This seems kind of strange to consider, but I think we just returned from our last vacation ever. Don’t worry, we’ll still be embarking on our grand travel adventure soon enough. It’s just that our future travel won’t qualify for the title of a vacation. It will just be our everyday life. As such, we wanted to make this last real vacation count. To do that, we decided to branch out of our comfort zone and make our first ever trip to Asia. It was a whirlwind trip through Hong Kong and Vietnam in 10 days. And while I never want to move at that fast pace ever again, it was a ton of fun.
If you’ve never flown across the Pacific Ocean, I can vouch for the fact that the flight is brutal. It was 15 hours after takeoff in San Francisco until touch down in Hong Kong. Obviously that sounds like a long time but allow me to provide an extra bit of context. I started the trip by watching 3 consecutive movies and when finished, there were still over 9 hours left until we landed. Ouch. My longest flight segment prior to this was only about 9 hours total. As such, I can’t really imagine doing that too often. So when we next visit Asia, we’ll be staying for a while. (High five to all of you astute readers who recognize this as foreshadowing.)
After subjecting ourselves to that torturous experience at 30,000 feet, it’s easy to imagine how happy we were to finally be there. But it wasn’t just the fact that our feet were back on the ground. Hong Kong turned out to be a really fun city and the perfect jumping off point for the novice Asia traveler. Owing to its status as a former British colony, there’s a fairly high level of English and nearly all of the signs are in both Chinese and English. This leads to some rather awesome translations like the “Woosung Street Temporary Cooked Food Hawker Bazaar”. How can you not like that? The hardest thing was probably remembering which way to look for traffic when crossing the street, since they drive on the “wrong” side of the road there. So all in all, it was a nice and easy introduction to the largest continent on earth.
It had been a while since I’d been in a large, dense city. While we spent 10 days in Paris last year, the tallest building there is the Montparnasse Tower, which most Parisians would describe as an eyesore that they’d prefer didn’t exist. In fact, they hate it so much that shortly after it was built they passed a law banning any future buildings from being taller than 7 stories. Conversely, it seemed like the shortest building in Hong Kong was a minimum of 20 stories, with most stretching a lot higher. It reminded me a lot of New York City, including that same palpable sense of energy that radiates from everywhere. But despite the density, it was not a concrete jungle. While the city is dominated by hundreds of gigantic skyscrapers, it’s also strategically interspersed with green spaces. Even the humble office building courtyards are filled with plants and trees. It creates a beautiful juxtaposition of urban landscape with nature.
Nowhere is this combination of man-made and natural beauty more apparent than at the iconic Victoria Peak. At a height of nearly 2000 feet, it dominates the city and provides its most popular tourist attraction. In a miraculous stroke of luck, we visited on what turned out to be the clearest day in months. The views were breathtaking.
Of course a beautiful clear day means that we were not alone in wanting to visit the overlook. And it’s these crowds that are responsible for my first bout of culture shock. While we took the bus up to the peak, we decided to take the tram down. The old rickety tram cars resemble the cable cars of San Francisco and whisk you down 1300 feet in only a few minutes. Despite the quick trip, the limited capacity means that there was a queue to catch the tram back to the bottom of the hill. After about 20 minutes of snaking through it, we were waiting amongst a small crowd of people on the platform for the next car to arrive. The full tram arrives, opens its opposite side doors, and allows the passengers to debark. Once empty, the far doors close and the near doors open for us to board.
The split second they opened there was a surprisingly powerful and unexpected crowd surge toward the entrance doors. I’ve dubbed the experience The Crush. It was like we accidentally stumbled into the crowd at a 4am Black Friday doorbuster sale. Katie was closest to the door with me behind her, and probably would’ve been about the 4th or 5th person to board if this was back home. But because she didn’t make an aggressive move towards the opening door, the tiny gap that was left was just enough room for a miniature Asian grandma to hip check and elbow her out of the way.
Not prepared to run over these people just to get a seat, we dumbfoundedly accepted our fate and boarded near last. It should be stated that the tram operators are running a tight ship. The single entrance to the boarding platform is at the end of the queue, and only the number of passengers that will fit on the tram are allowed to join the boarding area. It’s guaranteed that everyone there is getting on. Nevertheless, the whole group including children and elderly decided to heave forward to cram the doorway with barely any restraint.
