The northern port city of Hai Phong is home to a well preserved "French Quarter," a UNESCO-recognized biosphere reserve, beaches, caves and exceptional cuisine.
Hai Phong boasts a subtropical climate typical of northern Vietnam: hot and humid with heavy rains in summer, dry and cold in winter.
The best time to visit the city is from March to April and from September to October when exploration of its historical vestiges can be combined with outdoor enjoyment at the beach and some boat tours.
Between July and August, storms and rains are likely, but that allows visitors to see the place in a completely different light.
In 1888, the president of the French Third Republic, Sadi Carnot, promulgated a decree to establish Hai Phong and began constructing a series of major buildings on a seven-hectare area from Lac Long Bridge to Tran Hung Dao Street as known today.
This history gives the city its major modern history highlight, the "French Quarter" with rows of colonial houses more than a hundred years old.
The Hai Phong Opera House is standout attraction. All the materials to build it were brought from France and its work supervised by French architects.
The Opera House gathered the elite crowd – French officials and rich locals – who could afford tickets to shows featuring famous troupes from France as well as widely recognized local talents.
In the main performance hall, the Hai Phong Opera House provides seating for 300 patrons over two floors. Its plush, red cushioned chairs shine the gold trimming. The high domed ceiling adds to its grandeur.
Just a few steps from the Opera House is the Kim Dong Park that has its heart a multi-roofed building built in 1942 by the French. Today it serves as a public library of Hong Bang District.
Hai Phong is also one of the main railway stations in the north of the country, and a train ride from Hanoi to Hai Phong makes for a memorable journey.
The city also boasts the first local museum established in the country and is a must-visit destination for all visitors.
Built in 1919 on a one-hectare area covered with old trees, the museum holds an impressive collection of local historical artefacts that trace the heritage of the region as well as a selection of precious gems, traditional items, and old photographs.
As part of the city tour around the "French Quarter," a flower market on the eastern side of Tam Bac Lake adds to the city’s considerable charms.
The flower market has five splendid arched-roof kiosks built in 1941 by the French as a place to buy fresh flowers.
Also, within easy walking distance of the lake is a massive bronze statue of the female General Le Chan, a Vietnamese hero and founder of Hai Phong.
The Hang Pagoda in Le Chan District, which is more than 1,000 years old, is one of the most important Buddhist center in the country.
Around 22 kilometers from downtown Hai Phong is the Do Son beach, which is also home to Vietnam’s first legal casino.
What was once a popular resort area for the French is now a popular weekend retreat, especially for sun-seekers from Hanoi.
An ancient clay tower and a Buddhist temple on Ngoc Son Mountain are other Do Son attractions, as is a buffalo fighting festival in September or October.
The highly picturesque Cat Ba Archipelago, adjacent to world heritage site Ha Long Bay, has 367 islands, of which Cat Ba is the largest. A cruise tour of this place with its limestone karst mountains rising out of turquoise waters is not to be missed.
At the Cai Beo wharf, after buying entry tickets that cost VND30,000 ($1.27) per person, visitors can take a boat or canoe to Lan Ha Bay, located to the east of Cat Ba Island.
Private boat rental price is VND2.2 - 3.8 million for a journey lasting four hours and VND5.7 million for a six-hour-long journey. Each boat can carry up to 25 passengers.
A motorboat cruise costs VND500,000 - 1 million for a group of five to 10 passengers.
An advantageous option is combo packages at VND200,000 - 350,000 per person, lunch included. The itinerary includes Lan Ha Bay and the Cai Beo fishing village, scuba diving service and freestyle kayaking.
The Cai Beo village is said to be the oldest of its kind in Vietnam and considered a living museum of Vietnamese fishing culture.
The floating village, with around 300 households, consists of dozens of houses that float on green clear waters.
Kayaking in Lan Ha Bay includes the thrill of going through the Bright and Dark caves bordering Ha Long Bay.
A trekking trip to the Cat Ba National Park, which was recognized as a world biosphere reserve, is a highly rewarding experience.
