to peel at least 100kg of prawns before moving on to start cleaning fish, octopus, squids and whatever seafood in season. And they have to do this every single day to supply enough seafood to the restaurants in town.
If peeling prawns in not your thing…
How about having a haircut at a pop up outdoor barber on the sidewalk? Many of the old traditions are still carry on in Hai Phong.
Do Son Beach & Bao Dai Villa
Do Son is 30 minutes south of Hai Phong, it is a picturesque coastal beach resort area frequented by the locals as a weekend getaway destination with very few tourists. The locals are friendly, and fishermen will circle the beach front on their motorbikes to tempt you on buying fresh live crabs, which you then can bring the crab to a local restaurant and have it prepared and cooked to your liking. Piece of warning though, make sure your haggling skill is up to scratch if you like a good bargain.
High on top of Vung Hill will offer a panoramic view of the coastline, especially from the Bao Dai Villa, the summer palace of Bao Dai, Vietnam’s last emperor. The villa was original built in 1928 by the French Governor-General of Indochina, who later offered this grand palace to Bao Dai in 1949. Today, the villa is not just a museum (pay a fixed fee for a guided tour) but also a hotel where guests can enjoy the same beautiful views of Do Son Peninsula and being treated like an emperor in the King Suite for USD$150 a night.
Address: Bao Dai Villa Zone II, Do Son Beach, Haiphong, Vietnam
Du Hang Pagoda (Chua Du Hang)
There are somewhat similarities between Hai Phong in Vietnam and Penang in Malaysia, both coastal cities with many old temples and shrines studded around town. We have a quick visit of Du Hang Pagoda, located just a short distance to the south of Hai Phong’s centre. This is a Buddhism temple founded in the 16th century but had been rebuilt a number of times since.
This temple is not only a place to worship but also has become a shelter for many stray dogs. Locals start to look after them and they gradually become the guardians of the temple.
Here you will be able to admire some of the finest Vietnamese architecture and sculptures while having a stroll in the tranquil surrounding.
Address: Le Chan District, Hai Phong, Vietnam, VN
Hai Phong Opera House & Exercise Square
With its neo-classical architecture and a big portrait of Uncle Ho Chi Minh looking down at his people, the pale yellow Hai Phong Opera House is located right bang in the middle of a busy intersection in Hong Bang district. But we actually find the exercise square across the street is lot more exciting!
Every evening around 5pm, this whole area turns into a playground for the young and old. Groups of elderly women are doing aerobic exercise, while the young ones are playing soccer and sepak takraw; there is even a group of school kids doing ‘shuffling’ to the hip hop music.
You simply couldn’t help but want to join in.
Cat Ba Island & National Park
The next morning we are heading east to Cat Ba Island, 45m from Hai Phong. Cat Ba is the largest of the 366 islands spanning 260km² that comprise the Cat Ba Archipelago, which makes up the southern eastern edge of Ha Long Bay in Northern Vietnam.
Within the hour deafening boat ride, we zoom past the dramatic and rugged tiny islands that’s what Ha Long Bay is famous for.
Increases in infrastructure on the island made it easier for tourists to visit the island, and it has since become a popular overnight stop for tourists and backpackers who are on tours to Ha Long Bay run by travel agents from Hanoi and Hai Phong. Today, Cat Ba has attracted over 350,000 visitors a year with over 105 hotels dotted along the seafront. And one of the attractions on this island is the National Park.
Cat Ba National Park
Cat Ba is the largest island in the Bay, but half of its area is actually covered by a National Park, which is home to the white headed Langur, one of the most endangered primates in the world, with only approximately 68 langurs left in the wild. The national park was declared a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve Area in order to protect the multiple terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems as well the flora and fauna found on the island.
The park has been divided into restricted areas and only a small part of the national park is open to public with a few hiking trails that you can trek all the way up to the top of the mountain. Our tour guide didn’t really give us any briefing before the hike, we find the trekking extremely challenging and strenuous, even dangerous at times. You do need a certain level of fitness to tackle the trekking.
He points at the tower on top of the mountain and smiles at us, that’s where we are heading. *gulp*
I’d suggest to bring plenty of water and wear hiking boots. Many of the paths are dirt tracks and at times we do have to be on our feet and hands to climb over steep rock face, metal staircases installed along the paths are rusty and rickety, it doesn’t really make the climb any safer.
The hike takes approximately an hour all the way up to the top, 225m (738ft) above sea level. But all the effort, sweats and tears will be rewarded with the most spectacular view of the lush green rain forest.
“There is another track back to the ground via the lake and forest, takes about 8 hours,” says tour guide. “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Not far from the National Park is the Hospital Cave. The island was largely influenced by both the French and Americans wars. Cat Ba was the perfect strategic look-out point and bombing during the wars often forced local residents to hide among the island’s many caves. Hospital Cave, once a secret bomb shelter and hospital for the Vietcong leaders during American wars but according to its construction, it was actually built by the French during the French Indochina War back in 1940-50s.
Inside the cave is an impressive three storeys feat of engineering including a room that was once filled with water so the soldiers can jump straight from the top floor into the water room on the ground floor for quick escape when being attacked. Who needs staircase?
Finally some food! You simply can’t come to Cat Ba Island without trying the seafood which is what this island is famous for. There are many floating seafood restaurants on the seafront which usually open for dinner, but you can always simply walk straight into any restaurants along the main street will be rewarded with a scrumptious seafood lunch.
You’ll be shocked by the range of seafood on offer here. You can choose from fish, prawns, oysters, to something a little bit more exotic like jellyfish, conch and even the prehistoric horseshoe crab.
Despite its delicious curry sauce, the conch meat is thick and tough to chew, sadly we left most of it untouched.
A plate of steamed oysters served with a simply shallot dressing never go astray.
A simple stir fried calamari dish with soy and ginger.
Many of the dishes here are prepared in the simplest ways to let the freshness of the seafood speak for themselves, a whole deep fried carp for instance.
The oyster omelette is a dish I am familiar with. The fat egg omelette is filled with tiny oyster meat that gives it a nice briney flavour. All you need is some hot chilli sauce.
Apart from all the seafood, what about a herb that taste like fish?
Diep Ca also known as the fish mint, is wildly grown all over Vietnam. This heart shaped green leaf is usually served with other leafy greens as a side with Nem Lui (grilled lemongrass pork roll) or simply as snack by dipping in chilli sauce. You don’t need a lot, the mint is zingy, bitter with an acquire fishy aftertaste.
But then, the obsession of sea life can get a little bit out of hand in this part of town…
You will find a few shops on the island are specialised in making the traditional snake wine but with a few additional surprises. Each glass vase or jar is filled with barnacles, starfish, seahorses, goji berries and a snake hidden within before soaking everything in rice or grain wine.
Bundles of dried seahorses, starfish and sea snails are also available for sale.
The Vietnamese believe that by drinking snake wine can improve health and virility, better than Viagra I’ve been told. Somehow I am in no hurry to give this potent drink a try.
The question is, would you?
[A Table For Two visited Vietnam as a guest of Vietnam Airlines.]