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Not just a port town: Hai Phong reveals her hidden charms

By Calvin Godfrey   December 11, 2016 | 02:00 am GMT+7
Not just a port town: Hai Phong reveals her hidden charms
Photo by VnExpress/Calvin Godfrey

Perhaps because no one considers Hai Phong a great place to visit, it is.

Unsolicited wake-up calls had worn some of the charm off Hanoi.

A municipal chorus of horns, recorded sales pitches and fighting generally prohibits sleep or sane thought beyond the hour of about 8 a.m.

So why not take a restorative holiday, alone, in beautiful Hai Phong?

The notion of doing just that went viral two years ago, when a Buzzfeed listicle built on stock photographs dubbed the town “generally safe”. Like most proponents of Hai Phong travel, however, Buzzfeed treated the port as little more than a base from which to explore Ha Long Bay.

What about Hai Phong for Hai Phong’s sake?

Last month, the Municipal (Communist) Party Committee pledged to make key sites within the city national and international tourist destinations.

"The city will develop tourism in parallel with protecting the environment, promoting cultural values and local cultural identities, ensuring national security and defense and maintaining social order," Vietnam Tourism reported, without explaining what that would involve at all.

For those just tuning in, Hai Phong exists in the zeitgeist as something between the Cleveland and the Naples — an industrial port, as famous for intravenous drug use as it is for organized crime.

That's not entirely Hai Phong's fault.

French colonists dreamed it would serve as the economic engine to the whole of Indochina, shortly before they began shelling it.

Following independence, America mined its harbor and bombed the rubble left behind by the French.

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A railroad crossing. Photo by VnExpress/Calvin Godfrey

The fact that there's a Hai Phong at all serves, perhaps, as a testament to the scrappiness and integrity of the town — two words that don't exactly sell cruise ship tickets.

Buses, trains and daily flights all land in the city — and yet no one seems to vacation there. Even the people actively traveling there couldn't believe they were going.

“There is nothing in Hai Phong,” said Long, a hung-over 30-year old cinnamon salesman who planned to celebrate his recent divorce with a bender. “Only gambling and prostitution — and you need lots of money for that.”

(In fairness to Hai Phong, Long also believed South Korea contained “nothing” but cold weather, cabbage and cops who fined him for smoking on the sidewalk.)

Like most people, Long warned of the dangers that lay ahead.

“You can't just go anywhere you want,” he said. “It's not like Hanoi.”

Hai Phong itself seems determined to clean up Hai Phong.

Just ask Phi Huu Tao who attacked an elderly security guard bicycling along with a pair of galvanized pipes for between little and no reason.

According to Hai Phong Security newspaper, Tao cried “thief” before snatching the poor geezer’s flashlight, breaking his arm and kicking him into a rice paddy.

Last month, a municipal court condemned Tao’s armed assault as “reprehensible” before sentencing him to time served.

“This should be a lesson to everyone,” the paper concluded, without really articulating the lesson at all.

Do not carry galvanized piping or flashlights of any kind?

Alternatively, the lesson seemed to be that there was something terribly wrong with the town itself.

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Balloons. Photo by VnExpress/Calvin Godfrey

On a recent crisp November afternoon, I found a city that had been spared the modernization and beautification campaigns that have reduced Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to dusty gridlock.

At the center of the city, people assembled brooms and jackets from low houses painted variegated gold. Gardens filled vacant lots and women sold strange and beautiful food on every conceivable corner.

It felt like stepping into a Vietnam I'd thought no longer existed — the kind of place you'd want to spend weeks exploring on a bicycle.

“It is,” a blonde South African told me as she sailed down the sidewalk. “Best of all, there are no foreigners!”

I checked into a room overlooking a moat surrounding what once served as a colonial-era horse track before being transformed into a Soviet People's Theater. Today, the island at the center houses a sports arena for the Communist Youth Union.

Reliable sources fishing in the waters around the track urged me to make way for the wonderful eats along Hang Kenh Street, where I joined street sweepers on a sidewalk for rice cakes steamed in banana leaves.

