Hong Kong
 

Hong Kong and I were almost acquainted five years ago. At the time, I was in the middle of a personal crisis and was seriously considering moving abroad. Long story short, I ended up with a promising job offer teaching English in Hong Kong. It wasn’t the right fit for me for many reasons, and I wound up staying stateside, but ever since that time I’ve wanted to visit this chaotic concrete jungle. Alex also has a connection to Hong Kong - he spent a week there in summer 2012 and loved it. 

We visited just before Chinese New Year, so everything was decked out to ring in the Year of the Dog.

We visited just before Chinese New Year, so everything was decked out to ring in the Year of the Dog.

So naturally, when Alex’s good friend Ilan told us he’d be there for work in mid-February, we knew we had to make a meet-up happen. Unfortunately, getting there from Manila was not cheap, but we were able to snag a direct flight on Cathay Pacific for around $150 per person (free bags, woohoo!) and since Cathay is a relatively nice airline our flight was actually very pleasant, with plenty of leg room, dozens of inflight movies to choose from, as well as free booze in economy class! To be honest, after flying Air Asia for the past few months it doesn’t take much to impress us, but the flight really couldn’t have been nicer. 

Our biggest concern when planning a trip to Hong Kong was the cost. Not gonna lie, it’s an expensive destination, and we spent more there per day than we have in most of the rest of Asia. Luckily, we were still able to find plenty of budget-friendly activities and food options, and we only spent 5 days in the city to keep costs down, so it wasn’t that big of a hit to our wallet. 

At least the views are free!

At least the views are free!

We had to be realistic: no chance of a cushy private room at a hostel or hotel, as that would have cost us well over $100 per night. Instead we opted for an 8-bed dorm at Rainbow Lodge HK, located in a busy part of Kowloon called Tim Sha Tsui, or TST for short, inside Hai Phong Mansion. A lot of the buildings in HK are called ‘mansions’ - it’s just the term for the multi-purpose buildings full of shops, offices, and apartments. The dorm was tiny with beds stacked 3 high, but it was cozy and clean and we slept well. 

The location seriously could not be beat. We were able to walk down to the Star Ferry port for easy access to Hong Kong Island, and with the MRT (Hong Kong’s incredible subway system) right across the street we could easily jet around to other parts of the city. We were actually surprised by how convenient it was to walk around in the city - I figured it would be more of a public transport/Uber type of destination but in reality we were able to walk a TON, which was great considering how much food we ate!

A great place to burn off some calories is the Chi Lin Nunnery's huge zen garden.

A great place to burn off some calories is the Chi Lin Nunnery's huge zen garden.

If you know us, you know we love public transport - it’s usually one of the cheapest and most convenient ways to get around major cities. We’ve begun to realize that Asian cities are MILES ahead of the States and even Europe when it comes to clean, efficient, affordable and wide-ranging public transport, and Hong Kong is a great example of that. Not only does the MRT stretch across the entire administrative region, but there are also countless London-style double-decker buses that display stops and route info in English, and they all have free wifi! Buying tickets is easy - there are single-journey ticket vending machines at every station or you can buy an Octopus card and load money onto it. Cash is fine on buses but you’ll need exact change. 

It could not be easier to get from the airport to the city - we took the A21 bus directly to the corner in front of our hostel, it took about an hour and a half and it cost less than $4. As I said, there’s free wifi. There’s also a luggage storage area and a live camera feed so you can make sure no one messes with your stuff! We were seriously in awe of how superior Hong Kong public transport is to literally anywhere else we’ve ever been. There’s also a night bus that runs after midnight, so you aren’t out of luck if you arrive late. 

Me and Ilan being tourists.

Me and Ilan being tourists.

