Phong Nha

Greetings from the future, Dear Readers!

One gorgeous natural phenomena deserves yet another and we are here to document as many as possible for you. (With run-on sentences.)

After a brief (45 minute) pit stop back in Hanoi, we grabbed a night bus for a roughly seven hour trip to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National park. [Note to readers: If you are traveling in northern Vietnam and are not riding a motorcycle, you’re beholden to bus routes, which all pass through Hanoi.]

Phong Nha is a new addition to Vietnam’s tourist trail owing to the fact that, six years ago, the biggest ticket in the area was hidden … underground.

In 1991, a local villager named Ho Kahn discovered the mouth of Son Doong cave, now recognized as the largest cave in the world. Mr. Ho runs a coffee shop in Phong Nha village today and is something of a local celebrity. As the entrance of the cave requires significant gear and technical experience to traverse, exploration waited until a British team could arrive in 2009. For those with a thick enough wallet, $3,000 will allow you a trip through Son Doong via Oxalis Adventures.

Our budget did not allow for this particular journey, but fortunately, the same bedrock allowing for the creation of Son Doong cave, is present throughout this part of Asia.

Karst topography: (There are apparently several people with advanced degrees in geology peeking in here from time to time, if they’d like to add anything, I’ll gladly add it here.)

We have all seen the photos of knife-edged mountains, which bring to mind the stereotypic beauty of southern Asia. Green pillars of earth and jungle towering out of a field of rice paddies with a prominence altogether different from the Rockies or Appalachians. Sometimes these mountains are so abrupt they look as if they were drawn by a child. Triangles? Really?

The shape of these mountains are indicative of limestone or “karst” topography. Maria’s earlier post on our trip to Halong Bay offers numerous, gorgeous photos of these phenomena. Surface rainfall erodes limestone at sharp angles while water makes way into the crevices of limestone, creating underground caves. Those of you who have visited the panhandle of Florida are likely familiar with the numerous sinkholes, lakes, and springs, which dot the landscape due to the limestone bedrock. Some of those aforementioned lakes (Lake Jackson, in Tallahassee, FL) have a tendency to actually “disappear” from time to time when another layer of limestone breaks open, thereby draining the lake.

A drive through Phong Nha — like many other villages from Yunnan province, China all the way to Thailand — boasts glorious vistas. Like many other small towns in Vietnam, Phong Nha is basically one street, with a handful of places a visitor can sleep for the night. A bike ride around town (video of a trip we took) is ridiculously pretty. That said, Phong Nha is set apart from other post-card-pretty towns in Southeast Asia due to one’s ability to pick and choose among a litany of outfitters for caving trips. The aforementioned Oxalis is run by some of the Brits who originally traversed Son Doong and are the gold standard.

Maria and I took a trip through the stunning Paradise Cave, a round trip trek of roughly eight kilometers, all of which was underground, lit with nothing but headlamps. There were only two other guests on our trip along with two guides, making the experience that much more exciting. While I took video of our trip, I have unfortunately come to the realization that, unlike in cartoons, you can’t actually film the eyes and teeth of your friends in pitch darkness.

Historic Significance:

Phong Nha, located in the midst of a mountainous rainforest in western Vietnam, appears lush, untouched, and certainly not a place subjected to a bombing campaign comparable to that seen in the European theater of WWII. The Ho Chi Minh trail ran through this area and America’s efforts to cut off supplies for the Viet Cong involved an aerial bombing campaign. The Viet Cong, conversely, combatted these attacks by constantly shifting the location of the HCM Trail. The end result, a huge swath of land along Vietnam’s Cambodian and Laotian border littered with craters and unexploded ordinances. As Phong Nha is a rural area, much of the rainforest swallowed the initial scarring suffered from the war. Unfortunately, the remnants of the war are more readily visible on locals with missing limbs than they are on the landscape.

