I had a flashback in Hong Kong when the waitress at our local dim sum joint in Western Hong Kong island slapped menus onto our table and said quickly and impatiently in English, “What are you ordering?” The bustle and clamoring of the restaurant mingled with the honking and general street noise of Queen’s Road West: everyone was busy, and no one had time for two confused tourists.
On the surface, Hong Kong – covered in November fog and lit up florescent at night with old British colonial road names and cantonese conversations – seemed like an expensive, crowded, dirty city that’s caught in between the cross fires of Eastern and Western identities. We had just arrived from Singapore, jungle paradise with ridiculously clean roads and public spaces, into an uncleaned Airbnb apartment wedged next to two open air meat stalls. We were supposed to be on vacation and instead, it felt like we had stepped into the Manhattan of the Far East, or, Asian Gotham.
After a night’s rest and some explorations, I developed three distinct impressions of Hong Kong over the course of our 6 day vacation that distinguished it from any other place we had traveled so far.
Impressions 1, 2 and 3
My first impression of Hong Kong was how vertical it was. The hilly, steep city was built with steps and layers that led to new roads, explorations and curiosity shops filled with Chinese pastries, weird dried sea creatures and boozy delights. Jungle mountain peaks overlooked the harbors, and if you examined closely along the forested trails, you’d see the massive engineering efforts made to keep the mountains from sliding down across the skyscrapers and straight into the ocean during inclement weather. Every part of each mountain peak has been given a number in order to identify any engineering needed during a tropical emergency.
My second impression of Hong Kong was the smell. In Mandarin, “Hong Kong” or “Xiang Gang” means “Fragrant Harbor”. I had been expecting this to be symbolic or historic of old, colonial trade ports delivering spices across the oceans from China to Europe, but the city smelled deliciously like dim sum and roasted meats even in 2018. The open air restaurants and food stalls – aided by some cooler mid-November winds (it was solidly in the mid-70s F) – wafted whatever delicious concoction was being made along the busy streets and alleyways throughout the city.
My last impression of Hong Kong was the jungle. Unlike Manhattan where ever square space of greenery outside of Central Park is fenced off and private, Hong Kong remains wild. Just a quick hike into Victoria Peak from Hong Kong’s concrete jungle into the real jungle reminded me of how much wilderness remained undeveloped (and thankfully so). Even a quick taxi or Uber ride out of Hong Kong Island and into the many national parks helped us forget that just 20 minutes earlier, we were wedged between pedestrians, buses, and cars on an overcrowded street surrounded by blocks of skyscrapers. I had been expecting the layers of history that most guides tell visitors to look out for – the multi-generational look of a street corner filled with food stalls wedged against British-built roads weaving between Beijing-influenced sky rises; But I had not been expecting that, alongside the layers of history, there would be a backdrop even older, rising higher than any of the other skyscrapers and looming with green vines and tendrils, sounding the older calls of feathered inhabitants and the island’s original landlords.
I’m pretty certain to get the most out of Hong Kong you need to just focus on two simple activities: food/drink and exploring Hong Kong’s natural scenery. Luckily, both complement one another (the more you exercise and explore, the more you can eat).
Food & Drink
Dim Sum: You would be making a huge mistake if you arrived in Hong Kong and didn’t have dim sum for breakfast or brunch at least twice. The best dim sum comes from Hong Kong, and there are so many places to eat the delicious little tapas-like buns filled with savory or sweet delights that going once will only limit your experience*. I’m pretty sure we had dim sum every day, and it never got old. I typically used the Singapore hawker stall method of finding a dim sum joint (there are at least 2 on every block) of (1) checking which ones had a long line and (2) smelling the outside to see if the wait was worth it. If you’re looking for something famous or well rated, try the Michelin rated Din Tai Fung and Dim Sum Library.
*if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, I am sorry, but I truly cannot help you.
Michelin: Maybe I’ve been missing something throughout my travels, but I have never seen such a concentrated number of Michelin starred restaurants in one hilly neighborhood as I did in central Hong Kong. We’re not talking just Asian restaurants either, but Italian, French, Japanese and of course, Indian (which in hindsight makes sense given Hong Kong’s British history). We had the pleasure of traveling with a friend who tends to have good taste in the restaurant scene and enjoyed Bombay Dreams (go for the lunch special) and Qi – House of Sichuan which also surprisingly didn’t break the bank. Be sure to make a reservation.
