For someone who grew up in a remote corner of Newfoundland thinking that St. John’s (pop: 110,000) was terrifyingly large, the idea of visiting Asia has been intimidating for me. Would language barriers and crowded markets overwhelm me? What about the food? Granted, I was raised on cod tongues and moose burgers – but how would I feel about Asia’s notoriously quirky palate?
Instead, Hong Kong turned out to be the introductory city to Asia I needed.
It’s an easy-to-navigate, cosmopolitan super city
My first thought when stepping out of the airport in Hong Kong was, whoa, it’s really hot here. The second was, everything is so tall! As I boarded my bus toward Victoria Harbour, I couldn’t peel my eyes away from the enormous skyscrapers stretching toward the sun. There are more than 7,600 skyscrapers crammed into this city.
But Hong Kong makes the most of its space, and getting around on public transit is a breeze – whether it’s by ferry, rail (MTR), bus, or tram. All you need is an Octopus smartcard and some idea of where you’re going. I always use Google Maps to plan my routes when I’m taking more than one mode of transportation, but otherwise there’s an excellent MTR app you can download to find your way. Easy.
If you want to experience the craziness of Asia, you can find it here
On my first day in Hong Kong, I headed to the busy market areas in the Sham Shui Po and Shek Kip Mei working-class neighbourhoods. It was my first time being tossed into the chaos of an Asian city. I was worried I’d feel hemmed in and a little claustrophobic. Instead, it felt so very foreign, and I loved it.
At the Fuk Wa and Apliu street markets, I walked shoulder-to-shoulder with locals and travellers as we wound our way through overflowing stalls of clothes, old books, cheap souvenirs, and electronics. Food vendors hurriedly prepared dishes for line-ups of hungry people. Some stalls had bloody chicken corpses dangling from their entrance; others were piled with rainbow-coloured fruit. It was sensory overload in the best way possible.
The food is exceptional
If you’re a foodie, Hong Kong is your place. Start with Tom Ho Wan – a famous Michelin-starred restaurant that sells some of the cheapest dim sum you’ll find anywhere. You might have to wait awhile to get seated, but it’s worth it. After gorging on shrimp dumplings, turnip cakes, BBQ pork buns, and spring rolls, I developed a serious dim sum addiction.
Another highlight from the area: popping into a tiny shop called Kung Woo Beancurd Factory to try some sweet tofu pudding.
For a deep dive into street food culture in Hong Kong, take a Temple Street Night Foodie Tour with Hong Kong Foodie Tours. We started with fish balls before graduating onto the famous Hong Kong style egg puff pastry (kind of life a waffle), and then mango dessert and fried wontons in an old 50s diner. I mean if you’re on a walking tour, you’re burning off those calories…right?
Everything about Hong Kong is beautiful
I am terrified of heights. There’s no way around it. But there was no way I was going to pass up a cable car ride to the top of Ngong Ping Plateau to see the Big Buddha — the second largest outdoor bronze Buddha statue in the world.
Some of the cable cars are made entirely of glass, giving you a 360-degree view over mountainous Lantau Island. The whole trip takes 30 minutes, and although I had to pop a few sedatives to keep me functioning, I remained glued to the window the entire time (well, maybe half the time). Big Buddha and the Po Lin Monastery were worth it.
Then there’s the Symphony of Lights, which takes place at 8 p.m. every night. Here, Hong Kong’s skyline lights up in a dazzling light show. I watched it from the Ocean Terminal, but anywhere on the harbour-front area near the Hong Kong Cultural Centre would give you a great view (and you’ll hear the accompanying music).
Finally, taking the tram to Victoria Peak for unparalleled views over Hong Kong should be on your must-do list. (Oddly, this steep ride didn’t freak me out as much as dangling mid-air in a glass-bottomed cable car.) It’s the steepest funicular railway in the world – it’s surreal to leave behind the tall skyscrapers and city skyline as you ascend into the jungle towards the peak. The city looks like it’s about to tilt into the sea. For the best view, you have to visit the Sky Terrace at the Peak Tower. Make sure you get there early so you can have the view to yourself. For a little while, at least.
English is widely spoken
Being able to get by with English shouldn’t be a reason to visit a destination, but it sure is a nice perk – especially if you’re a nervous traveller like me. English has been widely spoken since British Hong Kong, and you’ll have no trouble getting around with it.
On that note, all my interactions were pleasant, no matter the language. While at a side market in an alley off Hollywood Road, I bargained perfectly fine for a ceramic tea set with a little old lady, using only a calculator as an aid.
You’ll get a taste of Mainland China
Despite Hong Kong’s glamorous city centre, it is possible to get some sense of what rural Mainland China is all about. At Tai O fishing village, you’ll see fishermen fixing their nets, or sun drying salted fish. With a guide, you can visit one of the traditional stilt houses and learn about how these homes function. You can wander the narrow streets and into the market, sampling sugar donuts and sweet tofu.
I hopped on a quick boat tour to General’s Rock to see Tai O from the water, hoping to catch sight of dolphins (including the famous Pink Dolphin!). Alas, I was out of luck, but the views from the water were worth it.
How to get from Canada to Hong Kong
Hong Kong Airlines has daily non-stop service from Vancouver to Hong Kong. On your return journey, make sure stop by the brand-new VIP lounge Club Autus at the Hong Kong International Airport. You’ll appreciate the buffet-style dining and drinking options (plus there’s a nap room, in case you’re so inclined).