Sometimes, travel plans change. I should know that by now. Sometimes you plan for an adventure-packed weekend, and then you get lazy and comfortable and decide to stay in the city instead. Sometimes you neglect the advice given to you by other travellers and take a chance on an unknown place. That’s when travel is really rewarding—and when being flexible pays off.
This is exactly what happened to us when we visited Haiphong (Hải Phòng), Northern Vietnam’s major port city. Located on the coast just 120km from Hanoi, most people use Haiphong as a jumping off point for Cat Ba Island. The few people I asked about Haiphong told me squarely that there was nothing to do there except go straight to Cat Ba. We stayed in the city on Friday night with the intention of going to the island the following day. In the end, we loved Haiphong so much that we decided to stay.
We soon discovered that Haiphong City is one of Northern Vietnam’s best-kept secrets.
It seems there is no escaping the overcast weather that plagues Northern Vietnam at this time of year. In January, Haiphong feels grungy and atmospheric. The city features wide boulevards, well-preserved colonial architecture and sprawling local markets. Sometimes called a ‘mini Hanoi’, to those in the know, Haiphong is reminiscent of Vietnam’s capital city several decades ago.
There are definitely echoes of Hanoi in Haiphong, but it reminded me more of Battambang and Kampong Cham in Cambodia. Vietnam’s third-largest city, Haiphong isn’t exactly petite, but the centre is relatively quiet and offers a good mental break from Hanoi.
Haiphong City—a street photographer’s dream
If you dig crumbling architecture, twisting laneways and bustling wet markets, you will love strolling around Haiphong. We spent Saturday walking up and down the streets of the Colonial Quarter and beyond, photographing the never-ending supply of picture-perfect building facades and street scenes. Along with Hanoi’s Old Quarter, Haiphong offers the kind of visuals that are archetypal of Vietnam’s cities.
I thought I would share some of my favourite photos of Haiphong—maybe it will be enough to inspire you to pay this underrated city some attention. At the end of the post, I’ve also included some helpful tips for visiting Haiphong, including key points of interest, a few hotel and restaurant recommendations, and transport information.
What to see and do in Haiphong
Haiphong City Museum
Set in one of the city’s best-preserved colonial villas, Haiphong’s Museum (Bảo tàng Hải Phòng) was the first local museum established in Vietnam. The building dates back to 1919 and was purpose-built to house a collection of artifacts, taxidermy and various remnants of the area’s history. I was expecting a pretty pink building but it was recently repainted a creamy yellow—a bit of a shame if you ask me. Find more information about visiting here (and take note of the unusual opening hours if you plan to go inside).
Haiphong Opera House
Another of the city’s colonial-era gems, Haiphong’s Opera House (Nhà hát lớn Hải Phòng) was built in the French neoclassical style in 1904. It sits in Opera Square (Quảng trường Nhà hát lớn) and is probably the most recognisable of Haiphong’s landmarks. This article reveals more about the building’s history.
Haiphong Post Office
I’m a sucker for symmetry, so I found Haiphong’s Post Office (Bưu điện Hải Phòng) the most aesthetically pleasing of the city’s colonial-era buildings. The postal bureau was apparently founded in Haiphong in 1864, making this building’s history one of the longest and most enduring (it’s still used as a post office today). According to this source, French flags were once hung at the front of the post office to notify residents of the days letters were being sent.
The Colonial Quarter
While the aforementioned buildings are Haiphong’s most prized pieces of colonial architecture, there are plenty more buildings sprinkled throughout the city. The Colonial Quarter is concentrated around Dien Bien Phu and Tran Hung Dao streets. Many of the buildings have been neglected or converted into retail spaces on the bottom level. Look up to the upper levels, which still boast beautiful plaster work.
Du Hang Pagoda
Haiphong long predates the arrival of the French—and there are many landmarks that hint at the local history. Among them are the bronze statue of Le Chan, the female general who founded Haiphong City, and Du Hang Pagoda (Chùa Hàng), the city’s oldest site of Buddhist worship.
The Park, Tam Bac Lake and Markets
Haiphong’s main green space, Vườn hoa Nguyễn Văn Trỗi, is a long park that runs between Dien Bein Phu and Tam Bac Lake. It’s a nice enough place for a stroll. There is a small flower market about halfway down the park, selling mostly arranged wreaths. Tam Bac Lake is an artificial lake and not all that pretty. My guess is that it’s much more pleasant during the spring months when the flowers are in bloom. (That reminds me—a good time to visit Haiphong is during the annual Red Flamboyant Flower Festival.) Tam Bac Market stretches out to the north of the lake. You can find smaller, more atmospheric weekend markets in the backstreets that run along Le Hong Phong.
Cat Ba Island and Lan Ha Bay
I’d be remiss not to mention Cat Ba Island, which is part of Haiphong Province. You can reach the island by hydrofoil or speedboat from Haiphong City in as little as 10 minutes. Most people organise a package transfer from Hanoi, but you can also show up at the dock in Haiphong and purchase your own boat tickets on the spot. Lan Ha Bay (a smaller version of Ha Long Bay) is located just off the coast of Cat Ba and is a popular spot for day cruises. We ended up going to Cat Ba on a separate trip and although we enjoyed it, I personally thought it was overrated. You can find more information about visiting Cat Ba here.
Where to stay in Haiphong
There is a cluster of hotels near Catbi Plaza, about 1.5kms from downtown Haiphong and the park. We chose to stay at Punt Hotel, which was extremely clean and comfortable. Breakfast costs a few extra dollars and the English-speaking hotel staff are very helpful. More info and prices here.
Where to eat in Haiphong
Haiphong has some really excellent restaurants and offers a surprisingly diverse range of cuisines. My favourite meal was at Tanpopo, a cute Japanese restaurant within walking distance of Punt Hotel. We had a great meal at Indian Kitchen, and loved the atmosphere at Nha Hang Nam Giao. We aren’t big fans of seafood, so we skipped Haiphong’s famous crab noodles. Bánh mì bread sticks served with pate are another Haiphong specialty, so be sure to grab some from the street vendors as you’re walking around town. There are plenty of cafes and coffee shops throughout the city, including branches of Cong Ca Phe and Highlands. For something a little different, I recommend trying one of the local joints. Q Coffee is a good choice.
Getting from Hanoi to Haiphong
There are regular buses between Hanoi and Haiphong. To get there, we used the O Ho bus service, departing from Gia Lam station (Bến Xe Gia Lâm). As you enter the station building, look to your right and you’ll see the O Ho counter. Tickets cost 85K VND (approximately 3.70 USD) each and the trip took about two hours (no rest stops).
Bizarrely, the bus dropped us on the outskirts of Haiphong and we had to transfer to a ‘taxi’ to take us the rest of the way. We’re still not sure what exactly was going on, but the bus steward and the ‘taxi driver’ seemed to know each other. The taxi cost us another 100K.
Coming back, we departed from Hai Au bus station on the eponymous Hai Au bus. The bus departed full, meaning the trip was even faster as we didn’t have to stop to pick up more passengers along the way. We paid 95K VND (approximately 4.20 USD) each for the trip back to Hanoi, which took just 1.5 hours (no rest stops).
If you’re travelling in Vietnam on a tight schedule, Haiphong might not be your first choice. But it does make for a delightful overnighter to break the journey between Hanoi and Cat Ba Island—or just as a little escape from Hanoi. We didn’t see another Caucasian tourist the whole time we were there—to be honest, it was a nice change from Hanoi. Fair to say that Haiphong is off Northern Vietnam’s tourist track. Have you been to Haiphong?
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