Asia Day 2: Hong Kong – Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)

A great start to the day with some blogging. We then headed down the street restaurant affiliated with the hotel, The Cottage, for our included free “American Breakfast”. Our expectations were low with hotel-included breakfasts, especially, since we risk wasting one of our scarce meals in HK eating non-local food. We were pleasantly surprised by the options we had. Aaron had the poached eggs with bacon and hash brown and I had their breakfast salad. I chose the salad since my diet has been mostly carb-based on this trip so far and I expect this trend will continue, so I will try to incorporate veggies whenever I can. The salad was composed of quiet a number of ingredients – including avocado, bacon, sausage, greens, cherry tomatoes and 2 poached eggs on top. I tried some of Aaron’s hash and it was quite nicely done. I was pleasantly surprised that their bacon was more of the peameal type and not the usual crunchy bacon that I was expecting. I enjoyed breakfast with a cup of English Breakfast Tea, while looking out its floor to ceiling windows into a small park with pink blossoms. 

American breakfast @ The Cottage
American breakfast @ The Cottage

After checking out, we headed over to the International Finance Centre (IFC) to try some dim sum at a Michelin-Starred restaurant, Tim Ho Wan 添好運. It had an awkward location, at the basement level and can be found following the signs to the Airport Express Train from the ground level. It wasn’t difficult to spot as we saw a line in front of the restaurant. Luckily, my friend, arrived earlier than us and was already near the front of the line when we arrived! She said the wait was not too bad – around 20 minutes. Keep in mind this was on the weekend right at lunch time. She told us that while in line, she noticed none of the customers spoke Chinese. As a local, she said this would not be a place she frequented as a local. She recommended the baked pork bun and we also tried a few other staple dimsum dishes like their shrimp dumpling/har gow 蝦餃, shao mai 燒賣, shrimp rolls 蝦腸, as well as their goji berry dessert and “Malaysian cake” 馬拉糕 dessert. I really liked the baked pork bun. The outside had a nice crunch and the filling was quite tasty. And this is coming from someone who is not a big fan of BBQ pork buns. Again, I noticed that the sizes of the dimsum were smaller than the ones I’ve had in Canada. I explained to my friend that the sizes of dimsum (as well as sushi) has increased over the years, especially in Vancouver. Overall the food was not spectacular. It was probably nice to visit it once but I am not sure if I will come back again. 

 Baked pork bun @ Tim Ho Wan
Baked pork bun @ Tim Ho Wan

It was time for a walk after all that food. We strolled around IFC and its surroundings, including Central Pier. Everywhere from the courtyard and the walkways were filled with people sitting around, sometimes in cardboard fortresses, just eating, playing games, chatting with friends and just relaxing. It was also interesting to see that most of these people were women. I later confirmed these were likely foreign domestic workers who gathered on their day off to just hang out. The rest of the week, they are living with their employers and lack the privacy and also the opportunity to socialize with their peers.

We were both getting tired so we walked over Sunny Hills, a “tea shop and bakery” to take a break. Aaron found this place on Foursquare. It was located on a quiet lane in the middle of the busy Central area. As soon as we walked in, we were offered some free Oolong tea and a piece of their pineapple cake, “as a souvenir”. I, then, was very confused because if this was all free, then what is their business model? Eventually I found out that they specialized in Taiwanese souvenirs including teas, tea cups, and of course, pineapple cake. I really loved the atmosphere of this place. It did not feel like I was in the middle of the city as it was nice and quiet. The decor consisted mostly of wood and greens. I overheard another customer say that they felt like they were in Taiwan. I have never been, so I would have to take their word for it. The tea and cake were very nicely presented on a wooden tray. The tea was light and the pineapple cake was very buttery and tasty. What I found different about their cake is that you can actually appreciate real pieces of pineapple inside, which I have never been able to in the past with other pineapple cakes I’ve had, which were more like a paste. I decided to purchase a box of these, even though it was on the pricey side. It was noted on Foursquare that I would definitely need to check out their bathrooms, so I did. It was absolutely worth the visit with its high-tech automated lid-opening, seat-warming, as well as manual extra features, which I did not take the time to explore.

Sunny Hills - a quiet retreat within a busy city.
Sunny Hills – a quiet retreat within a busy city.