A Charity Worth Giving To:

Mines Advisory Group (MAG) works to remove mines and unexploded ordinances from post-conflict areas. Every day, 12 people are killed or maimed due to explosives left behind from war and, over the past 25 years, MAG has worked in 40 countries to clear unexploded ordinances. To date, they have cleared over 5,522 square kilometers of land. We were told that under their current operating budget, it would take MAG (the only organization removing mines in the area), “10,000 years in order to reach certainty that this area of Vietnam is cleared of unexploded ordinances.”

Places to check out in Phong Nha:

Paradise Cave: We paid around $60 per person for this experience, and it was completely amazing. We spent all day wandering through a completely dark cave which ended in a huge swimming hole, lit by a skylight some 70 meters overhead. My photos and video do not bring justice to the experience, which ranks as one of my favorite Asian outings thus far.

Phong Nha Cave: (We didn’t make it here.) A quick boat ride from downtown Phong Nha, which should run you $5-10 for the whole experience. A dry cave, this can be traversed without any real worry as to your clothing. This cave was actually a hiding place for a flotilla of boats, which served as a make-shift bridge for the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Dark Cave: (We didn’t make it here either.) You’ll see a lot of photos of folks ziplining and taking mudbaths and whatnot … this is Dark Cave. There are numerous places offering a dual trip through both Dark Cave and the first kilometer of Paradise Cave. While it looked like a blast, we definitely hit budget after hiring guides for Paradise Cave.

Hang En Cave: (Didn’t make it here either … maybe next time for this one.) Two day treks are run out of numerous outfitters to this cave. While not as big as Son Doong, this trek is somewhere around $200 per person and thereby, decidedly more approachable for a traveler looking for an exciting experience.

Easy Tiger Hostel: This backpacker-friendly hotel offers dorm rooms at a reasonable rate, catering to budget-minded travelers. While we stayed across the street, we found ourselves stopping by the restaurant/ bar on a daily basis to learn about what to do and see in town. The charming and eloquent owner, Seamus, (you’re looking for the Irishman with a mohawk) is clearly working with the intent of being a responsible member of the Phong Nha community. After backpacking for several months, it is very easy to encounter “party hostel” phenomena. Instead of inviting everyone to play beer pong on the roof, Seamus offered information on local history, culture, and charities working to better the area. Seamus holds court every morning at 9 a.m., giving a run-down of all caving tours, local attractions, along with things to be concerned about. Instead of advocating that everyone rent mopeds from him (Phong Nha is mountainous, remote, and presents some dangers to the odd tourist who crashes a motorcycle) he steers people towards both minivan tours along with the less-expensive option of having a local drive a motorcycle for you. Additionally, half of Seamus’s morning speech involves alerting visitors to the problem of UXOs (unexploded ordinances) in Phong Nha. All visitors are made well aware to stay on marked roads and paths and to avoid any off-trail hiking. Additionally, Seamus does a fair amount of fund raising for MAG, who do UXO removal in the area.

The Pub With Cold Beer: This bar/restaurant/shack-in-the-country, allows visitors the chance to select a chicken and kill the chicken if they would like. While part of me morbidly thought I’d like to kill my own lunch, I was actually glad I didn’t do this myself as the woman running the operation (affectionately called “the chicken lady” by everyone in Phong Nha) was able to dispatch our chicken in a manner that involved much less struggle than I would have imagined. The route to this bar is pretty wild and is detailed in the upcoming video. If you are on a motorbike, I would highly advise consulting Seamus about the best (see: most paved) route as we seem to have taken the one where all the roads were made of chocolate milk and Playdough.

Check out our photos from Phong Nha:

Rice Paddies in the Mountains and Dragons in the Sea

Greetings from the future!

This dispatch comes to you from two popular Vietnam tourist destinations: Sapa and Halong Bay.

First, Sapa:

After two days in Hanoi, we set off for the mountain town of Sapa in northwestern Vietnam near the Chinese border. A very comfortable overnight train — quite contrary to our Shanghai to Hong Kong experience — took us from Hanoi to the town of Lao Cai, from which we took an hour shuttle bus to Sapa. The town of Sapa is quite small and tourism is hyper focused on appealing to Western travelers, as we will come to learn is the case for most travel destinations in Vietnam where the tourism industry is a well-oiled machine. The main street is lined with restaurants offering Western food, including an abundance of Italian pizzerias each with drool-inducing photos of pizzas on the menu and signs professing “the best pizza in Sapa,” one after another, but don’t be surprised when what arrives at your table doesn’t look like the photo. Western food is tricky in the East. You try to avoid the temptation because you know 9 times out of 10 you’ll be disappointed, but sometimes you want pizza so freaking bad, you make the leap of faith. In Sapa our pizza attempt left a lot to be desired.