Thick and loaded with ground pork, they tasted closer to Yucatan tamales than anything I’d eaten in Vietnam. The woman serving them (who declined to give her name) threw in a steaming cup of fish sauce dosed with chopped cilantro and fresh chili.

She called them “Banh Beo Hai Phong” with no small amount of pride.

All of this was just laying the ground work for two plates full of what may be the world’s greatest sandwich.

A three-woman team builds this wonder on an electric stove they never turn off. One woman shaves brick after brick of fatty pate into cucumber-sized baguettes; another tosses them into the oven until the pate melts into a crispy crevice. A third adds a pinch of pork floss and a smattering of real Anchor butter, which shoots this simple sarnie high into the running for the best thing ever.

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Best thing ever... Photo by VnExpress/Calvin Godfrey

By the time I could walk, the sun had set over the city — which was about to become incredibly friendly.

I made my way through the town's obligatory pedestrian space, which had been recently revamped to allow children to rent and drive plastic, motorized vehicles. Eventually, I found myself edging toward the port, where a portly woman grabbed me by the wrist and asked me if I wanted, um, a massage.

I told her “no thank you,” in Vietnamese. Which was a mistake.

Her eyes lit up as she tossed me onto a stool at a nearby tea stand to interrogate me about where I was from and what I was doing and when I'd get married and why I wasn't already married and where did I teach and why didn't I teach and where was I from and how old was I and why wasn't I married...

The next thing I knew Linh appeared.

Dressed in a beaded hood, a leather cowboy hat and a pair of gardening gloves, Linh presented a picture of a German woman he once saw in a coffee shop and asked me to introduce him to her. Because I looked German.

Linh wouldn't tell me how old he was because he lived in heaven.

This made everyone at the tea stand quite uncomfortable. They told him to go away because he was being rude. Linh told all of them they were being rude. Just then a woman popped out of an alley and pointed at herself and asked me if I would like to have some.

The woman who had originally propositioned me thought that was quite rude.

In the course of half an hour, Linh had physically attached himself to me. Somehow, I had agreed to take care of him for the rest of his life or so he thought. When I tried to run away, Linh followed.

A couple enjoying che. Photo by VnExpress/Calvin Godfrey

A couple enjoying che. Photo by VnExpress/Calvin Godfrey

At some point, a swarm blew in on loud motorbikes and began filming the presentation of a teddy bear and a bouquet of roses to a woman in her mid-20s.Thankfully, a 52-year old man stinking of rice wine swooped in and drove me back to the Opera House where about a hundred teenagers had amassed to practice making balloon animals and compare customized two-wheel vehicles.

When she had all the teddy bears and flowers in hand, the people around her set off fireworks.

All of this seemed great when compared to a lifetime of taking care of Linh. But eating all those acorns had made me hungry, so I wandered down the street and joined a crowd of very well-dressed people devouring glutinous rice dough balls filled with black sesame paste served in ginger broth. Then I ate just the black sesame paste, fresh coconut and chopped crullers.

On my way home I was accosted by a crocodile skin salesman and a paint distributor who sat me down for bitter tea and share their enthusiasm for the election of Donald Trump.

Talking about Trump on such a full stomach proved too much. And so I excused myself.

Just before reaching my bedroom, I met Luther who loved Hai Phong.

“Do you know where I can find a good sandwich?” he asked, bursting out into the stairwell stinking of beer.

I did indeed — but it was 11 o'clock at night.

Luther didn't seem to care; he knew a great sandwich was never more than a few minutes away in Hai Phong.

Luther hadn't ever graduated from college but he'd had 40 or so jobs under his belt. He claimed to have worked in the Twin Towers, which is how he knew 9-11 was an inside job.

He lived full-time in the room below me with his bass guitar and paid his rent with English lessons.

Luther was halfway into a story about dropping acid with Prince's producer at a wedding in Western Kentucky when I said something unintelligible and ran up the stairs into my own room.

I can't recall what I told him, but I think it was something to the effect of, “I'm sorry, I think I've had too much Hai Phong.”

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Quitting time? Photo by VnExpress/Calvin Godfrey