We decided to head off to an actual coffee shop next and stopped in a Starbucks. The menu and prices here were definitely shocking, with nothing I saw that was under $5 Canadian. It is only when we compare a worldwide franchise that we are able to appreciate the inflated prices of Hong Kong. (Well that, and the cocktails from last night.) We were also limited to a 30 minute wifi session, with a code that only works on one device at a time. Oh, how spoiled I realized we were in Canada. Of note: I forgot to mention that we were actually given a local cell phone with unlimited calling and data while we were checked-in with our hotel previously. It is quite handy and is not an unusual practice here in Hong Kong, it seems. 
We have not forgotten about Yat Lok from last night. We were determined to eat that half goose. There was surprisingly no line up when we arrived at this Michelin-Starred restaurant. We were quickly seated and ordered the half goose with some rice and veggies on the side. Again, service here was fast. The amount of goose looked overwhelming at first but we were able to finish all our food without feeling too stuffed. I am disappointed to report that generally, the goose tasted not too differently than the usual BBQ duck that I love to eat. There were specific parts that I had, which had a slightly different texture and taste but it was subtle. I did enjoy how their plum sauce actually tasted like plum and had some texture to it. Overall, good to try once but next time if I come, I would probably just try the goose with noodles and not pay 5 times the price for the novelty of eating half a goose or the fact that it was Michelin-starred.

Roast goose @ Yat Lok Restaurant. Photo credits: Aaron.
Roast goose @ Yat Lok Restaurant. Photo credits: Aaron.

And this wraps up our HK adventures. Our transport to the airport was again very smooth and I am very impressed with their express train/shuttle system. We decided to fly with VietJet Air given their discounted prices, although I have heard mixed reviews. I was also told there was could be surprise “live shows” on these flights with the flight attendants performing in bikinis but I guess our flight was not one of those special flights. After 2.5 hours, we landed in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, A.K.A. HCMC, or previously known as Saigon! This is a very exciting part of my journey as I explore the city where my parents grew up. Travel tip: a visa is required for travel to Vietnam and we have done this previously in Canada. I see there are booths for landing visas but according to the embassy website, these are only for very special circumstances. 
As if we didn’t learn from our mistakes in Bali, Aaron purchased a overpriced SIM card at the booth right outside immigration. The mistake was apparent even as we exited customs to see a lot more booths with lower prices. We later find out at the actual mobile company retailer In the city that we paid 4 times the actual price, but this is the price you pay for convenience. I was already skeptical of the agent at the airport as he tried really hard to sell us the card of another mobile company, which had supposedly inferior reception based on prior research. We later found out that he also lied about the terms of this card (he said it was only supposed to be unlimited for 2 weeks, but in reality it was 7GB for 1 month). He emphasized it only lasted 1 month in order to convince us to get the other card. I am glad I was firm in not getting a second SIM card until we reached the city. 
We decided to Uber to our accommodation given it was half the price of a taxi. Despite the fact that our driver did not speak any English, we got to our place smoothly. It was then, we realized that we are staying in the heart of party central at HCMC as we were welcomed with bright lights and loud music. We quickly settled down in our cute dwelling, then headed off for a late night snack at Pho Quynh. This 24 hour pho joint is apparently where we can get “THE best pho restaurant in HCMC” according to Tripadvisor. Aaron had the rare beef with brisket pho, whereas I got the rare beef with beef balls one. It definitely did not disappoint! We really need to make this noodle-place-as-our-first-stop a thing on this trip. The service was amazingly fast, the soup very tasty, the size manageable and the noodles somehow different than the ones we’ve had in Canada. To be honest, I am not a pho person. I dislike the “soapy” taste of the noodles. When I go to Vietnamese restaurants, I usually order the Bun Bo Hue as I much prefer the noodles (and of course the broth). With our noodles, we had some refreshing Saigon Beer and all that was only $8 CND (and it is already on the pricier side, apparently)!

Pho tai bo vien @ Pho Quynh
Pho tai bo vien @ Pho Quynh

I apologize this post was quite long. Hope you enjoyed it! Join me tomorrow for some more Saigon adventures!

Asia Day 1: Ottawa – Toronto – Hong Kong

We had a great start to our day, first by avoiding extreme surcharges on our Uber by waiting merely a few minutes, then bypassing a long line up at the airline’s bag drop counter due to our attempt to travel carry-on only. It was a smooth ride to Toronto’s airport only to find that the chaos has begun. Our flight to Hong Kong was overbooked. There was a sea of people all standing in front of the gate hoping to be the first to get on the plane (perhaps so they will not be forced to part with their carry-on luggage in case all the overhead compartment space is full). This reminded me of a sort of prisoner’s dilemma, where everyone is better off cooperating to sit, relax and agree not to line up, so everyone is not forced to stand for prolonged periods of time, but I digress.

