SFO to HCMC via HKG

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – 4-10 November 2018

Far be it from me to complain about flying across the Pacific in business class – but I will say this: Cathay Pacific positions itself as a “premium” airline, but my experience – while obviously better than service delivered by U.S. carriers – was a mixed bag. Check in took way longer than it should have and the agent was not especially friendly nor did she seem particularly well-versed in her job.

The flight crew was competent, but also not especially friendly – plus no slippers for business class passengers and too-small pillows. The food was decent – but the hamburger available as a midflight snack, while still quite tasty, used to come with fries but now comes with chips.

And then there were my efforts to rearrange my flights in HKG to get to Saigon instead of Hanoi, as I was ticketed to do. One agent was very helpful but the early flight to Saigon was full. Later, when I spoke with another agent and indicated that I’d be flying on to Saigon on a different airline and wouldn’t be using my onward business class ticket to Hanoi, accused me of “cheating” (yes, that’s the word she used) when I asked if I could still use the biz class lounge (and which she insisted I could not and therefore did not).

So, yes, flying up in the pointy part of the plane is always better than the alternative – but Cathay is sure no Singapore Airlines. I think they are outperformed by EVA, ANA and JAL, as well.

Anyway, enough of my kvetching about my first world problems. I had a nine-hour layover in HKG, so that was plenty of time to get into the city for a walkabout and – far more importantly – a breakfast of char siu at Joy HIng Roasted Meats in Wan Chai. And it was absolutely worth the trip in, I’m happy to say! Afterwards, I took the Ding Ding Trolley over toward Sheung Wan, then climbed up the hill and walked along Hollywood Road before heading down to check out the harbor and use the free wifi at the mall.

Back to the airport, where my flight on Vietnam Airlines to Saigon departed from one of the dreaded 500 series gates – the gates in the basement underneath the “real” gates. Instead of a jetway, passengers are schlepped out to their plane on a crowded bus. Business class this wasn’t! But once on board, the seat next to me was unoccupied which is a pretty great way to fly coach – plus there were a hot meal served on the two-hour flight!

Finally arrived at airport in Ho Chi Minh after about 26 hours in transit – and of course I chose the slowest line for Immigration staffed by an officer who was apparently VERY PARTICULAR about each traveler’s documents. Sigh… But once through, I stopped to get a local SIM card, which was easy enough – except I didn’t have exact change in my wallet, so had to dig through my backpack and suitcase for the rest of my cash and at which time I also discovered that the See’s chocolate turkey I’d brought for my friend Ak to celebrate Thanksgiving when I’m in Thailand had been smushed. Exhaustion made my reaction to this discovery rather more pointed than was absolutely necessary.

But at least once I left the terminal, I was greeted by my favorite sight after a long day of travel: a sign with my name on it, meaning a car service was here to collect me.

We were on our way to the hotel in short order – but I’d forgotten how absolutely intense traffic in HCMC is. We moved at a snail’s pace for most of the ride and all I wanted was to be in my hotel room. It was at this point I was thinking to myself, “Why do I ever even leave home? The trip takes too long, I’ve made bad decisions about my travel arrangements and my turkey is broken. Everything is ruined!” OK, perhaps I was a bit overwrought…

Made it to my home for the week, the Liberty Central Citypoint in the heart of District 1. Check in went smoothly – though they do love try and upsell which was hard to be patient with given how eager I was to have a shower…

But once in my room, shower I did, then unpacked and had a bit of lie down. I was feeling much better already – and even more so after a bowl of soup next door at the Old Compass Cafe. I’d visited for lunch last time I was here with Ak and we’d really enjoyed it – plus it’s run by the purveyors of the Rusty Compass website, an invaluable resource for places to eat and things to do in Vietnam and other parts of SE Asia.

In fact, I had a walking tour scheduled with Nhi from Old Compass for the next day – and was lucky enough to meet her that evening. In our earlier email about where to meet for the tour, I’d told her I’m easy to recognize, thanks to my big gray beard. Well, she saw me at my table and figured out pretty quickly, “Oh, that looks like the crazy foreigner I’ll be showing around tomorrow…”

Had a nice bowl of soup and more than one glass of Chardonnay – you know, just to take the edge off of a very long day. And it worked! Back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.

Up early and headed down the alley next to the hotel to visit a favorite from last time, Phở Minh. This little place is amazing! Just a few dozen meters off one of Saigon’s busiest streets, this alley is a quiet oasis – and the phở is very tasty. Plus it comes with a couple of bánh patê sô – flaky little meat pastries that are just delicious.

After breakfast, made my way to the Saigon Zoo, the meeting point for today’s tour. I was there a bit early and had the great good fortune to witness a dance troupe of local children in full costume, coming either from dress rehearsal or a performance. Sadly, I didn’t whip my camera out in time, but did manage to capture a photo of two of the boys in their sequined shorts, vests and tank tops. Get on down, little dudes!

Besides Nhi, there was one other tourist, a nice woman from Australia. I did have a bit of a rude awakening self-awareness-wise when she showed up, thinking to myself, “Oh, she’s old.” – only to realize she was likely a few years younger than I… It’s still weird to remember that I am in fact an old coot!

The tour was great, focusing primarily on the history of Saigon and Vietnam along with an emphasis on local styles of architecture. Nhi was very knowledgeable and engaging and had quite a bit of background details on the local tensions between preserving historically important and generally quite lovely old buildings and developing the city’s infrastructure and economy. She also explained that the scooter population in Saigon is the same as the human population – in other words, for every person there is a scooter. That certainly sheds some light on the insane traffic here!