So my point, stick to the Vietnamese cuisine in smaller towns. In big cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, it’s a different story. Speaking of Vietnamese food, it was a welcome change from Chinese food. Don’t get me wrong, there were many Chinese dishes that delighted my palate, but if I had one request of Chinese food in general, it would be, “easy on the grease.” Everything is deep-fried, stir-fried, double-fried … the amount of cooking oil used in the country could fill an ocean. So, Vietnam’s fresh, light, seemingly healthy approach to cooking was refreshing. Ingredients like lemon grass, chili peppers and fish sauce are incorporated into many dishes. And pho, the most popular Vietnamese dish stateside, is actually consumed at breakfast in Vietnam. You can purchase a bowl from any street food vendor for about 15,000 to 30,000 Vietnamese Dong, approximately $0.50 to $1.50. Additionally, bánh mì just means bread, specifically baguettes, and can indicate any type of sandwich. As Chris mentioned in his introductory post, Vietnam was ruled by the French for a century, and the French influence today is still recognizable in the country’s cuisine and coffee culture.

Now back to Sapa …

Sapa is a top tourist attraction in Vietnam with sought after treks to the top of Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam and all of Indochina at 10,312 ft., or through rice paddies and into local villages, where you can stay with a family from the village for the night. Vietnam is home to about 54 ethnic groups — the large majority, more than 86%, being ethnic Viet or Kihn. The majority of the remaining ethic groups live in the interior mountainous highlands.

Chris and I decided to do the two-day/one-night trek taking us through rice paddies and three villages, a H’mong, Red Dao and Tay village in that order, which included spending the night in the home of a Red Dao family. A distinguishing fashion of the Red Dao women is their red head scarves and shaven eyebrows. This is a photo of the family that we stayed with — the woman on the far right is in traditional dress and the baby girl is wearing a traditional hat made by her mother:

Joining us on our trek was an all-star backpacker group, including a soldier in the British Army, A Muay Thai boxer from Seattle, an Italian, a Spaniard and a Frenchman. Chris and I had a blast with our five new friends, and the family that we stayed with was extremely kind. They prepared a delicious and elaborate meal for us and generously indulged us in their homemade rice wine, which made day two of the hike extremely difficult for all of us in the group.

Here are some photos from our trek:

Next, Halong Bay:

After our trek in Sapa, we headed back to Hanoi, and then from Hanoi we organized a three-day/two-night trip to Halong Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin. Halong translates as “descending dragon”, and refers to a legend claiming that during ancient times, when Vietnam was newly formed, dragons descended from the heavens to help the Vietnamese people fight invaders from the North. This legend accounts for the mythical origin of the nearly 2,000 islands in Halong Bay. According to the legend:

“While the mighty enemies were attacking the main land, The Mother Dragon and her children suddenly appeared and incinerated the enemies with their divine fire and giant emeralds. The emeralds from the dragon’s mouth were scattered around the battlefield on the sea and formed an invincible defensive wall that left the enemy battleship fleet sinking. Thanks to the dragons, the Northern invaders were finally swept away and the peace finally came back to the South East Asian country once again. After thousands of years, the wall of emeralds turned into islands and islets of different sizes and shapes.”

The limestone rock formations pierce through the sea’s aqua blue surface making for a dramatic landscape of seemingly mythical quality. Our tour included one night on a boat and one night in a bungalow on Cat Ba Island. We also visited a pearl farm where we learned that a single plastic sphere is inserted into each clam to increase the production of viable pearls and accelerate their formation. The pearl develops around the artificial center.