After much delay, we were finally on our way to Hong Kong! I come to realize that I love travelling but plane rides are really not the most enjoyable part. I remember once upon a time when I thought flying was such an exciting experience. Now it’s just a hurdle to jump over to get my destination. After 15+ hours of cramped seating, dry air causing my eczema to flare up, having not the most comfortable stomach and modest tasting meals, we land in HKIA. The journey to our hotel was quite smooth, since we made use of the Airport Express Train as well as their free shuttle service. We quickly notice that everything is skinny here, from the bus seats, to the buildings, to the elevators. I guess this is how an overpopulated city has to be designed. After quickly settling in, we needed a game plan to make the most out of our short layover in this vibrant city.

First priority – Kau Kee Restaurant 九記牛腩. We strategically booked a hotel within a 6 minutes walk to the restaurant. As expected, there was already a long line down the street but we were prepared. People watching was fun as some people in front of us called someone from the restaurant to be given VIP service (i.e. skipped the line and was given a table right away). It was also interesting to see how some brought their luggages, showing that they had the same priority as us. The line moved quite quickly and within 30 minutes, we were seated with 2 other parties. We ordered the original beef brisket in clear broth as well as the curry tendon brisket noodle, as recommended by Mark Weins. We chose the e-fu noodles with the original and the thick noodles with the curry. Of course I had to try the HK milk tea since there was an article posted outside their store about it. I ordered completely in Cantonese so I cannot comment on their English proficiency there. Our meal arrived in no time. The portion size was on the smaller side, but that’s compared to North American standards. We were the only ones at our table to order the curry but the other 2 parties decided to order an extra bowl of that after ours arrived. I would like to believe it was because they saw how much we enjoyed our noodles. The clear broth brisket was lighter and paired well with the e-fu noodles. The beef brisket was flavourful but a little on the chewy side. Then there was the curry. It was definitely spicier than I expected but the iced milk tea helped. It was very tasty and the tendon would just melt in my mouth. The brisket was more tender as well compared to the original beef brisket. The noodles perfectly soaked up the taste of the curry soup, which was thicker than expected and acted more like a sauce. The curry was a clear winner for us.

After some wandering around in Sheung Wan and Central, we decided to head to our next food destination, Yat Lok restaurant 一樂燒鵝. To my disappointment, after 15+ hours of flying and with major jet lag, I could not see myself stomaching half a roast goose, even with Aaron’s help. We decided to return tomorrow to make the most out of our experience there.

Curry tendon beef brisket noodles @ Kau Kee Restaurant
Curry tendon beef brisket noodles @ Kau Kee Restaurant
Original beef brisket noodles @ Kau Kee Restaurant
Original beef brisket noodles @ Kau Kee Restaurant
The night scene is quite interesting in Central. Surrounding us was more affordable restaurants like the ones mentioned above, fancy, more upscale restaurants and cocktail bars, small boutiques still open late into the evening and of course with Lan Kwai Fong being THE hot spot for night life. The restaurant options are interestingly varied – from local Hong Kong food to Lebanese, American, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Thai food. I felt like I was back in Canada again but with even more options. We took the Mid-levels Escalators and Walkway, which was supposed to be the longest covered outdoor escalator in the world. We decided to walk back down eventually when we realized we didn’t know how far this would go and where we would actually end up.

Mid-levels Escalator and Walkway
Mid-levels Escalator and Walkway
To end the night, was stopped at The Woods, a cocktail bar. Their cocktails were definitely on the pricier side and were unique; however, it was not mind blowing enough to justify the fact that one cocktail was the price of our entire meal at Kau Kee.

Overall, nice evening in Hong Kong. I was quite disappointed, however, that I was not able to fit in 2-3 meals tonight as I originally planned but maybe I was being too ambitious. Hoping tomorrow will be a more fruitful food day!

China Day 17: HK – Shanghai – Vancouver

Today’s flight:
So our connecting flight had problems today and they had to drive us off to a sketchy hotel 20 minutes away to feed us and allow us to rest. I was watching some local Shanghainese show when someone knocked on the door to tell me the plane is ready for us. After another 20 minute ride, filling out another departure card, and going through inspection and security yet another time, we finally boarded the plane. I wonder whether my random power naps today will help with or worsen my jetlag when I get home.

Trip summary:
Culture shock – yes but not unbearable because I mentally prepared for it before I came here. Am I able to cope? Yes. Can I fully blend in? No. I’ve become more agressive and hard-headed over the trip. I’ll switch to my more polite side when I get back to Canada 🙂 Guys behind me on the plane right now are awfully noisy but I’m not going to bother asking them to quiet down because I don’t want a 飛機阿叔 incident.

Weather – hot and muggy but again not unbearable as I had a/c breaks in buildings and buses. The umbrella is your friend here. It’s a mobile shade.

Language – Glad to know enough Mandarin and Cantonese to get by. Except for the times where the locals speed through their speech, I can, for the most part, understand.

