he news that Beijing-Sanya is the most popular flight route for the upcoming Spring Festival is not a surprise to many. It seems like three out of five Chinese families head toward the white beaches of southern Hainan for the two-week holiday in winter. While that probably won’t change anytime soon, the capital city of Hainan has left a much deeper impression on me. Haikou lies on the northern tip of the island and boasts a romantic old town, side streets with street dining spots and herds of motorbikes filling the streets. Yes, Haikou seemed like a slightly overlooked, and in that way, better version of Sanya to me.
Haikou bears a southern Asian charm of humidity-touched white buildings, palm trees lining the streets and a mix of intoxicating food smells rising from the restaurants. Yes, the district of luxurious hotels stretching along the coastline is inevitable for any island destination, but that is also quite pleasant and is even affordable compared to other resorts.
While Haikou remains the most populous city of Hainan due to the concentration of industry around the urban area and proximity to the mainland. However, Haikou rarely feels crowded, due to its stretched-out area and wide streets, except in the old town.
The food remains one of the main draws, with sumptuous seafood dishes tempting travelers at every corner. Since I am a “try a little bit of everything” girl, heading to the centrally located Qilou Snack Street was a good choice. It certainly serves as a good introduction to Hainanese cuisine, with a plethora of dishes with either seafood or coconut.
Walking around stalls with dish names I didn’t know how to pronounce made me buy way too much food but with very little regret after. Top off the seafood feast with a sip of Hainanese local “firewater”or a bottle of beer if it’s too early in the week for hard liquor to be cracked open.
Many food guides will insist travelers try Hainan chicken rice, but for me, it came far behind the variety of fried fish generously dressed in herbs and at least 10 fresh kumquats squeezed on top, young coconuts (pro tip: carrying your own rum bottle might just lead to endless piña coladas) with soft flesh that can be scooped out with the spoon and garlic-topped grilled oysters. If possible, always ask for suggestions from the restaurant owners, but beware that they might try to make you buy the most expensive dish, especially if the restaurant is in a touristy area. However, the locals are warm and chatty, just as their southern hospitality requires, so if you call them out on their sneaky scheme, you both might just get a great laugh.
Hainan certainly delivers when it comes to coconut sweets. Coconut cookies, chewy and hard candy and other sweets make it heaven for anyone who is a sworn coconut lover. Naturally, coconut oil is a must-buy item when in Hainan. It doesn’t get more local than that!
Besides the feast of overeating, the other most surprising thing was the old town. Seeing pictures of central Haikou that looked like scenes from a soapy Latin TV drama only got me suspicious. Will it be another pseudo-European old town that has only existed for 20 years? With my suspicion leading the way, I ventured from the Qilou Snack Street into Zhongshan Road only to be caught off guard. The narrow streets with cobbled pedestrian ways stretching to the sides, dormant plant vines engulfing balcony fences, and locals smoking and chatting just outside the restaurant doors painted a romantic scene with no tacky buildings to be found. What bliss! White old town blocks with metal bars over the windows, apartment doors squeezed in between the shops, and restaurants were glowing with unmistakable southern China elements. The old town looks impressive during the daytime hours but even more so after sunset when the light underlines architectural twists and turns of the buildings.
It is probably slightly difficult to explain such fascination with central Haikou, but traveling around China usually brings a completely different concept of old towns and so this was unique. I had to check back in with reality. Exploring the map I noticed an icon for a clock tower. Most of the older cities in China still have such towers (either drum or bell) that mark the center of the old city and look familiar – a gray tower with a curved roof in the middle of a large junction. However, the clock tower on the bank of the Haidian River was nothing like I expected. The tall and lean reddish brick tower with the clock on top reminded much more of a southern European old town than China. While many tourists don’t find it particularly interesting, it is a good spot to watch some square dancing, dating couples and admire the night panorama of the river.
My lack of understanding of such an old town proved amusing for the taxi driver. “Many workers from Haikou went to Singapore to make some money, where a lot of architecture was Portuguese-inspired. After they came back, they built the same thing here!” he related the story of the Portuguese-inspired architecture while driving on one of the wide new roads stretching along the coastline.
For those looking to take it all in, Haikou offers a few temples and museums worth visiting. Hainan is a treat for those who like provincial museums, and the Temple of Five Lords serves as a monument to five officials that were exiled to Haikou during the Tang and Song dynasties.
Given that Hainan has much longer been considered a remote place of banishment than a tourist destination, the legends, and stories of those exiled still resonate in Hainanese history and culture.
Unlike Sanya, Haikou does not have so many beaches, but the majority can be reached along Binhai Avenue, which follows the coast. If you are willing to drive further, the hotel cluster on the far western side of Binhai Avenue offers plenty of space for swimmers. Although you might need to share it with the fishermen, so be careful not to get hooked.
At a time when half the country is flooding to Sanya, Haikou offers a great escape from the crowds and far more interesting history. I still went to see Sanya, and it only confirmed my initial thoughts – next holiday season, it’s Haikou for me, not Sanya.