Its unparalleled natural beauty made Halong Bay an unforgettable experience. Here are some photos from our trip:

Stay tuned for more from Vietnam!

Good Morning …

Greetings from the future, Dear Readers!

Morning has broken and in what comes as an inconsistent but exciting bugle call, we are awake.  In any given city, a hive of mopeds begin a growing hum at 4:30 a.m., continuing throughout morning rush hour.  In smaller towns and hamlets, one can hear children playing at 5 a.m.  On the edges of villages, the baying of water buffalo along with the intermittent rooster’s call seem less associated with sunrise than annoyance.  Very early bedtimes are kept around these parts making for even earlier rising.

Where the hell is my breakfast?

Where did the day go?  Is it 6 a.m. already?   In the capital, cafes and restaurants are packed tighter than a Washington D.C. bar at happy hour while a morning meal in a village presents a more subdued ambiance.  Breakfast in a quiet cafe over the owner’s home video of a cock fight.

These things happen.

Coffee, a baguette and maybe we could interest you in a spicy pork soup?

Our travels have taken us beyond the confines of the Middle Kingdom to the domaine of the people from the south, Vietnam.  (In the local language, “Viet” refers to  the Vietnamese people, while, “Nam” means, “south”.) A wholly different country with a history, culture and culinary tradition influenced by 1000 years of Chinese rule, 100 years of French rule and a war with my own country.

Did we mention that our trip coincides with the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon as well as the 50th anniversary of American troops entering Vietnam?  Those holidays didn’t pop up on our Google calendars.

Snap on your helmets and throw two Coke bottles of fuel in your tanks as we’re about to take you across Vietnam!

First Stop Hanoi:

After filing out of the airplane and descending a staircase to the tarmac (which always seems cool as it makes me think that I’m in the Secret Service or something) we immediately got on a bus (which is less prestigious than a motorcade, but we’ll take what we can get) to the terminal.

A visa for U.S. citizens can be secured in the airport, provided that you have already obtained a “letter of invitation” from a travel agency in advance (for which we paid $17).  On arrival in the airport, you need to have $45 in U.S. currency, exactly.  This is the fee for processing the paperwork and there’s no money exchange or ability to get change of any kind in the airport before walking through customs.  If you do not have this money then you now live in the airport or get on a flight back to wherever you came from.

We hopped a cab to our hotel and noticed several things about Vietnam different from China:

Everyone is on a moped.  China has recently become the largest car market on the planet and while there are certainly numerous mopeds on the streets in Beijing or Shanghai, the roadways are equally or more cluttered with cars.  In Vietnam, the preferred chariot is the moped.  My first run in Hanoi has some video footage, which involves me running slowly, trying not to die, and then, finally walking, and trying not to die.  The sidewalks are full of people doing … things while the roads are clogged with people on mopeds.  To put it mildly, I loved it.

Water buffalo are all over the place.  Next to the bank, behind the grocery store, chewing the grass on the median of the roadway.  They bookend any experience that might occur in Vietnam that doesn’t involve extending a visa in the capital.  Water buffalo are everywhere.  If you are not actually in downtown Hanoi, in a government building, three floors from the street,  you’re probably within 300 feet of a water buffalo.  These are not wild animals and are generally ushered around by a boy between the ages of 10 and 15.  I am told that the locals refer to said youth as, “buffalo boys.”

There are tons of white people wearing ridiculous clothing, all over the place.  Generally sunburned, always in jungle pants with elephants on them (MC Hammer, “2 Legit 2 Quit” video kind of bagginess.  I am told this is born from practicality.  It apparently helps with keeping cool, fending off mosquitoes in Thailand or Cambodia, and making you look like an idiot when you walk around the capital of a country wherein nobody from wears said clothes.).  T-shirts that say “Beer Lao” or something in Thai, or “Bintang” (an Indonesian beer).  (I should mention that when attempting to trim my beard, a month ago, I shorted the electricity of a hotel in Beijing.  The building went dark, I felt bad, I have a pair of scissors now.  Anyway,  I now look a bit Hasidic.)  We are now on a decidedly more dedicated tourist route.  In Hanoi, heading south towards Ho Chi Minh City, we are encountering numerous others from Europe, Australia, U.S., etc … who are either heading in the same direction or are arriving from points south.

