Xin chào dear readers!
I had forgotten, in my comfortable little apartment near Westlake, what a privilege it is not to have to drive the AH14 (the highway you’ll most likely take if you do any biking from Hanoi to Hai Phong/Cat Ba) for more than an hour at a time. By the time I reached Hải Dương, a mere 1.5 hour drive from Hanoi, my weary little legs were screaming only a little louder than my back from the strain, and a hotel called. And to think I was driving 6 hours, round trip, from Hai Phong to Hanoi and back in a single day every Friday in December…
My plan was to be a bit adventurous and haggle for a nice price at a Nhà nghỉ (which roughly translates to “guesthouse” or “hostel” or even “love-motel,” something a rung below hotel, if you’re in the right [or wrong] part of town), but I went for the familiar- or relatively familiar- the Hoang Gia Hotel on Hồ Bạch Đằng, a beautiful little lake around central Hải Dương. For 350,000 VND (or around 15 USD), I got a double room with a massive king-sized bed and a cute little balcony (without a lake view, sadly, but a balcony nonetheless).
Arrival: The receptionist, whose name I didn’t catch, didn’t know much English, but was very helpful when I asked for coffee and breakfast recommendations, since there was no breakfast included at the hotel. One might have thought her curt, but chances are, not many English-speaking tourists come by this little town, so our communication was pretty limited. They hold on to your passport, which always makes me a little queasy, but on the other hand, they have a garage for your bike, so that was super convenient.
General Appearance and room: For 15 USD, the room was fantastic- flat screen TV, aforementioned balcony, a big (yet characteristically firm) bed- I was happy after my long drive. The door locks were less than comforting- just a push-button lock and a slide bolt on the inside- but I’m picking a few nits. Overall, it was very comfortable. The rest of the hotel was much like the Hanoi 3B Homestay- a very lavish lobby with spartan halls and decor around the rest of the hotel. Unlike the Hanoi 3B Homestay, the minibar stock wasn’t free, but there are so many little snack shops around the hotel that this is hardly a problem. I was stuffing my face with local pastries by the end of the night. Always find the local pastries in the convenience stores- they’re pretty much always delicious, and for less than a few cents a pop, you can only feel guilty about eating WAY too many.
Local Attractions: The aforementioned Hồ Bạch Đằng is a jewel in the heart of Hải Dương. On a nice day, you can take a swan boat out for a little jaunt, meander around its well-manicured banks, and just enjoy the peace that Hoàn Kiếm Lake simply can’t offer. I also count the truly amazing Angelic Coffee as an attraction, because of its unbeatable view of the city; sip your Cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee with condensed milk) and enjoy the privacy of your little booth.
While actually taken at Ay Cafe and not at Angelic Coffee, this is your standard Cà phê and complimentary trà (tea, kinda pronounced “cha”). It’s worth the wait to let it drip…drip…drip down.
Maybe I’ve just never come at peak hours, but I hardly ever see more than one or two couples in the entire cafe. However, I did ask about some canvas and paint set up, and in broken English, I was able to make out that they host some sort of regular art class- so this has definitely got to bring me back.
If there’s one thing that should draw you here, it’s the charm of Ay Cafe.
I had built a great rapport with the last two waiters who worked there, and sadly, they were not there when I arrived. However, I was met with the most enthusiastic guy who wanted me to pose all over the bar, looking intellectual while pretending to read Vietnamese books and pretending to play guitar on their little stage (where they host live music on Saturdays- don’t miss that, it’s a hoot and a half).
Another huge perk of venturing off the beaten path is that you can find some of the most well-stocked and authentic markets in all of Vietnam. One of my favorites was a stone’s throw from my old abode, and with a little haggling and a lot of smiling, you can get some damn good deals and a whole lot of fun out of it all. Hải Dương also boasts one of the best used clothes markets I’ve ever seen in Vietnam (and one of the only ones, actually), which, as far as I know, is only open on Saturdays. However, if that NorthFake jacket caught your eye in Hanoi, Hải Dương is really the place to get the jacket and a better overall experience than just picking it out of a little storefront, packed with other travelers and expats.
Unfortunately, it was quite rainy when I visited, and (not so unfortunately), I spent a good amount of time catching up with some old friends who still work there, so my coverage isn’t entirely as comprehensive as I would have liked. However, this shouldn’t dissuade you from taking a break here if you ever find yourself along the AH14, dying for a nice bed and a little oasis of tranquility between the bustling urban centers of Hanoi and Hai Phong. Ultimately, the real draw here is the peace and the coffee, but served with so much friendliness and charm that it’s hard to resist. I find myself missing it every day.
As a special note, if you’re interested in teaching English in Vietnam, consider Hải Dương as your destination. They have an incredible array of schools, a few of which are for truly gifted students (and whom I bumped into just walking down the street!), from 6th grade all the way to 11th grade. I hope to write more about my teaching experiences in Vietnam, but I’ll say that in Hải Dương, you’ll develop a fantastic bond with your students (and even your TAs) that will stick with you for a lifetime.