Friday, November 20, 2009

Hải Phòng

The walls of Hanoi were closing in on me, so last weekend I took a much-needed break from Vietnam's capital city and headed north-east toward the ocean. On the way toward the vacation island of Cát Bà, I decided to stop in Hải Phòng, Vietnam's second-largest port (after Saigon) and, with a population of 1.7 million, the country's third-largest city.

Located where the Red River meets the South China Sea, Hải Phòng is one of Vietnam's major commercial centers. The city's ever-growing port has enough docks, mooring points, cranes, pipelines, weighing stations, storage yards, warehouses, and manpower to handle loads from the world's largest freighters, and push them, through rail, road, air, and water, to every point in Vietnam. In addition to its transportation and shipping functions, the city serves as a center of heavy industry; Hải Phòng and Saigon together produce 70% of the country's GDP. The city is, if not the heart, then certainly a critical organ in Vietnam's economic body.

One needs a sense of history to appreciate the place. Founded in 43 A.D., the city has been one of Vietnam's principal ports and trading centers for nearly two thousand years. In the latter part of the 19th century, the French made Hải Phòng their major naval base in Indochina, and turned it into an industrial center. The city survived the infamous 1881 typhoon, which took an unbelievable 300,000 lives. After World War II, the French killed thousands of Hải Phòng's citizens in their effort to forestall Vietnam's independence. Later, during the American War, the U.S. subjected the city to heavy bombing and mined its ports to prevent Chinese and Soviet goods from aiding Vietnam's war effort. Seen through the eyes of history, Hải Phòng stands as an important symbol of Vietnamese perseverence and industry.

Whereas Hanoi has the sense of bygone grandeur, Hải Phòng feels like it's probably always had a seedy underbelly – a place where, in medieval times, Shanghaied sailors and pirates mingled with loose and deadly women, and fights broke out over rum and doubloons. Alongside the banks of the Tam Bạc River, the streets have an element of Dickensian filth. Rusted car parts, wooden crates, and black oily coils of metal cables line streets slicked with layers of trampled vegetables. Side roads provide another picture of blue-collar activity, with woodworkers turning table legs on wood lathes, young men grilling whole dogs inside metal drums, and roadside vendors selling shoes, plastic flowers, and the ever-abundant street food.

The people who work these streets have a distinct blue-collar air. One sees longshoremen, welders, machinists, and laborers, hard-bodied men accustomed to an honest day's work. Women with no-nonsense faces port vegetables to market on their backs, or load wicker baskets heavy with condemned ducks and chickens onto motorbikes, before whisking them away to slaughter. Hai Phong's reputation as a center of the Vietnamese mafia and drug trade adds to the mystique; one scours the faces and tries to discern if they're of pickpockets, racketeers, hoodlums, warlords, or women with daggers in their bras.

Lest I give the impression of pure ugliness, let me hasten to add that Hải Phòng has a rough beauty that couples with its unapologetically Vietnamese sense of purpose. Tam Bạc Lake, long and narrow like the river that carries the same name, but capped at both ends, weaves its way through the center of town. The old quarter houses lovely examples of 19th century French colonial architecture, weathered and layered like Rauschenberg collages. And above all, Hải Phòng serves some of the best food in northern Vietnam. Friends of mine in Hanoi take trips to Hải Phòng just to eat. I had a magnificent street-side
bánh đa cua, filled with crab meat, fish cake, water spinach, tofu, dates, and the wide rice noodles (bánh đa) – produced only in Hải Phòng – that give the dish its name. It was a steaming, one-dish marvel of Vietnamese culinary ingenuity – complex, multilayered, and rich.

In sum, I liked the place. While it lacks the charms to attract the casual tourist, Hải Phòng is purposeful and busy, like the Vietnamese. It has played an important economic role in Vietnam for centuries, survived monsoons, wars, communism and capitalism both, and I have no doubts the city will continue to evolve for centuries to come. I will be back for the food.


  1. Great pictures and fabulous history lesson! I always learn so much from your posts.

  2. oh is a dog...well i am so excited to visit all of these beautiful sites...i love to read your blogs...with the pictures and writings i sometimes feel i can taste and smell a bit these places...thank you's so lovely...your friend jen