Because the city is partly on the mainland and partly on a ton of small islands, the ferry is a logical form of transport, and riding the Star Ferry to Hong Kong Island is one of those quintessential activities you simply have to do here. It cost us less than $1 USD per person, and we only had to wait around 3 minutes for a boat to arrive, which is pretty incredible when you think about how many people live in this chaotic metropolis. The ride across is incredibly beautiful, giving you a lovely view of the city’s stunning skyline, and riding it at night while all the buildings are lit up is especially magical. Since our hostel was right in the heart of TST, we were able to walk to the Kowloon port in about ten minutes, and we were dropped off on Hong Kong Island within walking distance of Lan Kwai Fong, the city’s most famous going out area, called LKF for short. Yes, everything in this city is abbreviated!

Awaiting the light show as the sun begins to set at Victoria Harbor.

Awaiting the light show as the sun begins to set at Victoria Harbor.

Going out in Hong Kong is not a budget-friendly experience, but it’s so fun it’s worth it. LKF comprises innumerable hookah bars, clubs and pubs crammed into a tiny amount of space spanning a few parallel streets. It’s lively, it’s constantly full of drunk people, and it’s ridiculously fun. There’s no particular bar we’d suggest as they’re all fun, just make sure to check prices before paying so you don’t end up with sticker shock. 

To save a few bucks, we recommend grabbing beers at any 7-Eleven and pregaming either in your hostel or while watching the nightly light show on Victoria Harbor. This was actually the number one tip we got from some friends who used to live in Hong Kong, and it really is the best way to get a night out started. Drinking on the street is totally legal here, so no worries about that - that’s something we aren’t used to as Americans but it’s common throughout Europe and Asia. 

The view from Victoria Peak. Unfortunately it was a very hazy day when we went. 

The view from Victoria Peak. Unfortunately it was a very hazy day when we went. 

Hong Kong is so chock full of sights and sounds (and smells…) that you’d be hard-pressed to see everything even if you had months to spend here, but we only had five days, so we had much more jam-packed week of sightseeing than is normal for us. We knew we had to visit Victoria Peak for the famous view of Hong Kong’s insane skyscrapers. It can get really crowded, so we went first thing in the morning around 8 a.m. and there was no line for the tram. If you go later and don’t want to wait for the tram, there’s also a bus that takes you up the peak. 

Get thee to a (Chi Lin) nunnery.

Get thee to a (Chi Lin) nunnery.

We also visited the Chi Lin Nunnery, which has a lovely and highly photogenic zen garden. It’s a great place to relax after a busy day of running around town. Other good spots for photos are Montane Mansion and Choi Hung Estate, both of which are very Instagram-famous spots that perfectly encapsulate the crazy, crowded nature of Hong Kong. 

 
Finally put our tripod to use at Choi Hung Estate. Yes, everyone here was taking Instagram photos. We are part of the problem. 

Finally put our tripod to use at Choi Hung Estate. Yes, everyone here was taking Instagram photos. We are part of the problem. 

 

For culture, we had fun visiting the Hong Kong Museum of History. It’s free, and it’s a great way to spend a cold or rainy afternoon. I’m a geek for museums, and this was a good one - tons of replicas of shops, markets, and vehicles from years past, as well as some interactive exhibits. We also loved walking around the Ladies Market to see all the fake bags and watches on sale - it’s really lively and entertaining even if you’re not trying to shop. We never actually made it to Lantau Island, but we’re told there are some amazing hikes over there, as well as the famous Big Buddha, so if you have more time that’s definitely worth a visit. 

Shrines and lanterns at the History Museum.

Shrines and lanterns at the History Museum.

Honestly, just walking around Hong Kong is part of the fun! Even though this city is very public transit-friendly, we loved strolling around the chaotic streets and soaking up the atmosphere. There’s something happening everywhere you look - it’s literally impossible to be bored here, and it seems like the whole city is always busy. It’s one of the most vibrant, lively places we’ve ever visited. 

Of course, Hong Kong is a famous food destination and if you know us you know that’s at least 75% of the reason we wanted to visit, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about everything we ate. We ate SO much. Luckily, we made an effort to walk a lot, so we burned a decent amount of calories, but Hong Kong is definitely not a diet-friendly destination! You can get literally any food you could possibly want here. American fast food? Check. Dim sum? You got it. French baked goods? No problem. Assorted pickled animal appendages? Yea, that too. It’s all ridiculously delicious, and despite the fact that this is a pretty expensive destination, we found that food costs actually weren’t outrageous. 

