Vietnam's third-largest city, with a population of more than 1.8 million, has been a hub of industrial activity for the last century and one of the most significant seaports since the Tran dynasty’s rule (1225–1400). Haiphong's reputation as a dingy industrial port is by no means justified. This is indeed the largest and busiest port in the north, and container trucks rumble through town on the way to Highway 5 and Hanoi. But the port itself is on the northern edge of the city and hugs the Cam River, away from the heart of the city. As you cross the Lac Long Bridge into the city center, you leave the dusty, industrial outskirts and slip into a quaint, clean downtown. Here huge banyan trees and blossoming magnolias line wide boulevards, and Vietnamese play badminton in the stately Central Square (Quang Truong). Walking through the city center feels like stepping into a time warp: portraits of revolutionary heroes, especially Ho Chi Minh, hang elegantly from the eaves of buildings; socialist realist propaganda posters announce the latest health-awareness campaign; and swarms of bicycles fill the streets.
Today you are most likely to use Haiphong as a transfer point to destinations like Cat Ba and Halong Bay. Here you can catch a cyclo to the port, and take the first boat out. If you have time, however, settle into an enjoyable two-day stay in Haiphong before moving farther afield. Some say it is what Hanoi was like not too long ago: a sleepy northern city with less traffic and less nightlife, but bursting with potential. It's very easy to navigate central Haiphong. Sidewalks on the main boulevards are wide, and the parks and gardens provide ample room to roam. If you've come to Haiphong by car and plan on a day of leisurely sightseeing, have the driver park at a hotel and then go for a long walk.