We finished up with a tasty lunch at the Old Compass Cafe. I got to meet Mark, the founder of rustycompass.com, along with the cafe and tour company. He and the other woman on my tour had a good chat about the current state of Australian politics – before the subject turned to the US. Let me just say this: most people who enjoy traveling abroad, wherever they’re from, seem more likely to be “my kind of people” and I’m happy to report these folks were no exception. And let me also add that I was pretty happy to be out of the country for Election Day back home… Being away from the everyday stress of the Trump regime is doing me a world of good.

After lunch, had a nap and did a bit of catching up on social media while deciding where to have dinner. Wandered over to Secret House, sister establishment to Secret Garden where I’d eaten with Ak when I was here last year. Menu at new place much the same: had some just OK clams, some good fried rolls and some excellent seafood fried rice.

Headed back to hotel, but it was still early. I decided to walk by a local gay bar in the backpacker district. It was early, so the place was populated by a couple of pasty-but-now-sunburnt white dudes out front and some louche money boy types inside. Hard pass! And the backpacker district was kind of a hellscape – how surprising…

But once close to my hotel, I Googled “cocktails near me” and found The Alley – located literally right next door to my hotel and down the same alley as Pho Minh and The Old Compass Cafe! That is one magical alley.

Anyway, the place was exactly what I was looking for: not empty but not crowded with a mellow feel and a highly-competent bartender who prepared me a Fusion Gimlet with lemongrass and sweet basil. Excellent! And the perfect way to wrap up my first full day here in HCMC.

While it’s true that adjusting to local time here is pretty easy coming from SF, I’m still waking up quite early – which is mostly fine, save for being ready for bed by 9PM. But there’s also tons to do in the morning here, especially when it comes to eating.

I set off in search of Amen, a noodle stand serving hu tieu nam vang that I’d read about here. It seemed simple enough – right on the corner of Hiem 178 Doan Van Bd and Doan Van Bo, which I found easily enough on Google Maps. And I’d visited District 4 last time I was here with Ak and our guide Vũ. What could go wrong?

Well, to start off it was raining. Not pouring, but def more than sprinkling – though I was able to pick up an umbrella at a Circle K as I made my way on foot from my hotel to District 4. So far, so good!

Once I was over there, I recognized the street I’d started off on last time and took this to be a good sign. Sadly, it was not. I found myself on the exact location described in the article about the soup place and besides the fact that there were dozens of shops, stands and eateries, none of them bore even the remotest resemblance to anything in the photos with the article. I was zooming into the backgrounds, trying to spot matching window styles or shop signs, all to no avail.

While I wouldn’t describe the locals as unfriendly, they were all pretty busy with their own lives and the only fellow interested in my apparent confusion was someone trying to proffer his scooter taxi services. As is often the case, I was really too shy/intimidated to try to ask one of the neighborhood folks for some help. Not knowing the language makes me feel extra awkward… And as I was to find out later from two different locals, District 4 is apparently gangster territory – not that I had any problems, but I guess I’m glad I found this out after the fact..?

And to digress for just a moment: it’s been a while since I’ve traveled solo. I absolutely enjoy it! But it does have a way of preying on my own insecurities. Whenever I’m on the road, all my social media – whether it’s this blog, FB or IG – is putting forward a narrative of how amazing a time I’m having. And that’s true! Even when I’m being self-deprecating, I’m posting the best parts of travel. But I’d forgotten that I tend to be very hard on myself when I travel. Despite the fact that traveling on my own means I can do whatever the eff I want, there’s often the voice in my head saying things like, “Ugh, why are you going to same place for breakfast again? You should try someplace new!” or “Why are you eating in this restaurant? It’s mostly tourists! Why aren’t you going somewhere authentic and local!”

I suppose to some extent it’s an outgrowth of travel shows like Bourdain’s, which prize “authenticity” above all else – which is kind of silly, since he had a whole team of researchers and producers mapping out his shows. When I travel, I can be just as judgmental of others, wondering who’d come all the way to Vietnam to eat in a mediocre Italian restaurant? I’m trying to check these thoughts when I have them – because the fact of the matter is, for any Westerner (Americans in particular) to come to Vietnam is a pretty amazing travel itinerary, no matter if you eat banh mi on the street or duck into McDonald’s for a burger. I mean, it’s obviously a fascinating country – but it’s very different from home for most people and managing to roll with those differences however works for you is pretty great.

Anyway, I’m trying my hardest to be nicer to myself about my choices – but it’s not always easy when I’m on my own and responsible for all my decisions.

Back to District 4. My plan to eat breakfast at Amen was stymied. BUT! Luckily, I still had the name and address of the best pho I’d ever had from my food tour last year – and it was only about an eight minute walk from my current location, so off I went.

Found the place with no problem (thanks again, Vũ, for sending me the address last year!) and had a delicious bowl of soup. Sure, I never did find my OG destination, but who could complain about a great meal at Pho Mui?

Next stop: ANZ Bank ATM. I’d read online that they had a higher limit on withdrawals. The ATM I’d used the other day gave me a mere 3 million dong (heh) – about US$125. It was about a 20 minute walk there – which was both nice, insofar as I saw some different parts of the city, but also an occasionally harrowing reminder that HCMC is not exactly a walker’s paradise (I’ll call out again the stat that the number of scooters is 8 million – the same as the number of residents).

Arrived at the location on Google Maps and discovered a construction site. Super! Eh, it’s fine – and as it turned out, the additional 3 million dong (heh) I withdrew from some other ATM was more than enough to get me through the rest of my visit to Saigon.