 
We don't do food pics, so here's a shot of the Peninsula, a hotel we cannot afford to step foot in, decked out for the new year.

We don't do food pics, so here's a shot of the Peninsula, a hotel we cannot afford to step foot in, decked out for the new year.

 

It’s almost impossible to encapsulate the delights of eating in Hong Kong accurately in this already lengthy blog post, so I’ll just list some of our favorite foods and restaurants. TripAdvisor was useful here, but honestly, you can just walk into any restaurant and try your luck - most post menus at the door so you can gauge prices, and almost all are incredibly delicious. 

We love dim sum (frankly, ‘love’ isn’t a strong enough word) so of course we ate it almost every day. The world’s cheapest Michelin star restaurant, Tim Ho Wan is obviously the number one pick here - there’s no beating it, and I will dream of those BBQ pork buns for the rest of my life. There are several locations, we went to the one in North Point. Our other fave was DimDimSum, which is famous for their piggy buns - they’re shaped like pigs but taste like HEAVEN, with a sweet custard filling. You’ll have to queue at both places pretty much any time of day, but trust me, it’s worth the wait! Lots of people told us to go to Din Tai Fung for soup dumplings aka xiaolongbao, but the prices were too high for us so we skipped it. 

Detail of the colorful painted buildings at Choi Hung Estate.

Detail of the colorful painted buildings at Choi Hung Estate.

When we weren’t stuffing our faces with assorted dumplings, we managed to squeeze in some other meals, too. We had amazing ramen at Butao, which felt super trendy, and Mak Man Kee had delicious wonton soup and a very local atmosphere. Hungry Korean is a local quick-service Korean chain that’s surprisingly good - how I wish we had fast-food Korean back home! 

If you want an authentic Hong Kong experience, look no further than Cafe De Coral, a breakfast chain with locations all around the city. The food is meh - standard quick-service fare, with perfectly round eggs and identical sausage links, and everything seems slightly rubbery and sterile - but it’s worth a visit because the experience is so different than anything you can get back home. You enter a fast-moving queue to order, and people behind you get fussy if you take more than a few seconds to decide. After paying, you enter another queue to await your meal, where you can observe employees assembling orders with lightning speed and precision. Also, the decor is decidedly 70’s - lots of brown and orange and yellow, adding to the overall strangeness. When Alex visited Hong Kong in 2012, he came here and the place was instantly etched into his memory, so he had to bring me. Don’t order too much, because again this isn’t a gastronomic delight, just a memorable experience.

There are also so many Hong Kong-specific street foods that don’t require you to find a specific restaurant - just make sure you try them! Egg waffles are maybe the city’s most famous dessert - you’ll see lots of locals and tourists alike walking around with these puffy bubble-shaped snacks. They come in all sorts of flavors (our favs are plain and coffee), and in one night we literally ordered them four separate times. No regrets. Pineapple buns - honestly, any sweet bun - are also a popular snack here, and they’re all crumbly and flaky and sweet and HEAVENLY. Bubble tea is ridiculously popular, with shops on every corner. And of course you can’t leave without trying some egg tarts - there’s a bakery seemingly on every block and they all sell delicious tarts. 

Cheesin' in the concrete jungle at Montane Mansion, fabled Instagram paradise.

Cheesin' in the concrete jungle at Montane Mansion, fabled Instagram paradise.

People always say that Hong Kong is an expensive destination, and I’ll admit that lodging was not cheap - paying $25 a night for a bed in an 8-person dorm definitely stung a bit. But we were able to make the most of our five days here without breaking the bank, and there are plenty of cheap or free activities, as well as affordable food options. Plus so much of Hong Kong’s magic lies in just walking around, taking in the city around you and people-watching along the sidewalks or in one of the city’s many parks. Good times don’t require a high price tag, and you shouldn’t let cost deter you from visiting Hong Kong. It quickly became one of our favorite cities and we definitely plan to return.