The Crush was not limited to just the tram either. While not quite as violent, we experienced it again later that same evening when boarding the ferry to cross the harbor from Hong Kong island back to the Kowloon Peninsula where our hotel was located. In the same manner, despite being assured entry, people pushed and crowded their way on as if they were in real danger of the boat leaving without them. Maybe it’s old age, but I’m just not willing to knock elderly ladies down and step on children just to board public transit. Or maybe I just needed more time to acclimate. Next time watch out!
This isn’t to say that we didn’t enjoy the tram ride or the ferry trip. The tram was definitely an adventure. Due to our lack of participation in The Crush, we missed out on a seat and chose to stand near a door in the middle. The ride down was quite steep and we had to hold on tight to make sure we didn’t end up tumbling down into the next car. That was kind of fun. The ferry trip was something special though. We rode it twice from the island back to the peninsula, and while the view back to Hong Kong island is cool during the day, it’s a true sight to behold at night. I should mention that the fare for this view was $.25 each, easily the best bargain in the city.
I was also surprised to learn that Valentine’s Day was a big deal too. I guess maybe that was a bit myopic of me, thinking it was only a Western thing. Despite never celebrating this Hallmark holiday at home, we had great timing for the occasion in Hong Kong. They have a distinct flower district spanning multiple blocks to serve the needs of the millions of resident romantics. And it was hoppin’ on February 13th! Deliveries were spilling out into the street as the florists prepared for their busiest day of the year. This allowed us to gawk at all of the gorgeous bouquets and arrangements.
While flowers were a popular item, they were definitely not the only things being shopped for. Hong Kong is also a world class shopping destination. That doesn’t appeal to me specifically, but I was intrigued by the fact that each fancy brand name store like Prada, Hermès, Louis Vuitton, etc had rope stanchions outside of their doors where people would line up to wait for their turn to shop. It wasn’t because the stores were packed though. Apparently they only allow a handful of people inside at any one time. I guess that’s one way to try to maintain an aura of exclusivity that a 700% markup versus similar goods just can’t properly convey. Judging from the number of people willing to wait, it must be working.
All up and down the main shopping streets, there were people dragging along their wheeled suitcases. We learned that they were most likely mainland Chinese residents that had come to Hong Kong specifically to shop. They made a day of it, filling their suitcases with the finest consumer goods the Special Administrative Region had to offer before catching the train back over the border. I can’t say I’ve seen that before, at least not at that volume.
We also were fascinated by different beverage offerings. While not as adventurous as David at Egg Banana Travels when it comes to trying random drinks, we were continually intrigued by the variety of flavors offered. When we’re at home we usually just drink water, but here we found ourselves constantly ducking into the local convenience store looking for new discoveries.
I think our new drink experiences, while not always successful, emboldened us take some adventures in street food as well. It didn’t hurt that we happened upon a Michelin recommended street food stall. That helped make it seem a little less risky. But either way, you only live once. Katie got hog maw and chitterlings soup and I got fish paste duck soup. They were both, um, interesting. Not sure I’d repeat the order, but it was a good experience. We followed that up with a local specialty of egg waffles for dessert. They are made from a sweet waffle batter, but molded into thin honeycomb shaped bubbles that hold your choice of filling in each one like banana, taro, or black sesame. Super delicious.
Since this was our first trip to Asia, many people told us that we needed to be prepared for culture shock. Even our Uber driver who took us to SFO mentioned it. Despite using the term earlier, I don’t really like it. While Hong Kong was surely unique in many respects, the cultural differences were an easy adjustment in most cases. I feel like culture shock implies that we expect things to be the same as at home or that we won’t know how to handle the differences. While I didn’t expect to experience The Crush, that’s at least somewhat attributable to the lack of seating for all passengers and generally happens on public transit during rush hour in every major city in the world. The fun part of travel is the differences. If everything was the same it would be boring, but very little was shocking. Then we arrived in Vietnam.