Wandered around for a bit. Grabbed a banh mi from a place with good reviews online – it was fine, though nothing to write home about, IMO. I also stopped by Cộng Cà Phê, a place I’d been introduced to in Hanoi: a Vietnamese chain (though they’ve just opened their first shop outside the country in Seoul) of coffee places with a communist military theme – and which serves frozen coconut coffee, essentially the world’s greatest coffee milkshake prepared with coconut milk slush. If they manage to open a branch in SF someday, I’d be both delighted and frightened of how much weight I’d gain… But for now, I’m on holiday and they are delicious, especially after walking around in the hot weather.

Tonight I was meeting up with Vũ. He’d been our guide for a street food tour when I visited Saigon for the first time last year with my friend Ak. We’d kept in touch a bit and he’d told me if I ever returned, he’d take me around to new places to eat – and on his own time at no charge! I’d’ve been happy to simply sign up for another tour, but he’d graciously insisted that he’d take me out on his own time.

He’d also told me that it would be best if I traveled on the back of his scooter – which, while I was still home in SF, sounded a bit daunting – but once I was here, I said, “Eh, when in Rome… And that’s why you paid a little extra for that trip insurance with medical evacuation coverage.” So, we met up in District 5 at 5PM, I perched the tiny helmet he brought me on my giant noggin and off we went!

And honestly? It was fine. Sure the traffic was crazy, but for the most part the pace is not Indy-like – and Vũ was a very steady pilot. I mean, yes, I may have clutched him once or twice when we hit a bump, but at no point did my life flash before my eyes.

He took me all over town. We ate soup with dumplings, quail egg salad, banh mi, banh xeo, rolls and – to wrap up the evening on an especially festive note – a whole bunch of meat and seafood that we (and by “we,” I mean Vũ) grilled up ourselves on a little table top charcoal grill at an outdoor place that also served plenty of cold beer. Oh! And had coterie of lovely cats – who were also surprisingly finicky about what they’d eat! I guess they are so used to being fed by the patrons, they can afford to pick and choose what they like.

It was a great time, especially seeing parts of Saigon I’d’ve never seen on my own, plus eating like a local. Plus Vũ laughed at all of my corny jokes. He really hit this one out of the park.

Thursday was looking to be pretty chill. Wandered around District 1 after a breakfast of pho at Pho Minh again. Compared to other parts of the city, it’s relatively walkable – once you get used to the fact that sidewalks are also used as shortcuts by in-a-hurry scooters who just can’t with the traffic – and there are lots of trees and lovely old buildings.

Eventually made my way to Moc Huong Spa, where I’d had an excellent Thai massage last year when I was here with Ak. He’d complained that his massage was too strong – though I pointed out that he’d been snoring quite loudly during his treatment, so it couldn’t have been that bad!

Anyway, things were not quite the same, sadly. Reception was hectic and disorganized. Several different folks talked to me about the treatment I’d reserved and no one seemed to be communicating with each other. There was another large party there waiting for services, so the whole process was super unrelaxing.

My therapist eventually collected me and took me upstairs for my massage – and it was pretty clear from the get-go that she didn’t know WTF she was doing. I mean, I assume she’d had some training in massage, but not in Thai massage it seemed. Some parts were OK – other parts felt like she was just making stuff up. She had me hanging off the side of the mat, my limbs ensnared in the curtains surrounding the treatment area;  she was twisting my body around into some weird positions; and at several points elbowed me in the face while manhandling me. Honestly, I should have stopped the massage and either left or asked for a different therapist – particularly since later that day, the crick I’d had in my neck from sleeping funny had been made substantially worse by this therapist’s terrible massage. Boo! A real disappointment.

But I did stop for another frozen coconut coffee, so the day wasn’t a total loss. And I was looking forward to my Mekong Delta bike tour the next morning!

 

 

 

Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh

Hong Kong, SAR China – 11 October 2017
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – 11 & 12 October 2017

We had all morning and part of the afternoon to finish up our visit to Hong Kong before heading to the airport. We were up early and taxied to the Victoria Peak – a trick I’d learned before my last visit, i.e. taxi up early to avoid the crowds for the cable car up, then ride it back down with no waiting. Views were quite good and we had very nice weather.

Once back down, we made a beeline for Maxim’s Palace for dim sum. It’s quite well-known and the dining room is huge with a nice view of the harbor. As for the food? It was OK. Honestly, I still like the dim sum better back in SF at Yank Sing. Maybe because I grew up with it, maybe because it’s geared to Western palate – who knows? I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was disappointed, but I also wouldn’t rush back here if I were in  Hong Kong again.

As much as we enjoyed our time in Hong Kong and at Disneyland, the fact is neither Ak nor I had fallen in love with the city the same way we had with some of the other places we’ve visited. I think this had a lot to do with the fact that we had more misses than hits when it came to meals – and just about everything (with the exception of public transit) felt rather breathtakingly expensive.

We took the train to the airport. Wow! It’s amazingly easy. Taxi to the in-town air terminal where, if we’d not been flying cheapo VietJet, I could have checked my bag in before boarding the train and it would be transported and checked into my flight. Even without this added benefit, the train is great and leaves you off right inside the terminal.

We were very excited to make our first visit to Ho Chi Minh City, especially given how much we’d enjoyed Hanoi last year. The flight from Hong Kong was mostly uneventful, save for the weird charade that so many low-cost carriers put their passengers through – that is, weighing carry-on bags, telling you they are overweight and forcing you to offload some stuff into a separate bag which I just moved back to the other bag before boarding. Eh, you get what you pay for…

The ride from SGN airport to our hotel in District 1 was surprisingly fast and soon enough we were relaxing in a spacious (especially compared to our cozy accommodations in HKG!) room at the Liberty Central Citypoint, with a lovely view toward Nguyen Hue St. and Bitexco Tower – along with the somewhat less lovely view of the subway station being constructed just next to our hotel.