If you’re not in the mood for fine dining, which we often weren’t – especially since we’re long term traveling – you can find any number of small mom and pop shops that serve equally delicious food for 1/10 the price just by following your nose and checking out how busy the place is. The busier and louder, the better. This seemed to be a fail proof method of off-the-grid dining finds all over Hong Kong.
Adult Beverages: One of my favorite British influences in Hong Kong was in some form of gin, scotch, cask conditioned ales, and the Imperial pint. Just take a walk down Hollywood Road in Central Hong Kong, and you’d likely feel enticed to wander into any one of the many open walled bars filled with shiny top-shelf liquors, imported French wines, and beers on tap. As a warning, like the rest of Hong Kong, it’s expensive. So budget wisely. A fairly memorable bar for me was Ginger Whisky Bar, a whisky speakeasy where you can listen to the bartender talk about any one of the hundreds of bottles available as if it were some epic novel.
Exploring Beyond the City
After stuffing myself with dim sum and trying out one too many cocktails, I found myself with island fever and the need to explore beyond my mouth and stomach. Thankfully, Hong Kong made it easy to escape urban life for one on water or mountain.
Harbor: Hong Kong harbor offers some pretty fantastic ferry rides which will give you Hong Kong’s history with a view. My recommendation is to take the evening Star Ferry (< $10/pp) which runs about once a day and stops in front of the Hong Kong Island skyline for the light show. It’s both kitschy and mesmerizing at the same time.
Like the rest the Asian cities we visited so far – Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore – nighttime is spectacular. It’s in these moments, on the boat rocking across the harbor and watching the laser and light shows light up the city, that I truly understood how the East is the electronics capital of the world.
Victoria Peak: By far my favorite Hong Kong Island activity was running/hiking up Victoria Peak, the closest mountain trail to our Airbnb. I liked it so much, we did it twice. After a 1 mile Stairmaster through the jungle, you hit the road that runners often take to get to the Peak. It’s about another mile or so until the top. I suggest you start slow and steady as you ascend about 1300+ ft in 4 miles. Once you get up there, there’s plenty of parks and walking paths that offer a view of the city and harbor as well as a huge tourist mall called “The Peak” where you can grab lunch and coffee before descending and causing irreversible damage to your knees.
For those who are less excited by the idea of grinding up teeth gnawing stairs and slopes, there’s a Victoria Peak tram that leaves from the center of the city. My suggestion is to show up as early as possible as the lines can become unbearable later in the day.
Hikes: Since we had 6 luxurious days in Hong Kong, we were able to allocate one full day to exploring the wildlife outside of the Island. Just a short 20 min uber ride away is Kam Shan County Park which is famous for its monkeys, rumored to have escaped domestic life years ago and now populate the park like squirrels in Manhattan. They’re pretty cute, fearless, and tend to hang out where all the food may be: in the picnic areas. When I arrived, I thought I’d have to hike around to find the monkeys. Little did I know, they’d be looking for me. Be careful not to get too close, and don’t feed them. It’s illegal and it really harms them in the long run.
There’s a feeling that I’ve come to associate with each new place we visited during this year long, travel-the-world adventure. For example, Andalusia will always be magical as Scotland will always be wild. When I think of Hong Kong, though, I can’t quite place the feelings intersecting somewhere between excitement, nostalgia, mystery, sadness and anxiety. It isn’t just the cultural changing of guards from Britain to China – one that marked the end of a 150-year annexation and the symbolic end of the British Empire in 1997. Somehow, it’s a feeling that Hong Kong has always been in transition, its ports sitting between the East and the West, pulled in multiple directions today and across history, held in tension, keeping balance all while trying to find its own way into this ever changing world.
In this way, Hong Kong feels personal, like a close friend. It isn’t just a city, a series of islands, or a strategic economic power house but instead a pulsating, vulnerable, living thing that has grown, been fought over by two superpowers, and is struggling to keep its own identity. The irony I see, though, is that with every transition into some new world order, Hong Kong only solidifies its place and its own history.
In my greatest hopes, I see this once small, fishing village turned cosmopolitan powerhouse as a place of understanding and a meeting point of two very different philosophies. Because of this, I raise a drink to the future of Hong Kong and its potential to be the foothold of diplomacy.