Playing for High Stakes
A military general and one of Vietnam’s greatest heroes, Tran Hung Dao (1226-1300) three times defeated the Mongol warriors of the Chinese army as they attempted to incade Vietnam.
His most famous victory was at the Bach Dang River in northeastern Vietnam in 1288 where, copying the military strategy of Ngo Quyen (who had regained Vietnam’s independence in 939, after 1000 years of Chinese rule), he retained that independence.
After dark, sharpened bamboo poles – of a length designed to remain hidden underwear at high tide – were set vertically in the river, near the bank where it was shallow. On high tide, Tran Hung Dao sent small boats out – passing easily between the posts – to goad the Chinese warships to approach, which they duly did. As the tide receded, the Chinese boats were left high and dry, and flaming arrows destroyed the fleet. In Halong Bay you can visit the Cave of Wooden Stakes (Hang Dau Go) where Tran Hung Dao’s forces are said to have prepared and stored the bamboo poles.
So that’s why he is commemorated in all those Tran Hung Dao streets in every Vietnamese town, and why every street parallel to a river is called Bach Dang, in memory of the victory.
By expanding its city limits, Haiphong has become Vietnam’s third-most-populous city. It is the north’s main industrial center and one of the country’s most important seaports.
The French took possession of Haiphong, then a small market town, in 1874. The city soon developed and became a major port; industrial concern were established partly because of its proximity to coal supplies.
One of the most immediate causes of the Franco-Viet Minh War was the infamous French bombardment of the ‘native quarters’ of Haiphong in 1946, in which hundreds of civilians French account estimated civilian deaths at more than 6000.
Haiphong came under US air and naval attack between 1965 and 1972. In May 1972 President Nixon ordered the mining of Haiphong Harbor to cut the flow of Soviet military supplies North Vietnam. As part of the Paris cease-fire accords of 1973, the USA agreed to help clear the mines from Haiphong Harbor – 10 US navy minesweepers were involved in the effort.
Since the late 1970s Haiphong has experienced a massive exodus, including many ethnic-Chinese refugees, who have taken much of the city’s fishing fleet with them.
Despite being a major port and one of Vietnam’s largest cities, Haiphong today is a relatively sleepy place with little traffic and many beautiful French-colonial buildings. It’s clean, and there’s an air of prosperity. While it may not be worth a special trips, Haiphong makes a reasonable stopover en route to/from Cat Ba Island or Halong Bay. In general, the city is far less hassle than many many others, though you should exercise the usual caution around the train station and ferry landing.
Tourist Offices Haiphong’s Vietnam Tourism (tell: 842 957, fax: 842974; 20 Pho Le Dai Hanh) is ready, willing and able to take your money if you’d like to book a trip to Cat Ba or Halong Bay.
Money There’s a branch of Vietcombank (11 Pho Hoang Dieu) not far from the post office.
Post The grand, old, yellow main post office (3 Pho Nguyen Tri Phuong) is on the corner with Pho Hoang Van Thu.
Email & Internet Access There are centrally located Internet café on Pho Dien Bien Phu, and there seems to be least one Internet café in most other streets in the city.
Emergency If you need medical treatment, you’d do better to get yourself to Hanoi. For emergency situations, the Vietnam-Czech Friendship Hospital (Benh Vien Viet-Tiep) is on Pho Nha Thuong.
Things to See & Do
If you find yourself with half a day to square in Haiphong, there are a few things to take a look at.
Haiphong Museum (Bao Tang Hai Phong; Pho Dien Bien Phu; open 8am-10.30am Tues & Thur; 8pm-9.30pm Wed & Sun) is in a splendid colonial building. Close by, opposite the Navy Hotel, is the Navy Museum (Bao Tang Hai Quan; Pho Dien Bien Phu; open 8am-11am Tues, Thur & Sat), popular with visiting sailors and veterans.
Du Hang Pagoda (Chua Du Hang; 121 Pho Chua Hang) was founded three centuries ago. Though it has been rebuilt several times, it remains a good example of traditional Vietnamese architecture and sculpture. Pho Chua Hang itself is narrow and bustling with Haiphong street life, and is fun to wander along.
Do Son Beach, 21km southeast of central Haiphong, is seaside resort popular with Vietnamese. The hilly, 4km-long promototy ends with a string of islets, and the peninsula’s nine hills are known as Cuu Long Son (Nine Dragons). There are plenty of colorful fishing boats on the water, and a long promenade lined with oleander buahes, but the beaches completely at high tide. The resort is not all it’s cracked up to be (or, rather, it’s more cracked up than it used to be), many oh the hotels are looking rather dog-eared.
Do Son town is famous for its ritual fuffalo fights, the finals of which are held annually on the 10th day of the leader of an 18th-century peasant rebellion was killed here. In 1994 the first casino to open in Vietnam since 1975 commenced operation as a joint centure between the government and a Hong Kong company. Foreigners are welcome to win or lose their entering the casino.
Places to Stay
Haiphong hosts up to a thousand Chinese tourists – bus groups, mostly – per day. If you want to stay in one of the more expensive hotels, you’d be wise to book ahead.