The evening started off inauspiciously when the first two ATMs I visited refused to dispense any money. I naturally assumed that I would be completely unable to acquire any cash and that our trip to HCMC was already ruined, but as it turned out, the third ATM I tried gave me the VND3,000,000 (US132) I’d requested. Sadly, this episode put a bit of a damper on our first evening, but we got through it.

Next morning, we were up early and had some phở up the street at Phở24 before returning to our hotel to meet our guides from Saigon Free Walking Tours, Kiara and Tien, for our Saigon City tour. We started of at Ben Thanh Market, just a short walk from our hotel, where we met up with a couple of Aussies who joined our tour. Spent the morning walking about District 1 while our guides talked about the history and pointed out different sights.

We stopped by the beautiful Saigon Central Post Office and had a look around before checking out the exteriors of Notre Dame Basilica across the street. No visiting the inside as it’s under renovation right now.

While we were walking around, Tien pointed out the building just next to where we’d had a coconut coffee at Cộng Cà phê. We were about a block away, so had a good view of the six-story apartment block which had a small square structure on top. It was the site of the now-iconic photo of a CIA Air America helicopter boarding evacuees during the fall of Saigon.

I don’t know why I found this so astonishing. I suppose it’s such recent history that it still feels very much a part of my own memories of watching the news as a child. There’s also something quite jarring about walking through a lovely tree-lined neighborhood (and across from a shiny mall) and being reminded that it wasn’t too long ago there was a war taking place right on this very spot – and all the human suffering that is the result of war. The location felt so ordinary, so the thought of helicopters evacuating people from the roof felt really extraordinary. It was fascinating, yes, but still difficult to wrap my head around.

Next stop was Independence Palace – it’s another spot where it feels difficult to reconcile the history of what went on in this building with the fact that the palace itself is an amazing example of mid-century design interpreted through the eyes of architect Ngô Viết Thụ. The building is marvelous – it’s airy facade and light-filled interiors give it a gracefulness one might not associate with a largely concrete structure.

Even more amazingly, virtually the entire building is open to visitors, from the public conference and meeting rooms on the main floor to the private residences and rooftop to the underground bunkers and sleeping quarters. Much of the original furniture remains – which is so wonderful to see! Until that is, one envisions Henry Kissinger sitting here plotting with the South Vietnamese government. It’s eerie. I enjoyed the building most when I was able to appreciate its design – but it’s not always easy to separate that from what went on here, especially from its opening in 1966 through the liberation of Saigon in 1975. For me, this was the highlight of today’s tour.

We headed back to the post office to say our farewells – but our guides really went above and beyond the call of duty as they not only shepherded us to the Mobifone store to get local SIM cards, they stayed around to ensure that the surprisingly lengthy process completed satisfactorily. Ak and I were very grateful!

Lunch at a place across the street called My Banh Mi. It’s def catering to the tourist crowd – but the food was delicious nevertheless. My banh mi was probably the weakest link, but our crispy rolls and Ak’s pork with noodles were excellent.

After such a vigorous morning, it was obviously time for a massage. We headed to Moc Huang Spa which had good reviews online. They were able to take us right away and I thought the experience was amazing. The massage was definitely of the “intense” variety, which I really like. It might be hard to endure at certain moments, but I know that I’ll feel like a million dong afterwards. I was a little worried that Ak wouldn’t enjoy his massage, since he prefers a more relaxing style of massage – but he was snoring away in the next room, so I assumed he’d survived (despite his subsequent statements that the massage was way too strong and his refusal to believe me when I told him I heard him snoring through most of it).

Dinner that night at Secret Garden. I’d’ve never found it on my own, but the internet gave good directions to the appropriate alley, as did a local scooter driver who helped the two lost looking foreigners trying to figure out which building to go into. There’s a fairly long climb up the stairs (no lift in the building!) to the roof – and then we were welcomed to a charming little oasis on the top of this apartment building. It was raining pretty hard this evening, but the space still had a nice indoor-outdoor feel to it.

Food was great! Ground pork grilled in lemongrass was excellent. I didn’t take notes of what else we ate – but we had soup and meat and noodles and salad. It was all lovely and in a great space with friendly service. And there was a cat there too! Sadly, we didn’t even notice her until the end of the evening as she was fast asleep on top of cabinet across from our table.

After dinner, we wandered toward the river in search of Snuffbox, a bar I’d read about somewhere online. We found the location easily enough – but it seemed to be a block of darkened buildings and warehouses, though with some street vendors and locals hanging out – and who once again came to our rescue and pointed us into the correct nondescript staircase. We climbed up one flight and found ourselves inside a lovely jewelbox of a bar. I think we were the only patrons (it was still early) and we were made to feel very at home. Fancy cocktails were very tasty and we had an extremely engaging server who guided us through the menu and chatted with us about our travels and some of the upcoming goings-on at the bar.

It was a great first day in HCMC, especially after last evening’s rather difficult start. Tomorrow morning: food tour!

 

Hong Kong Disneyland!

Hong Kong, SAR China – 9 & 10 October 2017

Ak and I had a quick breakfast in town before jumping on the train to Sunny Bay station where we’d connect to the Disneyland shuttle train. And then, there were were – Hong Kong Disneyland!

Walking into the park felt much the same to me as visiting Disneyland in CA or Magic Kingdom in FL – though without the teeming throngs of people. I mean, yes, obviously there were people there, but not huge crowds (though there was a bit of a slowdown getting through the turnstiles at the park entrance. Why is this process so difficult for so many? But I digress…)

First stop, City Hall! I had to get Ak his “It’s My First Time!” pin for newbs. Then we wandered through the blessedly-frigid shops and gawked at all the adorable merchandise. Main St. opens 30 minutes before the park – it’s a nice way to ease into the day.