A recognizable script.  While Vietnam was ruled by China for 1000 years and there are numerous shared words from Chinese, a phoneticized version of the language was created by a French missionary in the 1600s, which was enforced as the official script during French colonization.  I’ve heard a bit about how this was done to aid in growing the literacy rate (learning characters is hard) and I have heard a good bit about how this was a tool of control imposed by French occupiers.  My bachelor’s degree from a football school and several weeks in country doesn’t really allow me to comment here.  While Chinese script is still visible on pre-colonial architecture, everyone in Vietnam reads a script of an Asian language, put to Roman characters, with accents denoting tones.  (Vietnamese, like Chinese, is a tonal language.)  There’s something refreshing about finally be able to read something and not understand it, as opposed to understanding something and not being able to read it.

Some important sights to see in Hanoi:

  • The Old Quarter: Old Hanoi was built out on a plan of 36 streets, named according to the products originally sold in those locations.  Garment street, noodle street, cobbler street, etc … very narrow streets throughout which cars could not possibly (but absolutely did) get through. The preferred mode of transport around here is the moped, which is ever-present.  Today, this district is where one can find the majority of the hostels attracting backpackers.  The neighborhood is an interesting mishmash of local flavor, i.e. Pho noodle stands, next to a beer stall, next to a place that sells French food.  All of this is, from time to time, interrupted by a man who walks by, dragging an amplifier playing Michael Jackson.  Magic tricks and moon walking ensues.  There were also balloon animals. While commercialized, this area was immensely charming.  I really enjoyed wandering around here.
  • Hoan Kiem Lake:  An Asian Excalibur story if there ever was one.  The emperor of Vietnam, credited with removing the Chinese after 1000 years of rule is said to have been guided to do so by the Gods.  A sword was sent to earth, placed in the center of Hoan Kiem Lake for retrieval by the emperor who wielded it to separate the Vietnamese from their Chinese rulers.  Afterwards, the sword was replaced from whence it came.  A pagoda in the middle of the lake marks the spot where the sword did said ascending/descending.  Surrounding Hoan Kiem, you can find numerous restaurants and cafes which allow for wonderful people watching.  This was the best place to run in Hanoi when I decided that I wanted to be a wimp and stop elbowing mopeds for roadspace.
  • Hoa Lo Prison:  Known as the “Hanoi Hilton” by U.S. pilots held there during the war. Taken with buckets of salt, the museum’s curation offers a good bit of information.  Built by the French in 1896 to house political prisoners, torture, beatings, beheadings and inhumane containment in close confinement are well documented during this period.  The remainder follows a basic theme: The French used this prison to commit acts of brutality (noting the number of prisoners per cell along with the guillotine which was used to execute transgressors liberally) while the Vietnamese allowed U.S. service members time to play volleyball and work on arts and crafts.   The home team gets to write the history books I suppose.  John McCaine’s flight suit is on display and nobody took me up on the offer to return it to whatever suburb of D.C. or Phoenix he calls home.
  • Temple of Literature:  Originally built in 1070 by emperor Ly Nhan Tong as a temple to Confucius and the Imperial Academy (Vietnam’s first university), this site now serves to inspire Vietnamese students.  Students having just graduated, crowded the temple with their cap and gowns to take photos.

Here are photos from our stay in Hanoi:

Goodbye China, Hello Vietnam!

One month after arriving in China, Chris and I prepared for the next leg of our journey. A two hour flight would take us from Hong Kong to Hanoi, Vietnam. But first, before we close the chapter on China for now, here is a video Chris put together featuring highlights from our travels in the Middle Kingdom and a sneak peak into our first few stops in Vietnam. Also, note the HD (hand drawn) map feature, courtesy of Chris.

Stay tuned for more tales of tomorrow coming soon from Vietnam!


He’s One Bad Grass Mud Horse (Explicit Language)

Greetings from the future, Dear Readers!