Ben Binh Hotel (Nha Khach Ben Binh; tell: 842260, fax: 842524; 6 Duong Ben Binh; air-con rooms US$15-25), just across from the ferry station, is an enormous place. The cheaper rooms are scruffy, though the larger US$25 rooms are good value.
Duyen Hai Hotel (tell: 842157, fax: 841140; Pho Nguyen Tri Phuong; air-con rooms 150,000d) is a five-minute walk from the pier. Rooms are small but clean, have TV and are value for money.
Bach Dang Hotel (tell: 842444, fax 841625; 42 Pho Dien Bien Phu; rooms US$20-35) was recently renovated and is now a decent, international-standard hotel.
Navy Hotel (khach san Hai Quan; tell: 823 713, fax: 842278; 27C Pho Dien Bien Phu; rooms US$20-60) is a spacious hotel opposite the Navy Museum. The palatial US$60 suite comes complete with kitchen and dining room – impressive. It’s often very busy with Chinese groups.
Hotel du Commerce (tell: 842706, fax: 842560; 62 Pho Dien Bien Phu; rooms 150,000d-300,000d) is a French-era hotel. There’s a nice 2nd-floor shared balcony at this place, but the rooms are stuffy and the bathrooms are grim.
Huu Nghi Hotel (tell: 823310, fax 823245; rooms US$50-300), next door to the Hotel du Commerce, is a snazzy, big, three-star place with well-appointed rooms.
Khach San Thang Nam (tell: 754432, fax: 745 674; email: [email protected]; 55 Pho Dien Bien Phu; rooms 170,000d) is freat value. It opened in 2002 and has bright, clean rooms and all mod cons, including satellite TV.
Hai Phong Station Guesthouse (Nha Khach Ga Hai Phong; tell: 855391; 75 Duong Luong Khanh Thien; rooms US$15) is overpriced with its musty, dingy rooms, but it’s right at the train station, if you need to stay nearby.
There are masses of minihotels on Pho Minh Khai, south of Pho Dien Bien Phu.
Places to Eat
Haiphong is noted for its excellent fresh seafood, which is available from most hotel restaurants.
Com Vietnam (tell: 841698; 4 Pho Hoang Van Thu, not far from the post office, is a pleasant little Vietnamese restaurant with reasonable prices.
Lucky Restaurant (tell: 842009; 22-B2 Pho Minh Khai) is much the same, and is in the middle of a swag of cheap eateries on Pho Minh Khai.
Chie (tell: 823327; 64 Pho Dien Bien Phu; meals around US$10) has great Japanese food that’s worth treating yourself to, if you’re hanging out for sushi and the like.
Saigon Café (cnr Pho Dien Bien Phu & Pho Dinh Tien Hoang) is a loungey café with live music some evenings.
Getting There & Away
Air Only Vietnam Airlines (web: www.vietnamair.com.vn; near cnr Pho Tran Phu & Pho Pham Ngu Lao) flies the Haiphong- Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) and Haiphong- Danang routes; check current schedules.
Bus Haiphong has three long-distance bus stations.
Buses to Hanoi (25,000d, two hours) leave from Tam Bac bus station, about every 10 minutes between 4.50am and 7pm. Buses to Vinh (45,000d, seven hours), the junction town for Cau Treo on the Lao border, leave several times a day.
Buses to HCMC (193,000d, 42 hours) via Nha Trang and other southern points leave from Niem Nghia bus station. Two buses leave daily at 6am and 8.30am.
The station for buses to Bai Chay (in Halong City), and for Mong Cai on the Chinese border, is in the Thuy Nguyen district, on the northern bank of the Cam River. To reach it, you must take a ferry, and then, as it’s tucked in a back street, you’d be wise to get a xe om to take you there. It’s much easier, quicker and more comfortable to access both these cities by boat.
Train Haiphong is not on the main line between Hanoi and HCMC, but there is a spur line connecting it to Hanoi. There’s one express train daily to Hanoi’s B Station (22,000d, two hours) at 6.10pm and several others to Hanoi’s Long Bien station (22,000d, 2½ hours), on the eastern side of the Red River.
There are two train stations within the Haiphong city limits. The Thuong Li train station is in the far western part of the city. The Haiphong train station is right in the city center; this is the last stop for the train coming from Hanoi, and is where you should get off.
Car & Motorbike Haiphong is 103km from Hanoi on Hwy 5. This expressway (Vietnam’s first) between the two cities was completed in 1999.
Boat All boats leave from the pier at the end of Duong Ben Binh, 10 minutes’ walk from the center of town.
Hydrofoils leave for Cat Ba (90,000d, 75 minutes) at 6.30am, 9am and 1pm.
Slow boats to Mong Cai via Cat Ba (70,000d) also leave from there at 6.30am, 9am and 1pm.
Hydrofoils to Hong Gai in Halong City (90,000d, 75 minutes) leave at 7am, 10.30am and 4.30 pm.
Haiphong is serviced by several companies that use metered, air-con taxis. Try Haiphong Taxi (tell: 838383). There are also plenty of cyclos and xe om cruising around town.