Once Tomorrowland opened, we made a beeline to Iron Man ride to get Fast Pass, then we hotfooted it over to Hyperspace Mountain – our first ride of the day and Ak’s first ride – and first roller coaster! – ever. There wasn’t much of a line and soon enough we were rocketing through space. It’s a great ride, especially with the new Star Wars theming. We both loved it!

Iron Man was pretty fun too. It’s a Star Tours re-tread, using the same type of simulator, but with the action taking place in Hong Kong – it’s cool that they did a local take on the adventure.

As we made our way around the park, it became clear pretty quickly that we could really relax. Crowds remained non-existent and we never waited in line more than a few minutes. And we did EVERYTHING! From Small World to the crazy fun RC Racer in Toy Story Land to the hokey Jungle Cruise.

One of the best rides was the Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars. It gave every impression of being the same as the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad I’ve ridden many times in CA and FL parks – but it had several fantastic upgrades. I’m not gonna tell though! But I think I rode it ten times over the two days we visited, so that should tell you something about how much fun it was.

I think the tradeoff for the sparse crowds was that a lot the restaurants were closed. Not the end of the world, but there were a lot of shuttered counter service places that sounded tasty but were closed during the week or undergoing renovations. The food at the park was just OK. There was a nice cross-section of different types of regional cuisine: Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Korean, SE Asian. Our meal at the Explorer’s Club was pretty good by theme park standards. Ak liked his nasi goreng and my lentil curry plate was satisfying.

Ak and I both enjoyed Mickey and the Wondrous Book, a live-action stage show – though we both would’ve been happier with more classic songs (“‘Brave’? ‘Tangled’? Nope, I don’t know her.”) . But then I think we’re both a bit long in the tooth to be their primary audience. One of the most fascinating parts of the show is how seamlessly they mixed characters speaking and singing in both Cantonese and English, with super-titled translations.

The parades – which honestly are one of my favorite things at any Disney park – were solid. Though let’s be honest – that villains-themed night parade can’t compete with Main St. Electrical Parade or Spectromagic. I’ll admit to just a bit of disappointment that the current Paint the Night parade doesn’t run during Halloween due to the villains parade. The Flights of Fancy day parade was super fun – and nearly every performer in the parade noticed that Ak was wearing his Disney-supplied “It’s My Birthday!” pin (OK, we were a week late, but we were still celebrating!). Disney performers are always pretty amazing – dancing down Main St. in full makeup and elaborate costumes which must be sweltering in the 80 degree heat – but still taking time throughout the parade to say hello or wish a happy birthday to folks watching the parade.

This was probably the lowest-key Disney park visit I’ve ever had – and I liked it! The park is small enough that a one-day visit could be enough – but I was really glad that we spent two days there. It added to the relaxed feel of the visit and we didn’t worry that we’d miss anything. Plus our second day was more focused on seeing shows and parades. It was a great couple of days. Of course, now we’re thinking of trying to get to Disneyland Tokyo next year… We’ll see!

Weekend in Hong Kong

Hong Kong, SAR China – 7 & 8 October 2017

Ak arrived quite late on Friday night – really great to see my BFF, though we were both pretty exhausted by the time he arrived at our modest-but-serviceable digs. But we slept reasonably well and woke up Saturday morning with a full day ahead of us.

We had the first of two walking tours with Hong Kong Free Tours. This one focused on Hong Kong island, covering not just some of the usual tourist sights like the HSBC and Bank of China buildings, but also delving into some of Hong Kong’s recent history – including the Umbrella Revolution and the really poor treatment of Hong Kongers in general, first by the British and now by the Chinese. Learning about this from the perspective of our guides Michael and Beverly – both Hong Kong natives – was fascinating and certainly eye-opening.

Lunch at Yat Lok afterward, my second visit and Ak’s first. I actually liked my char siu better this time than last, but Ak wasn’t thrilled with his roast pork. Oh well! Did a bit of exploring in Central, wandering along Elgin and Staunton Streets, before ambling back to our home base on Hollywood Rd. in Sheung Wan.

Had a fun evening, starting first at Foxglove, a “speakeasy” type place that really dresses the part. It’s entrance is through a secret panel located inside of a supposed “bespoke umbrella” shop. The bar itself has the feel of a mid-century ocean liner. The concept is all pretty great – though the execution could use some work frankly. The secret entrance was on the fritz, so we just entered through a curtain. Not the end of the world, but disappointing. The cocktails were just OK – and breathtakingly expensive – so we moseyed off to Honi Honi Tiki Bar a bit further up the road.

These cocktails were priced just as dearly – though they were also pretty delicious, so that was a big plus. Dinner was at Little Bao, where we shared an amazing starter of caramelized brussels sprouts fried up with fish sauce, peanuts, shallots and chiles. Ak had a fried chicken bao and I went with fish tempura. After having had an assortment of underwhelming meals, we both really loved this one.

One last round of cocktails at Happy Paradise. Really cool space with colorful neon lights on the ceiling and an open window looking down onto Staunton St. Cocktails were tasty and we had a super friendly bartender who we chit-chatted with until it was time to head back to the hotel for some sleep.

Sunday was a similar schedule as Saturday, as we had another tour with HK Free Walking tours, though this time we’d be in Kowloon. Started off near Mong Kok and spent most of our time in the more “typical” neighborhoods of HKG, which feel quite different than the the gliz of Central.

