First Stop in Asia: Make it Hong Kong

Read more about my Self Care Sabbatical and the other places I’ve visited! 

A friend who had been living in Asia for the past two years was offering some Southeast Asia advice. Her first and most important tip was not to fly to Bangkok directly.

“Don’t go to Bangkok first,” she warned. “You’ll have to go there eventually. But it will be too much at first.” Instead, she suggested Hong Kong or Singapore as my first stop where I could then fly into Northern Thailand.

This sounded smart. And I had never been to Hong Kong, wouldn’t be going to mainland China, and it would be easy to get there from New York.

I am SO GLAD I followed her advice! By the time I arrived at my hotel in Hong Kong, I had been traveling for more than 24 hours. My flight had a 3-hour layover in Shanghai (where I’d fortunately had lounge access) followed by the short flight to Hong Kong. I had barely slept on the 14.5-hour flight from New York. I felt like a zombie. I’d missed Friday. It was now midday Saturday, I felt disgusting and exhausted, and I had to power through my first day to fight the jet lag. It was going to be rough.

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I got myself cleaned up and out on the streets of Hong Kong. For the first time in a long time, I was nervous about finding a place for lunch and generally sort of getting around. Sure, I had tons of tips and recos and this wasn’t really that different from being in Paris or Madrid…but this was my first time in Asia. It just felt so different. I couldn’t rely on conversational French or basic Spanish.

For that first day, I stuck to my recommendations and found a quick lunch of fish cake noodles at Tsui Wah, a local chain. I was ushered to a shared table and quickly located the noodles I wanted (along with some milk tea because I didn’t know what it was but it seemed like something I should try). My food came in less than 5 minutes. I was back out on the street in 20 minutes.

This was not Europe.

The rest of the day was a bit of a struggle to stay awake. Basically, I kept walking around to keep my energy up, forcing myself to keep moving even though all I wanted to do was go back to the hotel and crash. I made the (poor) decision to get in line to take the Victoria Peak Tram that first night and, after nearly 2 hours of waiting in line, I was shoved up onto the Sky Terrace with all of the other tourists. I could barely enjoy it because all I kept thinking about was getting back to my hotel (and calculating how long it would take). By the time I finally did get down, it was much later than I planned (nearly 8:30pm). I was sleepwalking as I boarded the tram back to the hotel.

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fish cakes and milk tea

But the next morning, Sunday, I was like a new person. I was ready to get out and explore. To eat all of the food. To see as much of this big city in the 2 full days (and one morning) I had left. As Sunday afternoon rolled around, I was totally falling for this city. I had never had much interest in coming here and now I was eyeing the Westerners who lived in HK with a bit of envy. It continued to be overwhelming, particularly anywhere with a large crowd, but it was also super charming and delightful. I began to get excited about returning at the end of my trip before my flight to New York, already plotting out what I would do during my return visit.

Getting Around: My favorite thing about HK was the public transit. Everything felt so efficient (ESPECIALLY after being in New York for a few days). The subway was easy to use, the double-decker trams were quite cute, and I even managed to take some express buses a few times. Getting to and from the airport was incredibly easy on the Airport Express (you can buy your ticket online in advance of your trip here and get a discount on the price!). Even the Octopus card for the transit system was easy and could be used at a variety of other places like 7-11. Taxis are not very expensive either so you can hop in one if you don’t want to deal with the public transit.

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Where to Stay: I was not at all sure what area would be best for a first-time visit to HK. I ended up staying just west of Central at the Courtyard Marriott (I had some Rewards points to burn), and I loved this hotel and area. I found this post helpful in choosing where to stay.

Things to Do: I only had a few days and I doubt I scratched the surface with what to do in HK!

