Tropical China still delivers on history and culture

This is sponsored content for Hainan Tourism.

Away from Hainan's idyllic beaches, the capital of Haikou has street-food-laden alleyways, historic quarters and coastal terraces packed with seafood restaurants. The streets are lined with coconut palms adding a tropical feel to the town and earning it the sobriquet of Coconut City.

Haikou has a long history and it has been better at preserving it than many mainland cities with charming neighbourhoods in the capital lined with traditional buildings from as far back as the 13th century. These shopfronts echo the "five-foot-way" with the tiny shops set back off the street under a porticoed walkway; it's a style that found favour in other tropical spots like Malaysia and Singapore and is very handy when you get a sudden seasonal downpour.

The Haikou old town also reminds visitors of Hainan's French colonial past. The European influence appears in cobblestone eateries, many of which have been renovated to protect their history and most contain tables that spill out into the street.

Strolling these neighbourhoods, like the area around Zhongshan Road, is a must-do activity and you will often be the only tourist heading off the beaten track to get a feel for what life is like in the capital, the locals living above the bustling arcade beneath.

Street eats

Fairfax Traveller. Hainan China. Mission Hills Golf Club. Haikou. Photograph Dallas Kilponen

The infamous local dish in Haikou, Hainanese chicken rice. Photo: Supplied

Foodies will want to head to the appropriately named Snack Street in Quilou (most towns in Hainan have one). All the local street food vendors are corralled into a single alleyway identifiable by the plumes of steam coming out of the various stalls. The go-to dish here is Hainanese (or Wengchang) chicken, the breast of the bird steamed with spices and citrus served with a dipping sauce and rice. The free range chicken is fed on local banyan seeds, delivering a sweet flavour to the white meat.

Much of the delicious smells on Snack Street come from the Chinese barbecue stalls with glazed pork, duck and seafood all being cooked on skewers, perfect for taking to the beach

And you can't be in a city that is surrounded by ocean and not try the seafood. Away from the street food there are a wealth of seafood restaurants many with terraces looking out on to the sea. Select a local crab from the tank and have it cooked for you fresh, opt for octopus lightly grilled with garlic and chilli, or perhaps order a whole steamed fish from the market that morning.

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Nature and culture

Fairfax Traveller. Hainan China. Movie Town Haikou. Photograph Dallas Kilponen

The quirky Movie Town in Haikou. Photo: Supplied

In the north of the city, the Dongzhai Port Nature Reserve offers a look into island life before it became such a busy port town. The reserve is mostly low-lying mangrove swamp that attracts a huge array of native birds.

There is more greenery on offer at the tomb of Hai Rui, a popular local official during the Ming Dynasty. Built in the 16th century the tomb has a beautifully curated garden of stone statues and coiffed trees. It's the perfect spot for an afternoon amble.

There is also a very modern way to step back in time in Haikou, thanks to the quirky Movie Town development. Built as a petite Hainanese Hollywood, and part of the sprawling Mission Hills Resort, Movie Town has been recreated from historical photographs with a central clock tower and functioning movie theatre. Movie extras dart in and out of the shops wearing traditional Chinese dress.

The town, that mimics Shanghai in the 1940s, is the brainchild of Chinese director Feng Xiaogang (Aftershock) and it attracts tourists from all over China who like to rent traditional outfits and parasols and play at being a time traveller.

The Li People

The Li People of Haikou.

Weaving is one of the traditional textile techniques of the Li. Photo: Supplied

On the streets of Haikou now, many of the locals you meet will come from another part of China, such is the draw of the seaside life in Hainan. But the original inhabitants of this island paradise are the Li people and the island loves to celebrate the ancient culture of its first people.

The Li first inhabited Hainan island around 1000BC and there is a protected area, the Li Autonomous Prefecture, at the base of Five Fingers Mountain where their descendants still live.

The Li were animists, they believed in totem animals and named each day of their 12-day week after the animals of the Chinese zodiac.

You can explore the Li culture, including the practice of Li women tattooing their faces with geometric designs, at the Hainan Provincial Museum (Guoxing Avenue, Haikou).

This article has been produced in association with Hainan Tourism. 

Direct flights are available from Sydney-Haikou & Melbourne-Haikou. Upon arrival in Haikou, high-speed rail is available for travellers visiting Sanya and other island locations.

For more information on flights to Hainan, see https://hainanairlines.com

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