Our guide Alla shared her insights into the nature of Hong Kong and why it is the way it is – focusing quite a bit on the role that its unfettered free market has in a host of issues that contribute to the difficulty of living in the city for all but the very rich. The Hong Kong government derives a significant portion of their income from property taxes and sales and leasing of the land they own. With no VAT and a very low income taxes, this reliance on property as a source of income results in a lack of incentive for the government to implement any serious reforms to the way the housing market works – meaning the prices stay high and rents exorbitant. Hong Kong is not an easy place to live for many of its residents.

As was the case on Saturday, virtually all of the parks, over- and underpasses and other public spaces were filled with young women hanging out. Some of the folks on the tour wondered if they were homeless. In fact, these women – the majority of them from the Philippines and Indonesia – are working as live-in domestic servants, typically caring for children or the elderly while also cooking and cleaning house, allowing married couples to both work and maintain the two incomes necessary to make ends meet in Hong Kong. These domestic helpers get one day off a week, so Saturdays and Sundays they spend time eating, chatting and catching up with their friends. Since most of their salary is sent to their families back home (and because Hong Kong’s minimum wage law does not apply to them), their free time has to be inexpensive.

It seems a rather difficult way to make a living – though one of our guides indicated that there’s a wide-range of experiences, with some families treating their helpers as members of the family while others insist that the helpers eat separately and alone, keeping them very distinctly in their place as servants. Regardless, these helpers are not eligible for minimum wage or other benefits that permanent residents and citizens receive – all while playing a critical role in Hong Kong’s economic infrastructure.

Anyway, I really recommend the tours offered by Hong Kong Free Tours. Great guides offering a different take on a very complex city.

We wrapped up our Kowloon tour near Sham Shu Po station – which is also a hop, skip and a jump from the OG location of Tim Ho Wan, a dim sum place that made its name as the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world. They’ve since expanded, with locations across Asia, but I’d not yet been so I was excited to try the first location. The wait wasn’t too long and the dim sum was OK. The baked pork buns were pretty great – the rest of what we had was frankly nothing special. Not bad per se, but I sure didn’t see what the fuss was about.

Took the Star Ferry back across the harbor and then had an argument with Ak over something that I’m sure was totally important and consequential. We talked it out, sulked for a bit but managed to get our shit together in time for something really important: dinner! We had wonton noodle soup at Mak’s Noodles and it was great. We followed up with a couple more snacks and some wine at Ho Lee Fook which we also really enjoyed – despite having to interact briefly with a couple of very loud Americans.

All in all, a pretty great weekend in Hong Kong – but tomorrow, the main reason for our visit: Disneyland!

 

Another Visit to Hong Kong

Hong Kong, SAR China – 5 & 6 October 2017

Left SFO at 1:15AM on Wednesday, flying Singapore in business class. The 14 hours across the Pacific went by quickly. Got about six hours of somewhat restless sleep and watched a couple of movies before landing in Hong Kong, where I’ll be spending the next six days.

As soon as I passed through Immigration, I connected to the airport wifi and the first thing I see is an email in my personal account from my boss with a work question. Let’s just say that’s not my favorite thing to see on my first day of vacation – though my actual reaction may have been somewhat more pointed than that.

Visited the arrivals lounge, where I was able to shower and put on some fresh clothes before heading to my hotel in Sheung Wan. I had reserved at the well-reviewed Butterfly on Hollywood, an outpost of a small local group of hotels here in Hong Kong – but in the ensuing months since I’d made the reservation, the Butterfly had divested themselves of this particular location and it is now – tada! – a Travelodge. OK, OK, not the most glamorous brand, but the place seems pretty similar to what I’d reserved originally. But yes, Travelodge. Sigh…

I was too early to check in, so I decided to head down to the MTR for a quick ride over to Wan Chai and my favorite place for char siu. I got to the station, bought my Octopus card and was feeling right at home here in Hong Kong, given that I had some familiarity with the city and public transit from when I was here a year ago.

Pride goeth before the fall, though – I managed to not only get off one station too soon, but to not realize this until I’d actually left the paid area of the station. “Admiralty?” I said to myself as I looked at the neighborhood map outside the turnstiles, “Well, that’s not where I fucking wanted to go.”

Anyway, made it to Wan Chai soon enough and was able to quickly navigate a path to Joy Hing – only to discover that they are closed today, thanks to it being a local holiday (I think). So, hunger, fatigue and frustration were all combining to make this feel like a not-so-great first day of my travel.

But I soldiered on, made my way back to Central and found Yat Lok – which thankfully was not observing today’s local holiday. Had char siu and rice and it was pretty tasty (though I still prefer Joy Hing). Even better, getting some food in my belly did improve my mood a bit.

Decided to head over to Kowloon on the subway to kill some more time while I waited for my room to be ready. Between the teeming hordes of tourists and the seeming vagueness of Google Maps’ blue dot’s location, this was perhaps not the most relaxing choice. Happily, though, I received a call from the front desk at the hotel letting me know my room was ready – and it’s only 11AM!

Jumped on the Star Ferry and was soon back at the hotel, where I got settled into the very – how shall I say? – cozy room. But it’s perfectly serviceable and seems comfy enough. We’ll see if my opinion changes once my friend Ak shows up from Bangkok and the two of us are in here fighting over space in the one drawer.

After a lie-down, I decided a foot massage might be just the thing to take the edge off the day. Found a place in Central that was about a 20 minute walk away called Zhen Massage. It looked nice on their Facebook page and was perhaps just a tad less so in person – but the price was reasonable enough and I wasn’t looking for the Canyon Ranch.