  • Go to the top of Victoria Peak – This is a must do in HK, but it’s also a total pain to visit. You can take the tram, take a taxi, take a bus, or walk. These are your options for coming down as well. I chose to do this twice – once in the daytime and once at night. I hiked up during the day and I really liked going up this way – it was hot and humid though so be warned (try going earlier in the morning before it gets too hot). It is an easy enough walk but steep. I also took the tram up and that was a major pain. I waited in a very long line to get on the tram, it’s crowded and people are obnoxious. The tram ticket gives you access to the Sky Terrace, not that exciting because it is so crowded. I couldn’t wait to leave. To get back down, there was another long line for the tram (likely at least another hour of wait time). I decided to skip it and try taking the bus instead. There was a line, but it moved quickly and I only waited about 15-20 minutes to get on a bus. The bus takes a bit longer to get back down, but it was totally worth it. If you go earlier in the day the wait times are generally shorter. Once you are at the top, you can walk around to some various viewpoints and there is also a short trail that loops around so you can see views around the island. At night it’s harder to see all of these views!

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  • Take the Star Ferry from Hong Kong Island and enjoy the skyline views. Once you’re across the harbor, you can walk around and get some great shots of the city. I did this at night which was pretty awesome. You can either jump on public transit to go back or spend some more time in Kowloon after getting across. You can use the Octopus card on the Star Ferry which is super convenient.

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  • Visit the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery – You can take public transit to get there. There are a lot of stairs, but it’s worth it for some nice views. Spent about an hour walking around here. It’s not a working monastery, but it’s cool to see.
  • Visit Lantau Island (this is on my list for my return visit!). This is the home of the Big Buddha and you can visit the island via ferry.
  • There are also hiking and beach areas on the south side of Hong Kong Island. I didn’t have enough time to visit these areas, but they provide a nice alternative/escape from being in the city.
  • Visit the markets – the Ladies Market is insane, I much preferred the Temple Street night market which didn’t feel quite so crowded.

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Eating & Drinking:

Most of the recommendations I received from friends were places to eat. There is so much to try and I was overwhelmed at first. I wanted to try everything!

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breakfast at Ma Sa
  • Dim Sum is a must in HK, but being solo I didn’t end up having dim sum while I was there. I did find a Dim Sum Tour offered by Hong Kong Foodie Tour, but it was not available while I was visiting.
  • Eat at a dai pai dong (“restaurant with a big license plate,” though used to refer specifically to open-air stalls serving cooked food). On more than one occasion I found myself as the only Westerner pulling up a plastic stool at one of these stalls, but every meal I had was delicious, inexpensive, and a more interesting experience than just opting for a restaurant. One of my favorites was Shing Heung Yuen. I had the macaroni noodles with tomato, egg, and sausage. It was basically like a Chef Boyardee soup with an egg and a hot dog in it. And I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.

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  • Another favorite was Ma Sa where I went for breakfast. Most of the diners were having the simple breakfast sets, but I wanted the special egg, pork & rice dish (not on the menu, I had to point at a photo of it to order it). It was massive and delicious.
  • Get the wonton noodles at Mak Man Kee Noodle Shop. Then go next door for dessert (see below).
  • Try the egg custard at the Australia Dairy Company. You should also taste the steamed milk at Yee Shun Milk Company for comparison 🙂 I was really into these little restaurants that serve eggs, toast, steamed milk, tea/coffee….they reminded me of diners, they were super cheap and always busy at all hours. Breakfast for dinner every day? Into it.
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wonton noodles and kale
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egg custard
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steamed milk
  • Go to Kam Wah Bakery. Shove your way up to the register in the front. Point at something that looks good. Pay your money and walk away. Find a semi-quiet area and dig into whatever deliciousness you purchased. (I didn’t know what I had bought, but it was awesome. Turned out to be a cocktail bun and wouldn’t be my only one).
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the cocktail bun from Kam Wah bakery
  • Try the french toast. One of my favorite meals was breakfast at Shui Kee coffee, a little stall tucked away inside an indoor food market. The french toast was likely the best I’ve ever had. I came THISCLOSE to ordering more.

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  • Try the Typhoon Shelter crab at Yuet Wah Wui. It’s not cheap, it’s a lot of food, and good for sharing. Also, order the fried tofu. And a beer (that crab is spicy).

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