The Kim Giao - Ngu Lam trail is the most popular route that takes about an hour to reach the top.
Kim Giao is 300 meters high with rows of stone benches serving as a place to rest before continuing on to Ngu Lam, which is 700 meters further. At the 220-meter high Ngu Lam peak, visitors can enjoy a panoramic view of the mountainous landscape from an observation tower. It is also a great lunch spot.
For this two-hour trek, visitors need to bring their own food and water as there are no shops along the route.
As an economic hub of the northern region hosting several international tech giants, Hai Phong has developed a nightlife that finds favourable mention among foreign visitors.
Some popular bars and beer clubs in Hai Phong are Play House Bar, Fleur d'Or Maison Bar, King Disco, Peerage Bar, Lucky Pub and Zozo BBQ Grill Bar.
The Tam Bac walking street along the banks of eponymous river with street food stalls, bia hoi and entertainment venues is an ideal place to hang out at night.
In downtown Hai Phong, luxury hotels like Hotel Nikko, Mercure Hai Phong and Vinpearl Hotel Imperia are located near popular tourist attractions with room rates of VND1.2-2.5 million ($50.72-105.66) a night.
More affordable options are Vinhomes and Hoang Huy or the Dreamland - Chihouse, Vancao Green Homestay with prices starting at VND250,000 per night.
Hai Phong has several high-class resorts along pristine beaches, mainly in Cat Ba.
The Flamingo Cat Ba Beach Resort, Hôtel Perle d'Orient Cat Ba - MGallery, Nam Cat Island Resort CatbaBay and Monkey Island Resort offer luxurious living at VND1-2 million per night.
Hai Phong is a land of culinary gems that local authorities have highlighted by launching several food tours.
People who know Vietnamese cuisine well will immediately identify "banh da cua" as a Hai Phong specialty. The dish of flat, brown noodles cooked with crab meat, shrimp, pork meatballs, pork wrapped in la lot (piper lolot leaves), morning glory, green onions and other veggies has a nourishing broth.
Try the dish at 143/46 Lach Tray, 2b Pham Ngu Lao, Ms. Thai's stall inside Chu Van An market or 16 Phan Chu Trinh.
Spicy breadsticks with a filling of "pate," or ground pork paste, and served with a special chili sauce is served at 28 Dinh Tien Hoang, 57 Le Loi and 184 Hang Kenh.
The breadsticks are best served with the special chili sauce from Hai Phong. Photo by Trung Nghia
Crab spring rolls with a stuffing of ground crab meat, lean pork, kohlrabi, carrot, ear mushrooms, bean sprouts, rice paper, vermicelli, and seasonings are often served with rice vermicelli, lettuce and cucumber, as well as a sweet-spicy-salty-sour dipping sauce.
Some addresses to try this dish are Mai Phuong stall on Cat Cut street and No.323 stall on To Hieu Street.
Sui din, a cake made with pounded rice, sesame seeds, peanuts and coconut, is boiled before being placed in a bowl and drenched in a sweet-salty sauce. This popular street food was brought to Hai Phong by Chinese immigrants living in HCMC.
Another Hai Phong specialty is "banh duc tau," a version of jelly rice cake, served with fried shrimp, pork and papaya, all soaked in a sweet, chilly vinegary sauce.
A highly popular stall serving this treat is at 159 Hai Ba Trung Street in Le Chan District.
Hai Phong is also famous for dua dam, or coconut sweet soup, and coconut milk coffee, which can be tried at 124 Lach Tray or 100/124 Lach Tray.
From Hanoi, the fastest way is an 1.5 hour motorbike ride on the Hanoi-Hai Phong Expressway.
The Hoang Long and Anh Huy transport companies sell bus tickets for VND120,000-135,000 per person. A limousine with drop-off service in the inner city costs VND230,000-250,000.
There are daily flights from HCMC to Hai Phong with airfares ranging from VND900,000 to 1.5 million.
Story by Phuong Anh, Hoang Phong