I thought I would finally write a post about Hai Phong - a city that became my home for 6 months in the north of Vietnam.
Hai Phong is located in North-East Vietnam - 1 hour from Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. It is an industrial city and is the third largest city in all of the country. It is also a huge trading port and one of the busiest in South East Asia. The main city is urban with crazy traffic, independent businesses and moto-entrepreneurs (people sell food and all sorts on their motorbikes!). The first thing that pops into your head when you step into this busy city is how on earth am I going to cross the road! Secondly, the smell of pollution instantly halves your lung capacity and thirdly, no one speaks English, how will I get by! I was in for an experience of a lifetime and I was ready.
|Beautiful Hai Phong|
The first week of living here was a whirlwind. I have lived in cities before but this was different. Finding our way around was a mission and looking for places to eat was a nightly adventure! The first day we arrived at our hotel we were not too happy... we did then find out that the hotel is a brothel and is often used by the prostitutes who work at the massage parlour next door! But it became a normal thing to say hello to the prostitute walking down the stairs after a session. However, our receptionist was a lovely woman who tried so hard to accommodate us and had a constant smile on her face! Some strange events happened while we were there such as waking up to blood covering the walls of the stairwell and naked men walking into rooms that people forgot to lock at night! We did get used to living here eventually but there was always an unexpected event that happened! I kept saying to myself 'at least I will remember it here!' My view was pretty good though from my room and waking up to the most beautiful sunrise in the morning with a cup of tea... could not be beaten.
|The view from my room|
So, the first thing we had to do was find somewhere to eat. As sceptical westerners who wanted to try all the food but at the same time wary of it, finding somewhere we all liked was trial and error. The first few nights we found a place down the road that did Hot Pots! Tables and chairs were placed outside the 'restaurant' which was also opposite a lake. I say 'restaurant' but it was basically a man with a gas bottle and a large pan! Hot Pots are one of the most common dishes in Vietnam and consist of choosing your protein - either tofu, beef, chicken, pork or seafood combined with leaves (they were called vegetables but they looked like leaves so I don't actually know what they were!), mushrooms, broth and of course, noodles! This is all boiled up in a big pot and everyone shares this. I really enjoyed eating hot pots!
We ended up finding several places that became our local. The main one which we called 'The Rice Place'. This was a tiny building on the main road of Lach Tray. You had to cross the busiest road to get here but it was worth it! Once again this is a place where you eat outside on little chairs and tables. If we were in the UK, this place would be shut down instantly. But this guy did the best rice we could find and I ate there pretty much every single day! He would fry the rice in a huge wok over a massive fire and add all sorts of flavours! You would also get a small bowl of broth and cucumbers in vinegar to wash it all down afterwards. All for 25,000 dong... that is £0.70. That with a beer for another 70p and you've got yourself a fab dinner!
|The Rice Place|
Another place that became a favourite was known as 'The Vegan Place' - how inventive of us! It's name was the Loving Hut. Unlike most vegan restaurants in the West, this place did not have a large range of vegetables. In fact, the only vegetable you could get here was cabbage or a few bits of salad. But, there was a huge range of 'fake meat'! I have no idea how they did it but there was so much selection and every plate tasted completely different! We went there as you could point to whatever you wanted and they would put it on the plate for you. They would then add this all up and you would pay at the end. The most I ever spent was about 50,000 VND... £1.60. There were pictures up on the wall of celebrities advocating healthy eating and veganism and we got to know the family and their precious baby!
And thirdly, my favourite place for food was 'Sawadee' - a Thai hot pot place which tasted AMAZING. I am still longing for it and miss it now I am back home! This is essentially a hot pot with spices and flavours I do not even know how to replicate! Except we could have our own hot pot each and they often refilled it with more broth and more noodles! This place I recommend so much.
|Sawadee Hot Pot|
I will do another post about the food in Vietnam but want to do a large range of foods as there is so much! Foods also differentiate a lot per city too. But these are my favourite ones and our rooms did not have a kitchen so eating out every night was a requirement.
Most of the weekends we left Hai Phong to go and travel other places but a few were also spent mixing with the locals and drinking beer! A common evening for us was to have Bia Hoi on the street chatting to 'The Bia Hoi Lady' who loved to top up our beer and 'một, hai, ba, vô!' - one, two, three, cheers! Once again this beer was about 8000 VND - 20p. Loved life being this cheap! She would also supply us with prawn crackers to nibble at as we got drunk! Bia Hoi is beer that is made that morning and must be drunk within 24 hours before it goes off! It tastes so fresh as there is no preservatives and can be drunk quite quickly... Unfortunately when it became cold during the winter, she left and there was no more local bia hoi place! We aren't too sure what happened to the lady but we did see her with a large gang at one point and said something about splitting up from her boyfriend.
|Bia Hoi on Lach Tray|
|Fox Bar with the girls|
|Dancing in the rain|
One of my most favourite parts about Hai Phong was the countryside. I loved travelling just outside of the city and seeing green for miles. I felt like I was in true Vietnam when we got to escape the hustle and bustle and watch the farmers work on the land and kids running around. One of my high schools was situated in the countryside and I used to love looking out of the window (when I got a moment!) and admiring the view. Such beauty.
|Hai Phong Countryside|
Another place I liked to go when it was summer was the rooftop pool! About 10 minutes drive away there was a beautiful hotel which had a rooftop pool and a gym. It was pricey but we didn't have access to a pool so we paid up and spent a fair amount of time there. The views were great and we got to see the whole of Hai Phong from the top. It was a perfect place to relax, indulge in some luxury and spend the day after a hectic weekend of teaching.
Looking on the positives, the people in Hai Phong were amazing. They were so incredible, kind and welcoming, always trying to help you and loved to smile. I miss this every day. I would walk from my hotel to the shop and each time people would stop and say 'hello' or want to take a photo of you. They wouldn't try and scam you either which can happen in many touristy places. But not here. I once went to buy some fruit from a street vendor and was not sure of the price. The Vietnamese language is incredibly hard due to the accents on each letter so one word can mean several things. Anyway, I guessed what she said and handed her the money which I thought was a reasonable amount. Apparently I gave her too much and she was really trying to hand me some money back. I insisted and said no she can have it but nope, I was to take my money back. In other tourist places they would keep the money, but this lovely lady was so honest with me! I can post about beautiful locations, yummy food and even complain about some of the crazy things I had to endure but the best thing I can take away from this experience is that I got to meet incredible humans. I made awesome Vietnamese friends and they are what made it so memorable.
Although I didn't really spend too much time in the city where I lived, the time I did will always be remembered. They say that Hai Phong is the 'true urban experience' and it was. And I am thankful I got to experience it!
'Whoever said New York is the city that never sleeps clearly didn't step foot in Vietnam'