The foot massage was decent if a bit perfunctory. The therapist answered her phone several times during the massage – though she’d at least keep massaging with her free hand. The calls were brief, so I really didn’t mind – I mean, I don’t know her life! Frankly, the only part that concerned me was the thought of her phone getting lotion all over it (not to mention gross tourist feet cooties).

There was a Western couple in there who were a delight. He was shouting across the place to the missus in their native language while he used an exasperated tone while negotiating with the lady managing bookings as to how long a manicure would take. And both mister and missus kept their faces buried in their phones throughout all of this. Oh, and there were also some kind of loud construction noises going on down the hall, which were eventually accompanied by the sound of the Ms. Western Couple getting her calluses sanded down. So, not exactly the most spa-like experience – but it was sort of so weird that it was kind of hilarious. And my feet sure felt better when I left!

Fortified myself with an iced matcha milk tea from one place and some wonton noodle soup from another on my way back to hotel. A nice way to wrap up what’s been a rather mixed bag of a day. This evening is likely to be quiet.

Had a fitful night of sleep, waking up about once every hour or two – but did manage to sleep ‘til about 7:00AM, so I feel like I’m about adjusted to local time (though I suspect I’ll be hitting the hay early most evenings…). After yesterday’s somewhat difficult first day, I was feeling a bit anxious about today’s tour that I’d booked with Wild Hong Kong. The meeting point was about an hour from HK Central on the train and required three transfers. I figured I’d get lost. Plus, I’d worried yesterday about my physical stamina. Despite a minimum of walking around, my feet were aching and my back was acting up. It’s really the first time that I’ve traveled and felt like my age was catching up with me.

As it turned out, though, I think yesterday’s ailments were primarily due to jetlag and too much sitting around. I felt pretty good when I woke and managed to get myself going with plenty of time to retrace my steps if I got lost on my way to Tai Po Market in the New Territories.

Stopped for breakfast at Morty’s Delicatessen at Jardine House. It was a more-than-decent Western breakfast of eggs, bacon and pastrami hash – plus it’s conveniently located a short walk from Central station.

My last train of the trip was the farthest I’d been from central Hong Kong and the difference was noticeable. While I certainly feel like a tourist in town, I felt much more like a foreigner on this leg of the journey – which was frankly kind of cool. It’s nice to feel I’m getting a bit off the beaten path.

Arrived at Tai Po Market station with time to spare and settled in at the rendezvous point, a Starbucks, naturally! I waited in line behind a white lady who’d decided using chopsticks in her hairdo was a wise choice. It wasn’t… But I got my iced chamomile tea with aloe and grapes – an unusual but refreshing combo and awaited the arrival of my guide, Rory.

He showed up right on time and it turned out I’d be his sole guidee today – lucky me! He’s a gregarious fellow who grew up in Hong Kong and has done quite a bit of traveling around the world, both on his own and as a guide. We drove over toward Plover Cove, picked up our bikes from a local rental shop and off we went!

Let me just say, being back on two wheels was great. I ride just about every day and everywhere back home in SF and it’s remarkable how much I miss it when I don’t do it. We rode out along the Plover Cove Reservoir, a nice long expanse of road with water an both sides and great views of the surrounding hills and city, then came back the same way as we started the ride a bit up the hills to do a bit of hiking. There was one section of uphill riding that was short but a bit intense – the rest was pretty smooth sailing.

Locked up our bikes at the parking lot (which was happily home to a bank of vending machines stocked with ice cold beverages) and then hiked not too far into the park to visit Mirror Pool, home to a beautiful waterfall. Rory and I sat and chewed the fat for a bit – but mostly just sat and enjoyed the solitude and the beautiful setting.

Next stop was Bride Pool Falls, another lovely spot where Rory got a chance to show off his rock skipping skills and I just happily watched. The falls were wonderful and I’m so glad I got to visit. I’d left my “big” camera back at the hotel, not wanting to schlep it all day – and honestly, I’m glad I did. Sure, not so many photos of the day, but I was glad to just enjoy the experience of seeing this new-to-me corner of Hong Kong.

Hiked back up to the bikes and had an easy ride back to where we’d started, including a couple of great downhill bits where we really got flying. Wrapped things up with a bit of lunch at a Thai place and then Rory dropped me off at the train for my ride back into the city. I was sweaty, kinda stinky and bit exhausted – and I could not have been happier. The whole day left me feeling great, both physically and mentally. And it was a real pleasure spending the afternoon with Rory, a knowledgeable guide and an all-around interesting fellow. If you find yourself in Hong Kong, I recommend his services unhesitatingly.

Back at the hotel, I had a nice long shower and then relaxed for a bit while I IM’d with my friend Ak, who was at Bangkok Airport, waiting to board his flight to Hong Kong. Flight was a bit late, so he probably won’t get into the city until after 11:00 this evening, but it’s going to be great to see him – and to introduce him to Hong Kong, as it’s his first visit.

Wrapped up the evening at Joy Hing Roasted Meats in Wan Chai. Tonight they were open, unlike yesterday’s ill-fated visit. There was a line, but it moved quickly and I enjoyed my absolute favorite “eat, pay and get out” meal of char siu and rice. A really perfect way to wrap up my second day in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong to Hanoi

Our last day in Hong Kong! And it’s one of those kind of weird last days: our flight isn’t until after 5PM, so we have some time to do stuff in town – but not really that much time since we need to get to the airport, deal with luggage, etc.

The original plan was to visit the Asia Society for a photography exhibit, then have a reputed-to-be-excellent dim sum lunch at one of the fancy hotels. Well, given our track record with fancy expensive meals, Mom and I decided to head back to Joy Hing for a breakfast of char siu – it was amazing, of course and only about US$8 for two. As much as that dim sum place seemed interesting – and probably tasty! – I’m glad I went with a third trip to Joy Hing for their incredible bbq pork as my last meal in Hong Kong.