 

Food – delicious and not expensive!
Top picks: (in no particular order)

  1. 楊枝甘露 at 池記
  2. Coconut milk tea at Modern Toilet
  3. 東坡肉 in Hangzhou
  4. Some mango drink at 許留山
  5. Ngo luack at the 潮洲 restaurant in Shenzhen
  6. 2 layered milk curd in Macao

Shopping: didn’t do enough on this trip probably because

  1. Some of the styles were not for Canada
  2. Didn’t have enough time
  3. Scared to be ripped off because of all this haggling business

Prettiest sights:

  • Suzhou
  • Harbour of HK
  • Musical in Hangzhou

Most memorable sights:

  • Water rave in Hengdian
  • Crowds at the Expo
  • Local kid doing his homework in his pjs in one of the gardens we visited in Wuxi

Firsts:

  1. First time in Asia.
  2. First time boarding the plane via a shuttle and not directly from the terminal.
  3. First time using a squattie.
  4. First time eating out of a miniature toilet bowl and drinking from a miniature urinal.
  5. First time using an umbrella for shade.
  6. First time having to really use Mandarin.
Overall: Awesome trip

China Day 16: Wanchai – Mong Kok – Harbour City

Took the star ferry one last time to see the infamous 金紫荊 statue.

 

Then went to Mong Kok to eat at the toilet based novelty restaurant – Modern Toilet. The decor is so bizarre, I couldn’t tell what’s real and what’s just decor most of the time – as a matter of fact, i couldn’t find the real washroom in the restaurant. There were posters all over the restaurant about diferent types of poo – very appetizing. People kept telling me the food here is not that good but it’s really not that bad. Tried a milk-based hot pot today and it was pretty good. Had the coconut milk tea drink and it’s probably one of the best milk teas I’ve ever had.
Did some last minute shopping but stil didn’t end up buying much. Next time, I will make a shopping trip. Next time.

Checked out, ate dinner, looked at the harbour night view one more time then switched over to the airport hotel in preparation for our early morning flight tomorrow.

China Day 15: Macau

After a nice classy breakfast at the lounge in our hotel, we head off to the terminal to board the ferry to Macau! After an hour ride across the open sea in the pouring rain, we arrive in Asia’s own Las Vegas. It’s so interesting to see a language on the signs which I’ve never seen before – Portugese. So different from all the languages I’ve learnt.

I read online the night before not to talk to strangers at the terminal etc. and I agree because there was a strange man following us around persuading us to take his taxi around town. Of course we declined and opted for the Venetian shuttle instead. Arrived at the hotel and it was beautiful as expected.

Checked out the mall and pretty indoor canals, then headed to the more historical part of town (St. Paul’s ruins) to try out some local goodies – pork chop bun, cantonese noodles, two layered milk curd (so good!), and portugese egg tart. Also grabbed some almond cookies to bring back home. Apparently their coconut juice/ice cream and peanut candy are really good too! Unfortunately, my stomach went on strike after the milk curd. Took the ferry back with a food coma again. Pouring rain again but caught a glimpse of a rainbow!

Can’t believe tomorrow is my last day in Asia! Time flies. Got the chance to hang out with another friend where she teaches me the skills to survive in HK. A little too late but still useful in the future.

China Day 14: Shenzhen

Another long mtr ride, but this time, to the border of HK and Shenzhen. Was brought around town by a family friend in Shenzhen. Just cross the river and what a huge difference from HK.

Ate authentic 潮洲 food – so delicious but got a major food coma. Watched a local haggle – so entertaining, not so much the case when I try to do it. Drove to the beach but didn’t get out to enjoy it because there were way too many people, considering we were stuck in traffic for hours just getting there and back. Ate dessert at a nice dessert place called Honeymoon Dessert. Currently in love with 楊枝甘露 – so good!

China Day 13: The Peak – IFC – Stanley

Rushing into the peak tram was intense. Of course, with my Canadian ways, I couldn’t get a seat. Standing at 45 degrees was not easy. It was worth it though because the view up there is really nice and the market is pretty cute.

 

IFC – the high end mall of hk. Our tour guide in Wuxi said one of the washrooms there was 5 star. He should come here! Also watched a lovely live jazz/blues performance while I was at the mall.

First time at a beach this summer! – Stanley beach – just for you Kay, I made it down to Stanley unplanned. It consisted of a bunch of confusion, map reading, and asking for directions. Nice trip though because we passed by Ocean Park, Shum Shui Wan and Repulse Bay – nice long 1.5 hour bus ride home.

Officially taken all types of public transit in hk including the minibus, bus, tram, shuttle, mtr and ferry.