When you’re traveling in Vietnam, it’s quite difficult to find a place where you won’t see at least one foreigner strolling around, looking seemingly lost. Cities such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are all well known tourist destinations with hundreds of hostels, foreign restaurants and bars which caters to travelers. But there’s one city in Vietnam that still hasn’t reached its full potential and where you can still get a glimpse of how Vietnam was before tourism came. The city is called Hai Phong and is located only 1 ½ hour away from Hanoi, approximately 120 km. It’s also just a 40 minutes drive to Halong Bay, making it the perfect pit stop if you’re heading to the UNESCO World Heritage site. But what exactly is there in Hai Phong and why is it still so unexplored? Let’s have a look.
History of Hai Phong
When Hai Phong was still just a small market town, the French took possession of the city in 1874 and claimed it to be theirs. Once in the hands of the French, the city developed rapidly and became a major port, thanks to its coal supplies. The city stood its ground both during the Franco-Viet Minh War and during the war with the US. These days, Hai Phong is one of the largest cities in Vietnam and boasts a busy port.
Why are there so few tourists here?
Since Hai Phong is so greatly located between two of the country’s most famous cities – Hanoi and Halong Bay – it’s difficult to compete with its likes. Hai Phong hasn’t gotten as much recognition either or marketing, which is another explanation to why there are so few tourists here. The city is big, there’s plenty of opportunities here, but there’s no real tourism establishments, making it perhaps a more “difficult” place to travel to.
What is there to do here?
Hai Phong is a wonderful tourist destination which has many pagodas, mausoleums, temples and shrines you can visit. It’s also a fast growing city with plenty of shopping malls, hipster cafés, restaurants and even bars where you can grab a beer or two. Many people describe Hai Phong as how Hanoi was, before tourism came, and it might very well be true. It’s a lively city, full of charm and beauty, but just without all the tourists. If you want to experience a city that hasn’t yet been run over by tourism, you need to visit Hai Phong quickly.
How to get there
If you’re starting in Hanoi, you can either go to the bus station “Gia Lam” and take the bus straight to Hai Phong. The buses usually start from 6 in the morning and end at 19:30. The bus ride only takes around 1 ½ hours, depending on traffic (and the bus driver!) and drops you off close to the city centre.
Where to stay?
If you’re a backpacker on a budget, you probably want to stay at a hostel. Even though there’s not as many options as in Hanoi for example, you’ll still find a few hostels to choose from. May Hostel is one of the most popular ones with a good reputation and is conveniently located in the center of Hai Phong. They also have a lovely rooftop you can hang out at. If you don’t mind splurging, why not head to Somerset Central TD Hai Phong City, a luxurious hotel where you can relax by their pool, workout at the gym, and enjoy a meal after exploring Hai Phong.
Cat Ba – Just a boat ride away from paradise
If you’re longing for unspoilt beaches, beautiful landscapes and to get away from the hustle and bustle of the big cities, you must travel to Cat Ba. It’s the biggest out of the 367 islands in Halong Bay and is also one of the most enthralling.
It’s very easy to get there from Hai Phong, all you need to do is go to Ben Binh pier to buy the ticket for the speed boat and you’ll be there within 40 minutes. Just remember that during high season, it’s best to book tickets in advance since it sells out quickly. High season is between June – September. The best way to get around Cat Ba is by renting a motorbike, which costs about 100,000 VND per day. This way, you can cruise around the island and find a few off the beaten track beaches that you wouldn’t be able to reach without a motorbike. There’s plenty of other activities you can do here as well, such as snorkelling, kayaking and visiting Monkey Island. One thing is for sure – you won’t be bored in Cat Ba!
If you’re not on the visa exempt list, you must apply for a Vietnam visa in order to enter the country. Depending on which country you’re from, you can apply for three different kinds of visas. The most preferred alternative amongst travelers is the Visa on Arrival, which you apply for online. It’s both easy to apply to and you’ll get it within a few days. All you need to do is fill out an online form, send it, and wait for your visa confirmation letter. The second alternative is to get an E-Visa. However, it’s only launched for visitors from certain countries such as France and Japan. The third alternative is to go to your nearest Vietnamese Embassy or Consulate and apply for a visa with them.