The following post contains explicit language, salty talk, and curse words that begin with the letter “f”, in an attempt to describe a facet of Chinese language and culture we have learned about.  The general theme of this post is one where we, the foreigners have learned something that we didn’t know was available to learn.  If you would like to see pretty pictures, there’s one of Maria’s lovely face in this posting.  That said, the picture also contains explicit language, salty talk, and curse words that contain the letter “f”.  Consider yourself warned and feel free to skip over this post if you so choose.

In Nanjing, touring the former office of Chang Kai Shek, the air was a temperature hinting at a warmth that hadn’t arrived.  Willing the weather forward to a time when I might worry more about sunscreen than where I put my jacket, I wore shorts and sandals ahead of season.  Leaving the leader of the Kuomintang’s office by descending a marble staircase and rounding the outskirts of a well-maintained garden, I saw a young man sporting a hat which echoed my innermost sentiments perfectly.

“Fuckin’ Summer,” emblazoned a black baseball cap resting gently atop a young man of roughly 20 dutifully walking the grounds with a man I suspected to be his father.  I can only assume that neither were aware of what the hat said.

English is the language of the world’s most successful pop stars and thereby carries a certain level of fashion appeal.  We have seen dozens of young women with a popular hat that says “BOY.”  I saw an old woman in Qinhuangdao with a sweater proclaiming, “Math Sucks.”  Silly/bad English fashion is ubiquitous in China.

Those of you in the West need only to take a trip to the beach in order to see a cultural parallel.  Tattoos of Asian calligraphy adorn the bodies of numerous bronzed Americans who likely cannot count to five in Chinese.

Sure that means “strength”?  Might want to check on that before you head to Panama City.

Because of the above phenomena, traveling in China with English as a first language, can cause a Westerner to misinterpret, underestimate, and improperly judge surroundings.  A constant influx of t-shirts and signs with improper English can ease one into viewing anything written in English with serious condescension.

This brings me to a photo that I took while in Beijing:

When I took this photo, I was under the incorrect assumption that the shop owner was blissfully unaware of the curse words on display in the marquis of the shop.  “This man, in the capital of the largest country in the world, with a booming tourism industry, does not understand the signage of his own business,” I thought.  I didn’t figure into the equation that this was hinting at a form of humor and subversion way above my head.  (That said, still an insane thing to put in the front of a clothing store.)

On to the crazy zombie-lama thing:

Weeks after we left Beijing, Maria and I were eating in Shanghai with some friends.  A Canadian living in the area asked if we had heard of a phenomena in Chinese social media known as, “The Grass Mud Horse.”  I immediately thought back to the photo and almost choked on my dinner.  What ensued was a well-needed lightbulb into a darkened corner of my understanding of the Chinese language.

Put the kids to bed, the language is going to get intense.

Written Chinese is comprised of thousands of characters for which there are numerous homonyms.  (“red” and “read”…got it?)  Additionally, the spoken language has 4 distinct tones (five, depending upon how specific you’re going to be), which means that pronunciation is extremely important and an improper inflection on a vowel when speaking can change the meaning of “ma” for “mother”, to “ma” meaning “horse.” Additionally, “cao,” when pronounced with the third (falling and then rising) tone means, “grass,” whereas, “cao,” pronounced with the fourth (falling) tone means, “fuck.”  Incidentally, the same character for grass can also be used for the word, “fuck.”

This brings us to the number one vulgar insult that is used in the Chinese language: Fuck your mother.  A mean-spirited, awful thing to say to another, which is also used in China for times when you hit your thumb with a hammer or stub your toe.  (i.e. The entire sentence is used, even when there isn’t an intended subject to inflict this aggression on.)

“Grass Mud Horse”: 草泥马 or “Cǎo ní mǎ”

“Fuck Your Mother”: 肏你妈 or “cào nǐ mā”

Why is this important or even interesting?

