Buzzing HAI PHONG is a great place to get a handle on urban Vietnam. A city of almost two million souls, it’s the third largest in the land, though with just a fraction of the big two’s tourists and expats, your presence is likely to be greeted with genuine surprise. Most travellers rifle straight past the city to Ha Long Bay, but those who choose to alight in Hai Phong will see a wholly Vietnamese city. Although a little scruffy around the edges, it’s central broad and bustling avenues are shaded by ranks of flame trees and dotted with well-tended colonial villas. Most of these villas lie along the crescent-shaped nineteenth-century core that forms a southern boundary to today’s city centre, where you’ll also find some other superb specimens of colonial architecture.
Hai Phong is well connected to both Hanoi and Cat Ba and can function as a good stopping-off point for those who don’t fancy joining a Ha Long Bay tour. It’s a good place to hole up for a while, thanks in part to its strong café culture – there are clutches of giai khat on every major road, and most of the minor ones too.
Hai Phong lies 100km from Hanoi on the Cua Cam River, one of the main channels of the Red River Estuary. Originally a small fishing village and military outpost, its development into a major port in the seventeenth century stems more from its proximity to the capital city than from favourable local conditions. In fact it was an astonishingly poor choice for a harbour, 20km from the open sea with shallow, shifting channels, no fresh water and little solid land. The first quay was only built in 1817 and it was not until 1874, when Hai Phong was ceded to the French, that a town began to develop. With remarkable determination, the first settlers drained the mosquito-ridden marshes, sinking foundations sometimes as deep as 30m into huge earth platforms that passed for building plots. Doubts about the harbour lingered, but then, in 1883, the nine-thousand-strong French Expeditionary Force, sent to secure Tonkin, established a supply base in Hai Phong and its future as the north’s principal port was secured.
The 20th century
In November 1946 Hai Phong reappeared in the history books when rising tensions between French troops and soldiers of the newly declared Democratic Republic of Vietnam erupted in a dispute about customs control. Shots were exchanged over a Chinese junk suspected of smuggling, and the French replied with a naval bombardment of Hai Phong’s Vietnamese quarter, killing many civilians (estimates range from one to six thousand), and only regained control of the streets after several days of rioting. But the two nations were now set for war – a war that ended, appropriately, with the citizens of Hai Phong watching the last colonial troops embark in 1955 after the collapse of French Indochina.
Barely a decade later the city was again under siege, this time by American planes targeting a major supply route for Soviet “aid”. In May 1972 President Nixon ordered the mining of Hai Phong harbour, but less than a year later America was clearing up the mines under the terms of the Paris ceasefire agreement. By late 1973 the harbour was deemed safe once more, in time for the exodus of desperate boat people at the end of the decade as hundreds of refugees escaped in overladen fishing boats.