Two summers ago, I travelled to Hong Kong for three months for summer break. Three months was the most I could stay without a special visa, so I was able to go for June, July and August. I stayed in a hostel, which is the cheapest way to stay—and probably the best. I met so many new friends at the hostel, and it was good to be around other expats, even if they were only staying for a few days or so.
Hong Kong has a sub-tropical climate, and at first, it was hard to get used to the heat and humidity. Even as a New Yorker (we have hot, humid summers), it was hard to get acclimated to a summer in Hong Kong. Though the temperature would only reach the low 90s in June, July and August, it was the humidity that got you. This is also typhoon season. When the city thinks a bad storm is coming in, they close all the shops and everyone heads back home (or if you’re like me, the hostel). Though I wasn’t there in the winter, I heard people say they have relatively cool winters without major cold fronts.
Luckily (for me), most people who live in Hong Kong can speak English. I had a few friends who were studying in Hong Kong, and they wanted to learn more about the language, but it was difficult for them to get people to actually speak in Cantonese. Mandarin was a little better, but the Chinese see someone who looks “Western” (my friend had pale skin and blonde hair), and they refuse to speak in Cantonese.
It was difficult getting used to the attention at first. I am short with paler skin and dark hair, so I didn’t stick out so much, but my friend, Jennifer, who is tall and blonde, had people approaching her all the time. In a city like Hong Kong, they’re more used to tourists and foreigners than other areas of China, so people weren’t trying to touch her hair as much as when she went to the country, but it was still a little unsettling at times.
One of the best examples of “culture shock” was how clean the city was! Coming from New York, it was a treat to see people throwing their garbage into the trash can. In New York it’s normal to see several people a day throwing litter onto the street or sidewalk, but here they fine you. I saw an American girl get fined for spitting her gum on the sidewalk.
One of the most jarring things about Hong Kong (and I’m sure anyone will tell you this) is the sheer number of people everywhere. And I mean everywhere. It’s rare how even in New York we take what little space we have for granted. At night, people pour out into the streets—especially Lan Kwai Fong—a square not far from the waterfront. During the day, people head over to Mong Kok to go shopping. When my friend Jennifer tried to look at a dress, the salesperson told her in broken English that she was “too fat” to buy the dress. Basically, everyone in Hong Kong is teeny tiny, so it’s a little bit of a blow to the ego if you’re tall and busty like Jennifer.
The food is one of the best parts of Hong Kong. You really need to approach the food here with an open mind. It’s actually kind of comical. Some of the stuff you see seems really vile at first look. There are plenty of bones, heads, brains and organs to choose. It reminded me of that show on the Travel Channel where the guy seeks out foods that would normally gross out westerners. Once you get past the initial shock, the food is pretty amazing. First, Hong Kong has a special relationship with pork that I have not experienced anywhere else. It’s flavorful, it’s fatty and it’s cooked perfectly. My favorite was roast pork.
One of my favorite restaurants in the city was a floating restaurant. I don’t know why, but I’m sort of a sucker for food that is served on boats or in swim up bars. The restaurant we went to had little private dinner boats that paddled you out to the kitchen for your food. I can’t even describe how awesome it was. I had this vegetable rice medley that the chef cooked in a wok—on a boat. Amazing.
Luckily, Hong Kong was relatively safe when I went. Since the riots and demonstrations of last year, I’ve heard it’s gotten a little more difficult for westerners to walk around the streets. From my experience, I never felt uncomfortable walking around by myself during the day. In touristy locations, it’s common to get pickpocketed, but I always kept my money in a money belt, so I never had to worry about that. There were always plenty of police out and about (I mean, if they’re ticketing people who litter, they’ve got to be everywhere, right?) so I always felt relatively safe. I guess the further north you go, the sketchier it feels, but I stayed to the downtown areas. I didn’t need to get immunized or anything to go to Hong Kong, but I did get a hepatitis vaccination.
Getting around the city is pretty easy. The first few days I just walked throughout the streets. They were crowded and noisy and smelly, but it was the only way to really get a feel for the city. It was also a great way to find some food places that turned out to be hidden gems! After a few days I braved to subway. It’s actually a light rail train called MTR. It was actually really easy for me to navigate. The only thing I would advise is making sure you go with the flow. If you don’t walk at the same pace as everyone else, people start shoving, and it gets a little dangerous.
Bio: Natalya Pobedova is a travelling nomad and backpacker from beautiful Brno Czech Republic. She is 27 and makes a living as a freelance web developer to support her traveling needs. She also runs a travel website for backpackers as a hobby: http://www.travelsiders.com/. She dreams to fly to Brazil and speaks Portuguese fluently. She visited 14 countries already and most of them are in Asia and Europe.
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