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!

 

 

 

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.

A Day in Macau

Mom and I got an early-ish start on Friday and made our way to the Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Terminal for our ultra-deluxe, mega-luxurious hour-long ferry ride to Macau in Premier Grand class on TurboJet. Was it worth the money? Hard to say. We got priority boarding and reserved seats in a comfy-though-not-exactly-Cathay-Pacific-first-class-style, if you know what I mean. We also got a meal – which was also not exactly first class, consisting as it did of scrambled eggs, “sausages” which were much more akin to chicken hot dogs and canned corn.

But then again, we did also get to pass through immigration before all the other passengers – and once cleared, TurboJet provided us with a driver to take us to where we wanted to be dropped off in Macau.

He left us at Rotunda da Carlos Maia and we followed along one of the several walking tours laid out in the Macau Tourist Bureau’s really quite good app. Saw a few different temples, ambled through the Fireman’s Museum and enjoyed walking the narrow streets which are certainly reminiscent of Europe given Macau’s long history as a Portuguese colony. Stopped in the park along the way and a group of school kids spotted the two Westerners and came running right at us – they were practicing their English by asking questions such as “Do you like chocolate?” and “Do you speak more than one language?” and tracking their results. Nice kids and a fun little break. 

Took in the ruins of St. Paul’s, doubtless Macau’s most famous landmark. Sitting at the top of a hill it’s impressive to behold – as are the hordes of tourists. Starting our walk had taken us through more local scenery – but here we were at the nexus of the throngs of visitors. It was a little hectic to say the least.

One saving grace: there was an outpost of Tai Lei Loi Kei at the bottom of the hill, Macau’s most famous purveyor of fried pork chop sandwich. Mom and I got one regular and one served on a sweet bun. They were just OK, sadly. Not bad, mind you – but I certainly didn’t understand the hype.

I’d wanted to visit the Macau Museum, but it turned out it was a fairly long schlep back up the hill we’d just walked down and mom was not eager to fight our way back up through the crowds in the noon heat. We made our way toward Senado Square and took in some of the of other churches and government buildings, eventually winding up at the Opium House near the Inner Harbor. There wasn’t actually a lot to see over here and it was still early – so I suggested we just get a cab to take us back to the museum. No schlepping involved, plus some much needed AC to revive us.

WELL. This turned out to be a great decision. Mom and I both loved the museum. A solid and entertaining overview of Macanese traditions and history along with a special exhibition about Chinese opera. We were both so happy we decided to make the trek.

Next stop was in Coloane Village (after a rather difficult time finding a taxi) where I wanted to try Lord Stow’s Portugese egg custard tarts. I think they have branches in some of the hotel/casinos here, but I wanted to check out the OG location. It’s still tiny shop on the edge of the water, though they’ve added a comfy little cafe around back where Mom and I sat down for some tea and tarts. The tarts were absolutely delicious! Unlike the egg custard tarts back in Hong Kong, these were creamier with golden brown crust on top – almost reminiscent of crème brûlée – and a crispy flaky crust. Given that I’m unlikely to be in Macau again soon, it certainly seemed correct to order a second tart…

Had a little walk around afterward, checking out a few little side streets and some shops along the harbor. Very quiet and local – a nice way to wrap up our day in Macau.

Our exclusive and ultra-fancy Premier Grand VVIP shuttle showed up right on time and whisked us back to the ferry terminal. The ride there was pretty interesting as we got a closer look at some of the truly astonishing casino hotels here. Several of them are quite gargantuan and outlandish – Vegas, eat your heart out!

Upon arriving at the terminal, a helper from the ferry greeted us and asked if wanted to get on the 4:30 ferry rather than the 5:00 we were ticketed on. Answer in the affirmative, so we hot-footed it through the terminal and were escorted to our seats. About two minutes later we were headed back to Hong Kong.

After getting back to our hotel and freshening up, we decided we could use a little something to eat. There’s a very well-reputed roast meat shop called Joy Hing just up the road from our hotel. I wasn’t sure if Mom would be in the mood for the experience, so I texted her with the particulars: it’s divey, not pristine, small and very crowded which means sharing tables, could be a wait, servers are brusque and the ambiance is “eat, pay and get out.” Her reply to me was, “Do they have beer?” So off we went!

Happily, there was no line and we got right in – though we were disappointed to discover they do not in fact have beer. We ordered some roast chicken, which we both found pretty “meh” – not a lot of meat on the bones and skin was rubbery rather than crispy. The char siu pork however was sublime – I’m quite comfortable declaring it the best roast pork I’ve ever had. Tender, meaty, a bit smoky with a caramelized exterior and served on rice. There was some sweet-and-spicy sauce on the table that one of the quite-reasonably-friendly ladies working there recommended. This was the best meal I’ve had this trip so far and I’ll be sure to be back – possibly daily since they open at 9AM and I love nothing better than roast pork for breakfast (save your jokes, Skip and Emily – I’ve already made them all in my head).

Since we didn’t get our beers, we retired to a local restaurant and had a couple of cocktails while sitting on their terrace enjoying the warm tropical evening. A great way to wrap up our latest adventure here.