The Asia Society is a pretty cool venue in and of itself. It’s a modern exterior built into the side of a hill. After passing through the entrance then up to quite lovely roof garden, one heads back to three old British colonial buildings used to store arms back in the day. They’ve been updated with the middle converted to an exhibition space.

The show itself, Picturing Asia, was a “conversation” between photographs taken during monsoon season by Brian Brake and Steve McCurry. There is a clear streak of exocitizing of Asian people and culture in the works of both photographers – I wouldn’t go so far as to say fetishization, so I guess that’s good?- and I just recently read a critic refer to McCurry’s work as boring. But I found much of the imagery to be quite striking – and McCurry in particular is adept engaging the viewer in the humanity of his subjects.

It wasn’t a large show, so it proved to be just the right way to wrap up our stay in Hong Kong.

Had an uneventful transit through HKG and arrived in Hanoi on schedule (flying in coach! #howdreadful). Made it to the MK Premier Boutique Hotel wiith nary a problem and were ready for bed soon after arrival. We’d been upgraded to large suites – IKR? – which was pretty deluxe. So, we had huge rooms each – but they weren’t the most thoughtfully laid out: no dresser or other drawers; the bathroom was large but with a huge, high-sided tub/shower which was a bit of an ordeal to climb into; not much space to lay out one’s toiletries; and the AC seemed to struggle to keep the room cool. But still – the staff was friendly and accommodating and the lobby bar on the front patio proved a nice location to knock back a few beers.

This part of the Old Quarter is also home to some rather prominent boots-and-pants-and-boots-and-pants song stylings from the backpacker bars along the street  and it was rather audible from our rooms at the front of the hotel. Happily, though, it turned out not to interfere too much with sleep and Mom and I both slept well.

Spent our first full day in Hanoi touring with Guang and Kien, two young men from Hanoi Free Walking Tours. It’s a total win-win: they get to practice their English and we get a local perspective on the city. We visited several temples, ambled through the French Quarter, had some coffee in a “secret” cafe on a rooftop overlooking the lake and a great lunch at a big, busy Vietnamese place where our guides ordered for us. Needless to say the lunch was delicious. Also stopped at Hỏa Lò Prison, which was grimly fascinating – and a stark reminder of the cruelty of colonialism.

After our walk our guides delivered us to Spa SF, where I’d made appointments for Mom and me – she for a foot treatment, me for the whole works: massage, reflexology, facial. WELL. It was delightful and I was very happy with my treatments – though I’m not sure how happy the therapist was with my snoring during the facial component.

It had been a long day, so Mom and I just had some snacks and cocktails on the roof of our hotel and called it a day. Tomorrow we out to Ha Long Bay for a two-night boat excursion.

Monday in Hong Kong

Woke up about 4:00 Monday morning and decided to get a jump on our visit to see the Big Buddha on Lantau Island by pre-ordering our tickets for the cable car ride up. The site to book directly required printing the tix (IKR?), so I used Klook – the travel aggregator/reseller I’d used to book my ill-fated airport pick-up at HKG. But it seemed legit – order via their app and you get instant confirmation and a voucher sent directly to your phone. What could go wrong?

Well, after placing my non-refundable order, instead of a confirmation, I got a “we’re still processing your order” – and this being a local holiday, Klook’s help desk doesn’t open until 9:30AM which was exactly the time I planned to already be at the cable car desk redeeming my voucher. So, this was infuriating. I was able to contact them at about 9:31AM from our destination and get things sorted and the voucher was delivered. But I shan’t be using Klook’s services again…

Anyway, the cable car ride up to see the Buddha was pretty cool. There’s a pretty good stretch of the trip that provides a fantastic view of Hong Kong’s airport and I loved watching all the planes taking off and landing. We also got to watch from above as the many more physically fit types hiked up the mountain via the well-maintained but no doubt grueling trail to the top.

The Buddha is quite magnificent, with his serene expression and raised hand. To get up close, a hike up  what I seem to recall is 268 steps from the bottom – not too bad, but definitely a trek! Great views from the top, both of the surroundings and of the Buddha.

After making it back down, we treated ourselves to the vegetarian lunch served at the Po Lin Monastery. It was decent, though nothing to write home about – and certainly superior to the Subway sandwich shop we’d passed on the way in.

The ride back down on the cable car was as nice as the ride up – and I felt like quite the smart tourist for getting an early start. The lines to ride up were massive and here we were already on our way back into town!

Mom and I decided to go our separate ways: she headed back to the history museum and I decided to check out the Tea Museum. It was OK, but I did have a nice walk through the park. On my way back to the hotel, I treated myself to a match latte followed by a foot massage at a little place near the hotel called Sala Raj. Not luxurious by any means, but very well-priced and really excellent service. After five days of non-stop walking, my dogs were barking – and I left here feeling like a million bucks.

Dinner was at Mott 32, a trendy space done up in a sort of 1930s Shanghai-via-Hollywood with a dash of tiki. Drinks were tasty and the food was quite good – though also quite pricey. And as much as we enjoyed our meal, it didn’t seem to have as good a price-to-value ratio as some of the simpler joints we’d tried. I guess that’s pretty much true everywhere in the world…  I will say that I loved the dessert. Maybe a post-modern Moonpie? Chilled disks of chocolate mousse enrobed in a matcha couverture and encrusted with sesame seeds. Simple tastes with a nice variety of textures. Really delicious!

Back to the hotel to start wrapping up our visit to Hong Kong. We fly tomorrow to Hanoi – though not until late afternoon, so we’ll probably squeeze in one or two more activities…