Great question!  Two reasons!  Firstly, a lot of Chinese humor involves clever wordplay by leaning heavily on the many homonyms that the language provides.  Essentially, any Chinese standup comedian worth his salt likely has several jokes that end in, “Nah, I wasn’t talking about your mother, I was talking about my horse.” Secondly, many readers in the West are likely aware of the “Great Firewall of China,” which serves to monitor and curtail internet content.  This impediment to internet searches and discourse in China has created a sort of code-talk that, to your average Chinese internet user, is second hand.  So, when someone wants to say something vulgar on a forum in Chinese, without upsetting the monitors of traffic, there’s no need to insult anyone’s mother.  Simply call them a grass mud horse.  They’ll get it.

More to come, from the future!

One Country, Two Systems

Greetings from the future!

This dispatch comes to you from the financial hub of Asia — Hong Kong. There is so much to say about Hong Kong … where do I start? I know, with the 18-hour train ride from Shanghai that got us here. Up to this point, we’ve been spoiled by China’s high-speed train system — the G-train. It’s super clean, super smooth and super fast, averaging speeds of 124 mph. Sometimes, I found myself even wishing the train ride was a bit longer, like the 32 minute train ride from Suzhou to Shanghai.

Well, not this time. Anticipating the rise in prices that Hong Kong would bring and compensating for big spending nights in Shanghai, Chris and I decided to save a buck and take the slow train …

And boy-oh-boy was it slow … and smoky … and bumpy … and crowded, like six-person sleeper car crowded with entire elaborate family meals taking place on the bottom bunks. I was still recovering from a bad sheng jian bao incident in Shanghai (If you recall the doughy fried dumplings I raved about from Suzhou, I did not have the same love affair with Shanghai’s version, being that they made me violently ill.), so I quietly read my book from the top bunk whereas Chris joined in the festivities down below, feasting on duck, pickled vegetables and soybeans and downing bijou (rice wine). “Ganbei!” was shouted repeatedly, a cheers invoking you to empty your glass. Not surprisingly, the combination of pungent foods, rice wine and dozens of men smoking is not the best thing for a girl who recently reconfigured her digestive track.

Did I mention there was a fight? Before you start to worry, let me assure you we were in no danger. The fight was more theatre than legitimate threat; chest pounding of drunk, middle-aged men, and high pitched yelling from their wives. What went down exactly, we have no idea, but Chris and I, as well as the two American teachers we met (presently teaching in Abu Dhabi), tried our best to hide our laughter. It was a ridiculous and raucous scene.

But enough about the train, let’s talk about Hong Kong!

It’s impossible to describe Hong Kong without incorporating a bit of history. This is usually Chris’ area of expertise, but here’s my brief summary:

You probably know that the Brits ruled Hong Kong for a while, actually 156 years from 1841 – 1997. In 1841, China ceded Hong Kong, a sparsely populated island at the time, to Britain as a means of ending the first Opium War. The conflict had begun in 1839 when the British invaded China after China had attempted to suppress Britain’s opium trade (see Chris’ Shanghai post for more on opium’s influence in China). The British took over Hong Kong as a part of the Treaty of Nanjing, marking the beginning of the era of unequal treaties, a period in the 19th and 20th century where China was forced to handover control of many key territories (Chris wrote about this history previously in the post about Qingdao). As a British colony, Hong Kong thrived as an East-West trade point and epicenter of Western industry in Asia.

In 1898, China leased Hong Kong to the UK for an additional 99 years, and in 1997 rule over Hong Kong was peaceably transferred back to China on the condition that the Chinese communist party would maintain Hong Kong’s capitalist system, allowing Hong Kong to remain the financial center of Asia and thus creating the present status quo between China and Hong Kong as “one country, two systems.”

In short, Hong Kong is a lot like London but with much better weather.

So what does all this mean for our visit to Hong Kong? Western food at its finest! Pizza, pasta, tacos, burgers, fine dining or the best of comfort foods; it’s all here, it’s all good, and it’s all expensive. Our first night out, we gorged ourselves on gourmet pizza and red wine at an Italian restaurant in Lan Kwai Fong, a part of town celebrated for its culinary variety and nightlife. It was delicious and budget-wise comparable to a dinner out on 14th Street in D.C.

