Haikou (pronounced HIKE-oh) is the largest city on Hainan Island, directly east of Vietnam. China is making an effort to brand Hainan as a tourist destination to foreigners. In 2009, Beijing officials made the proclamation that the island is the “Hawaii of China.” An ambitious claim, though it has brought more attention and visitors since. It is still a bit rough around the edges, but that means you can find a real authentic experience. Hainan is China at its most relaxed, and still a largely undiscovered corner of Southeast Asia.
Exploring with "Pink Sugar"
I visited Haikou to see a friend for a couple of days, and she graciously offered to show me around on her bright pink scooter. For the first day, a tour, on the back of “Pink Sugar” (her scooter) was in order. We zipped through the old town, surrounded by other scooters, like a chaotic urban river winding through domiciliary canyons. We made a brief stop by the actual river, before continuing on to downtown. The riverfront had a green, tree-lined promenade with a park-like feel. I was beginning to feel like I was not in China.
Old Town's Mediterranean Elegance
We continued on to old town Haikou. The delicate molding and window arches on the pastel building facades reminded me of resort towns on the Mediterranean. The European architecture and bronze statues lining the main pedestrian thoroughfare only solidified my first impression. How could this be China? It is so pretty! These pretty areas did seem to be missing something: other people. Local Chinese were all busy with their day-to-day lives. Was I the only tourist? It appeared to be so.
We parked the scooter to have a closer look. The two of us walked down the wide, empty street, popping into shops and cafes to see what was available. There were actually a decent amount of cafes, offering ice cream, fresh juices, coffee, and local food. After some deliberation, we chose a cafe with a picture menu and European-style, stained glass windows. We enjoyed our coffee and fried noodles while catching up and scratching at the curse of mosquito bites.
Dessert Delights at "Food Street"
Later that evening, we visited “Food Street,” or the local hawker stalls, to pick up some coconut ice-cream. We waited in line while the Chinese patrons ordered their dessert with an array of toppings most westerners would find, at the very least, unusual: corn, kidney beans, tapioca balls, mung beans, and quail eggs. Toppings that hit a little closer to home, like pineapple, watermelon, and raisins, were also available. However, we opted for the naked ice cream.
Unanticipated Thrills at Baishaman Park
We loaded our ice cream and our bodies up onto Pink Sugar and puttered over to Baishaman Park. This hidden park near the beach seemed to get bigger the further we ventured inside. The entrance appeared to be like any other park in an Asian city: an oasis of green amid a sea of people and tall buildings. Once inside, an amusement park sprang out of nowhere. Fully equipped with a Ferris wheel, bumper cars, and a roller coaster, this park had everything a child or child-at-heart could ask for. As I enthusiastically slurped my ice cream, I had a flashback of living in Central California. The salty sea air, satisfying and refreshing ice cream, and shrieks of delight from joy riders all gave an atmosphere of youthful, carefree summer vacation.
Secluded Beaches and Unexpected Hurdles
The next day we thought it would be nice to get some sun, so we surveyed the surrounding beaches and decided on a secluded and empty beach near Wangmen Port. Determining the name of this beach by asking and Internet searching was not possible because of the lack of English available. Kayaks were available to rent, and it was in the plan to take some kayaks out and paddle around the beach. However, when I went to dip my feet in the water, I saw some strange-looking foam collecting at the water’s edge. I looked up and saw a construction site about a mile away. I suspected that some construction pollution was leaking into the water and suddenly didn’t feel like kayaking anymore. I was a little disappointed, but the beach was still nice. The sand was powdery white, barely any clouds in the sky, and finding a lounge chair was no problem at all.
For better or for worse, Haikou remains an undiscovered corner of the tourist map. It’s a truly local experience. Very little English is available and the tourist infrastructure is minimal. However, outside influences are equally minimal. The food is authentically Chinese and you don’t have to elbow your way through the backpacker crowds found in many other parts of Southeast Asia. It was unfortunate that I was only able to spend a couple of days there. I know there is more to see and do on Hainan Island: geo-parks, museums, water sports in Sanya to the south, and hidden beaches all around. In my short time there, I was able to see the growing pains the city was experiencing in re-branding itself into a beach destination. It may not become the next Hawaii, but in a couple of years, I suspect Hainan will become a much more familiar name.