OLD QUARTER, VIETNAM: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 11

9 April – 2 May, pt. 4: Thaison Palace Hotel, Old Quarter, Hanoi

“Ooooh that smell
Can’t you smell that smell
Ooooh that smell
The smell of death surrounds you”

– Lynyrd Skynyrd, “That Smell”

Few things in this world can trigger a memory the way that your senses can. That being said, I’m going to have a lot of unpleasant memories about this place.

The Sights

Some of you may have wondered, “Why didn’t they go anywhere in Vietnam? They went to several places in Hong Kong.” That is very true, but for those of you who are uninformed about us personally, here is the answer. We went to Hong Kong for a vacation after my last job [10 years long] came to a close, because I wanted to teach English overseas. Hong Kong was a luxurious stop for us; a chance to take a real vacation in what we had hoped was one of the most exotic and beautiful cities on earth. It was. Vietnam was where we decided to look for my first teaching job. So until I found work, we didn’t want to spend the extra money on trips inside the country. So we didn’t see the beautiful places of northern Vietnam, of which I’m sure there are many. We pretty much saw the Old Quarter, which isn’t quite so pretty. If you look at just surface stuff, you’ll see beauty here. The old French architecture, some of the sidewalks paved in old marble from the days when this was French Indochina, Hoan Kiem Lake, situated just 3 blocks from our hotel. However, look closer, and it’s not as appealing as the photos you can find all over the internet: The architecture looks run down, and covered in city grime that NO torrential downpour can wash away; the garbage of tossed away food, cigarettes, even feces, scattered along the sidewalks and curb-sides. Hong Kong was as clean, if not cleaner, than most American cities. By contrast, most Americans, including myself, would be disgusted by the sight and smell of just how dirty this place is.

The Smell

It was rarely pleasant. At best, tolerable. Most of the time, you smelled the moisture in the air. As soon as you step out onto the street most days, you are in a perpetual state of moistness. It’s like being a Duncan Hines pudding cake, but in my case, more fattening. I will say that the smell of fresh rain on a humid night here was delightful – as if the air itself was begging for the heavens to open up. Otherwise, it smelled like oppression, heat, garbage, and cooking dog, though in the case of the last two, it was hard to differentiate. You could also smell the exhaust of all the vehicles in the city. I for one, like the smell of burning fuel, but even this place was too much for me in that regard. Overall, this place smelled like sewage, a smell that never seemed to go completely away, probably because this place looks and smells like none of it has been cleaning since the Napoleonic era.

The Sounds

With the exception of later at night, in our room, there are almost always sounds being produced, whether it’s from other hotel guests (soundproofed rooms, my ass!), or from the constant din of traffic. Outside, it is virtually ceaseless, even at midnight, and this city has a midnight curfew, obviously not strictly enforced. During the day, sound fills the air; the sound of street food cooking on makeshift Hibachis, city sanitation workers banging on their giant garbage carts to let people know they’re ready to pick up the garbage, babies crying, people shouting above the rest of the noise, and always traffic, constant honking of horns from buses, taxis, private cars, and more scooters than the number of men who have masturbated to an image of Scarlett Johansson. They are everywhere, constantly, like a plague of locusts being chased by a plague of frogs. There must be more Vespas here than in all of Italy. Which brings me to…

The Traffic

The only time I’ve seen the streets ever come close to being empty is at either 1am, or on their Independence Day holiday, last night, when everyone was at the lake, watching the fireworks display. Nothing says victory over America than Chinese gunpowder making similar sounds to what was heard when the Americans were bombing this city 45 years ago!

The traffic seems, at first, to have no rules. However, that’s not true – it has FEW rules. My sister-in-law came up the best analogy. Pretend you’re the frog in the 80s video game, Frogger. That’s it. There you go. If you’re walking, that’s kind of what it’s like here. But combine that with what it’s like crossing Alder St. or Patterson, near the University of Oregon. Time it right, and you won’t have to worry. Avoid the cars and buses, sure, but dodging the scooters is easy. Walk with purpose, don’t slow down or stop while in the middle of the street, and you’ll be fine: they will dodge you…or at least I’m pretty sure they will…I wasn’t hit. Then again, I’m bigger than most scooters.

Tomorrow it gets even more interesting, as I cover the people here. Until then…
– For images of our trip, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston

HANOI, VIETNAM: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 10

9 April – 2 May, pt. 3: Thaison Palace Hotel, Old Quarter, Hanoi

Adrian Cronauer: Here’s a little advice: Never eat in a Vietnamese restaurant next to a pound.

Robin Williams, as Adrian Cronauer, Good Morning, Vietnam

I know you’ve been waiting to read more about everything that’s fucked up with this country and laugh at my snarky misery, so here we go!