The most remarkable thing about Hong Kong is perhaps the very existence of this giant, lit-up metropolis, set smack dab in the middle of a wild, mountainous jungle. There is no other place like it that I’ve seen. We spent our days hiking on miles and miles of trails, and our nights out on the town, underdressed, weaving in and out of crowds of people from all over the world.

You want a suit? Ten men will offer to sell you one within 10 paces. You want a place to stay, this guy over here already has a room for you! Need to exchange money? Of course it’s not counterfeit! How about a watch? It’s fake, and that’s actually a selling point. Bottom line, there isn’t much you’ll want for in Hong Kong. Additionally, it’s a great place to load up on beauty products and over-the-counter medicine, being that they have an English-language pharmacy chain, Watson’s. [Note to female readers: much of the skin products (moisturizer, soap, sun tan lotion, etc.) in China and elsewhere in Asia have whitening agents in them, so this can make shopping for such things difficult if you are unable to read the labels.]

I’ve talked a lot about the Western food available in Hong Kong, but Eastern food shines here as well. Hong Kong is located across from mainland China’s Guangdong province, which was formally known as Canton. The people here speak Cantonese, not Mandarin like most of mainland China. Here is and interesting fact about Cantonese that I learned from Chris’ friend Chi-Kit, Hong Kong native currently living in Guangdong: The Cantonese language has nine tones whereas Mandarin only has five, making Cantonese the more complicated of the two. Chi-Kit took us to dinner one night (Thank you, Chi-Kit!), and he explained some of the nuances of the Cantonese language.

Now, back on the subject of food, Cantonese cuisine is the typical food in Hong Kong and the whole of Guangdong province. The most famous of Cantonese foods, at least in the West, is dim sum. This is China’s answer to Sunday brunch. Swap out eggs benedict for BBQ pork buns and mimosas for hot tea, and you have the same meal of friends and/or family getting together and stuffing their faces early in the day. [Some traditional places actually open as early as 5 a.m. and you can expect an elderly crowd at that hour.] We researched the best dim sum restaurants in Hong Kong and settled upon the restaurant crowned as the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world, Tim Ho Wan. A crowd of people were already waiting outside when we arrived but our wait only lasted a few minutes and soon after being seated the feasting began.

Here are some other interesting things about Hong Kong:

  • Both Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee were born in Hong Kong. Kung Fu is a big deal. There is a statue of Bruce Lee on Hong Kong’s Avenue of Stars, which is comparable to Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. [Side note: We stayed at a hotel called Kung Fu Garden. There was a Kung Fu center on the main floor — no garden, however. Accommodations were not the best — did I mention how expensive Hong Kong is?]
  • Hong Kong is made up of 235 islands. Hong Kong Island is the main one. We stayed on Kowloon, which was just a five-minute ferry ride away. The ferry is cheap and it runs back and forth, non-stop, for most of the day, so you never have to wait long. The ride at night with the lit-up city skyline is magical.
  • There is a famous snake restaurant called She Wong Lam. At Chris’ charge, we set out for this restaurant. When we arrived, a live, caged snake greeted us at the door. Much to Chris’ dismay and my relief, we discovered that the place only serves food in the fall and winter seasons. Right now they just sell snake products purporting a range of medicinal qualities, with a heavy focus on virility. We were in it for the eats, so we left empty handed. I dodged snake for now, but there’s no shortage of snake eating in Southeast Asia, so I’m likely to be faced with this Fear Factor-esque meal again.
  • Hiking and biking is great in Hong Kong. We spent a day hiking the Dragon’s Back trail on Hong Kong Island, ending the hike at Big Wave Bay, where we watched people surf as we rested on the beach.  We spent another day hiking on Lantau Island.
  • You don’t want to miss the view from Victoria Peak. The tram (like an incline) is a fun way to get up to the top but can entail brutal lines, especially on the weekend. You can also take a bus or just hoof it like Chris and I did. We then hiked from the top along the Hong Kong Trail. With all the great trails available, we ended up getting quite a bit of exercise during our stay. Hopefully that will help counteract all the pizza, wine and dim sum!

Check out our photos from Hong Kong: