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Hai Phong - Portrait of a Port Town


Evenings in Hai Phong are lit with fountains and bubble over with couples and families. The streets stay open late so that boutiques welcome passersby while fresh fruit stands dot the sidewalk with blenders and tall glasses of cool fruit shakes. Hai Phong is a port town that lies on the northern coast of Vietnam, approximately 100 KM north of Hanoi. It preserves the quaint colonial charm of its past while making a name for itself in modern architecture.

"Hai Phong" in Chinese means sea defense, and in fact this sea-side metropolis has served as a port city for several centuries, being the primary seaport of Vietnam's northern region. In the mid-nineteenth century, when the French invaded Vietnam, they claimed Hai Phong as their main navel base in Indochina; it is currently the nation's third most populous city.

Despite having been a frequent wartime target, Hai Phong has retained much of its bygone colonial charm, while continuing to press forward at a remarkable pace. "Hai Phong leads as one of the foremost industrialized and modern regions in the country," reads a recent government decree, "with promise to become a fully industrialized, civilized and modern metropolis before the year 2020". And the kinds of changes that the city has witnessed over the past decade have been proof to such potential.

Traces of Hai Phong's colonial past nestle in the city's wide, breezy lanes and along major streets where buildings like the courthouse and the city opera loom with tall windows and boxy balconies. Many of the city's former colonial homes have been modified over the past two decades, but the ground floors still stand inside elaborate iron gates, and columns dominate within the structure of the buildings. Entire lanes branching from the main road that once housed massive private homes have since been split into smaller houses for rent.

The city's nostalgic architecture is further enhanced by its abundance of trees. Hai Phong is famous for it "hoa phuong", or Phoenix flower, which blooms brilliantly red from canopied trees, scattering down onto the streets against schoolgirl?s traditional white Ao Dai dresses. Fewer phoenix trees now stand in Hai Phong than they used to, but in their place are tamarind, and more recently Bang Lang trees (lagerstroemia), while coast Do Son, 30 kilometers to the East, rolls with green pine hills and sand born coconut trees.

The northern edge of Hai Phong city is split by the Cua Cam River, where the Hai Phong Port is located. To the west is the brand-new Binh Bridge, whose cables cross the river in measured arches. South of Hai Phong Port lies the city's center, where the river used to curve through it before the French regime turned the skinny flow of water into a long path of parks, between Tran Hung Dao road and Tran Phu Road. running perpendicular to the Cua Cam River, this long pathway now houses five major squares and three new fountains (at the Flag tower Open garden, Le Chan Garden and Nguyen Van Troi Garden), a lofty statue of ancient war heroine Le Chan, and the opera house, now adorned with the red banners and raised flags of the Party.

Intersecting the parkway is Dien Bien Phu, where colonial architecture reigns on both sides of this wide boulevard. At number 65 is the Hai Phong Museum, long painted a raspberry-rose hue and still in its colonial angled form with tall, arched windows and gothic gates built after weapons from the middle Ages. Erected in 1919, the museum holds 14 exhibition rooms covering 9 main subjects.

Just south of the opera house is the Co Dao Market ("Missionary's Market"), along Tran Nhat Duat. Fruit stands, donuts, rice noodles, Chinese parties, fresh jellyfish, grilled squid, and crab spring rolls can be found all down Tran Nhat Duat, which is towered over by an out-of-service mosque, all four corners of which are anchored by four individual towers topped with crescent moons. This area was once a Muslim marketplace, while the former mosque is now used as a publishing house. Its square frame, arched windows, and tear-dropped tower tops impressively blend colonial and Oriental architecture.

Like the city's industry and infrastructure, Hai Phong's architecture also plunges forward into new and noteworthy projects, in the form of houses as well as in larger community buildings. Most notable of all is the Viet Cultural Park, a stadium and commercial center with a capacity to hold 8 to 10 thousand visitors, on the road to Do Son (10 Pham van Dong road). This stunning glass and steel monument arches sharply in the shape of a boat, seeming to float over the flat landscape before arriving at the hilly coast. One of Vietnam's largest and most carefully designed pieces of architecture, the Viet Cultural Park was built in 2003, designed by Hanoi native Nguyen tien Thuan. Mr. Thuan's model was selected from over 50 different designs entered in a competition.

"Thus project was chosen unanimously", writes the selection committee for the Viet Cultural Park. "The image of a boat in a port city leaves a powerful impression. It carries with it the very unique trait that has built the base of Hai Phong's economy, differing it from other cities across the country." Other projects continue to sprout around the city, including the new medical university, restorations of the Opera house, the Bing Bridge, and the Tien Phong bookstore (built in lat 2005), covering 600 m2 of land on Lach Tray Road.

Hai Phong's architectural legacy continues to steer its way into new waters, preserving the treasures of its past while setting the foundations for a promising future.



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