The Currency

OK, get ready to laugh. The currency in Vietnam is called the Dong. Go ahead, get it out, I’ll wait…………..OK, done? Moving on. One American dollar is worth about 21,000 dong. If you have about 50 dollars, that’s one million…that’s a lot of dong! It would probably go further, if you ate the local cuisine, especially the street food, but….

The Food

Nearly every food travel show touts Vietnamese food as some of the best, kind of second tier behind Thailand, Hong Kong, China, Japan, Spain, France, and Italy. From my experience, I say BULLSHIT! We tried, we REALLY tried at first! We had some street food just across the street from our hotel our first full day here that was pretty good. There was rice noodles, broth, a variety of greens, chicken, and tofu. I didn’t really like the tofu, but everything else was pretty good! And they kept feeding us until we stood up to pay, and it was only about $5 for the two of us. One thing to know about eating at these street food stalls. The chairs are plastic stools that are about the size of what you’d expect in a preschool. It doesn’t even make sense for Vietnamese to be sitting in these chairs even though they’re all smaller than us. But still the food was alright. On another night, we had fried rice and what I can only describe as smoked water buffalo jerky, that our waiter was certain I wouldn’t like…but I did! Sure shocked the hell out of him! And we both liked the national dish, Pho (pronounced like the 1st two letters in “fuck”). It’s basically rice noodles in a beef or chicken broth, topped with assorted greens like mint, lemon grass , and parsley. But other than that, it was a series of bad experiences, topped off with when we went to an indoor restaurant down the street. They had burgers on the menu! Beef or chicken. Unfortunately, they told us that they were out of beef and chicken (again, a common occurrence). So my wife ordered what was called Vietnamese Spring Rolls. When they showed up, they smelled funny…like swamp ass. My wife, who’s eaten with Filipinos in Hawaii, took a bite, already suspecting what that bite confirmed it to be: Dog. Fucking dog! After that, we only ate foods that we were previously familiar with.

We went to a KFC, but their version was comparatively bland, surprisingly. They had a fast food burger chain here called Lotteria; tasted like fast food, though my wife liked their Teriyaki burger. Otherwise, we stuck to crap we could get at the grocery store and 3 restaurants. At the grocery store, we mostly got chips (they have Pringle’s here), chocolate (Kit Kat, Snicker’s, M&Ms are about the only familiar versions), soft drinks (most of the Coke brands), and bottled water (you can shower and brush your teeth with the tap water, but nothing else, unless you want to be sick in bed for a week, or worse. Dysentery is not your friend!). As for the other three, I’ll take them one at a time, in the order in which we visited them during the day.

The AB Restaurant: They offered many different things, but the ones we regularly went for were an American steak for $9 (better than any steak I ever had in America), spaghetti for about $7 (again better than any pasta we had in America), a Caesar salad for $4 (big enough to be a meal by itself, and better than most salads you can find in America) and big plate of fries for about $2. For meals, this was about the only place we ate meals at, unless we ordered room service, which we did a lot of just to have SOME variety.
Kem Ti Amo: The name combines Italian (Ti Amo means I love you) and Vietnamese (Kem means Ice Cream). The place is owned by a couple of French guys, but staffed by numerous cute Vietnamese girls who were all very nice to us, probably because we came there so often during our stay. Best. Chocolate. Ice. Cream. Ever. It was dark and rich, like eating Denzel Washington! There were other good flavors there too, but I never strayed too far from the chocolate. It was like an old-fashioned ice cream shop, with a wide variety of flavors and ways to have them. Glass dish, waffle cone, sundaes, shakes – you name it, they had it. Wonderful!


Shi Sha Bar: Shi Sha refers to tobacco with flavoring that you can smoke out of a hookah, but we never tried that. We mostly went there to drink and smoke. I usually had a Tiger beer, probably the best Vietnamese beer out there, though probably not the cheapest. My wife found here perhaps the only place in the Old Quarter that could do a decent Long Island Ice Tea. After various traumatic tourism experiences in this town, we frequented this place probably more than we should’ve, but it worked wonders on our outlook on life!

