Hong Kong means “fragrant harbor” in Cantonese, but it’s just as colorful as it is fragrant. Every alley we turned down contained some kind of surprise, like this zebra that made me think of Fruit Stripe gum. We ended up in Hong Kong after friends raved about it to us, telling us you can “take an escalator up a mountain” and promising some of the best food we could handle.
Landing in Hong Kong after being in snowy Shanghai, we immediately noted the change of pace. Its Airport Express Train speeds you through misty mountains and harbors dotted with gondolas and bridges. The air is fresh and the street corners smell like baking pastries and fish sauce. While Shanghai was orderly and serene, Hong Kong was filled with twisting, steep streets, smoky food vendors and hidden shop entrances. Sometimes I felt like I was in San Fransisco, and other times like I was in Rio de Janeiro. But you know, across the world.
Hong Kong is a great destination in and of itself, but it’s also a perfect stopover on the way to Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore. It’s also a launching pad for smaller trips, including to its Portuguese cousin, Macau, where you can gamble the day away or just visit religious sites. Just make sure you’re prepared to go through customs plenty of times, and take your hat off to pass the health check.
A British territory until 1997, Hong Kong is considered a Special Administrative Region of China. As a tourist, that means English will get you far—and yes, you don’t have to use a VPN to get on Google or Facebook like in mainland China. It also means you should respect the pride Hong Kong residents hold in their independence.
As someone who studied Mandarin, I was a bit worried about being able to get around in Hong Kong, where Cantonese is the predominant language. Did you know that Google Translate doesn’t offer Cantonese translations? (Get on it, Google!) The amazing Pleco app has a Cantonese dictionary you can download, which will help fill in your gaps. I also found that people we talked to were happy to teach me phrases like “thank you” (“m goi”). Whenever we were in a language crisis, using Mandarin instead of English usually led to a relieved reaction and quick connection. I was pretty surprised how often that came in handy in Hong Kong—and I’m not exactly proficient anymore.
We spent six days in Hong Kong total, but left with many alleyways and urban escalators unvisited. We found the city unbelievably beautiful, the people talkative and friendly and the food some of the best we’ve ever had. We are already thinking about when we’ll go back. For now, here are some of our favorite photos.