So that’s it for food and money. Tomorrow, I’ll get into the sights, sounds, and smells of this city. It won’t be pleasant.
– For images of our trip, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston

VIETNAM: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 9

Observations of Vietnam…get ready for the snark!:)

9 April – 2 May, pt. 2: Old Quarter, Hanoi

[as Walter Cronkite] “I just want to begin by saying to Roosevelt E. Roosevelt, what it is, what it shall be, what it was. The weather out there today is hot and shitty with continued hot and shitty in the afternoon. Tomorrow a chance of continued crappy with a pissy weather front coming down from the north. Basically, it’s hotter than a snake’s ass in a wagon rut.”
Robin Williams, as Adrian Cronauer, Good Morning, Vietnam

So let’s see, I covered our lovely accommodations, which improved only slightly a week or so into it, when they moved us up one floor, into a slightly better room. Still had the gnats though, which was okay. We needed some new friends…Timmy didn’t make it. Still, we had the whole outside world to explore! The people, the men, the women, the language, the sights, the smells, the sounds, the traffic, the weather, the hotel staff, the food, the shops, the currency, the culture!!!! Turns out that, for the most part, the only good thing about this place was it gave me a lot of material to be a sarcastic smart ass for this blog! So in that sense, thank you, Hanoi! Wow, look at all that material up there, three sentences back! Where to begin….

Buddhist Monastery
Buddhist Monastery

The Culture

OK, I’m getting the hard one out-of-the-way first. The culture is, to say the least, difficult to explain, and almost as hard to grasp. Most of their oldest traditions are based on Buddhist or local religious customs. I’ve seen a lot of hotels and other shops with little shrines just inside the door, where the workers or owners drop to their knees and pay homage. Just as common in the smaller shops and cafes (almost as numerous as the gnats), is burning fake money as an offering. This is usually done just shortly before or after opening or closing, in a metal container, out on the street curb. The smell of burning paper is one of the few things I came to like here for two reasons: 1] It reminds me of campfires, and 2] It drowns out the other smells, but more on that later.

There is of course, the customary bowing, which I generally return, as long as it’s someone I like or I’m in a good mood and feeling respectful, which at times was harder to do than it sounds, but most of the time I’m courteous, certainly more so than most people I saw. I even made a point to bow and step aside on narrow sidewalks where there was only room for one person to go through, particularly when it was someone older.

The Shops

There are tiny little shops everywhere, even shops on the sidewalks, selling various convenience store items in a couple of glass cases with wheels. Cigarettes are insanely cheap here ($1/pack at most), and almost ALL of the men smoke. We saw very few women doing so, but we’ve been told that more of them smoke when drinking, again, an occurrence we didn’t see much of. There are small markets strewn all over the Old Quarter, selling similar merchandise to what we saw in markets in Hong Kong. One difference though: Shoes. There are places to buy shoes everywhere, ridiculous numbers of them. They mostly sell either flip-flops, children’s shoes, or the most frequent, heels. Really. High. Heels. They’re usually 3-6 inches, and when women aren’t working, they’re usually wearing these. Shoes are an apparent obsession amongst Vietnamese women, and they all wear heels that any woman in America would be envious of. Personally, the heels made it difficult for me to know whether they were just dressed up for a night out, or if they were prostitutes, but that’s going into the subject of women here, so I’ll come back to that later.

The really bad one is a roaming street vendor. He or she is usually older, and either walking or cycling down the streets hawking shirts, hand fans, or shoe repair, just to provide a few examples. They are tenacious. At first, we tried being nice and polite, saying no while smiling. But early on, that wasn’t working. If we were sitting, we’d have to get up. If we were standing, we’d start walking, and they’d follow us, and keep trying to sell to us. On one occasion early on, a man called to me and pointed to my shoe. While I stood there, saying no, he grabbed my fucking foot and wouldn’t let go! I finally had to lurch my leg away from him to get away. That one really began my loathing of this place. Look, I know everyone here is poor and needs to find a way to make money. But I’m not going to pay for a physical assault (Yes sir, please repair my brand new shoe that doesn’t have anything wrong with it, oh and could you get all handsy with me too? That’s how I like it! Yeah, repair that shoe! Harder! Harder!). After that, we learned that if someone is approaching you to sell something, keep walking, show them the hand, and say no, without making eye contact. Deviate from that method, and they might get you or at the very least, persist in their sales pitch which we couldn’t understand anyway.

The Weather

See that quote up at the top of this article? That summed up most of our time here. There were some days that were cooler, in the high 70s, but even then, the humidity is insane!!!! It rarely dips below 50%, and is usually above 70%. Put that together with the fact that right now it’s 11am here, and it’s 90 degrees (not Celsius, for you non-American readers), and the humidity is currently at 70%. Combine that with my furry girth, and I’m flop-sweating my way through the Old Quarter. This place does get rain, usually at night, but we haven’t seen much rain, except for one really impressive night. A couple of weeks ago, a big thunderstorm rolled through Hanoi, and we got one hell of a light show, combined with a tropical downpour that made our heavy rains in Oregon look like a shower with bad water pressure.

More to come next entry!

– For images of our trip, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston

HANOI: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 8

Here’s my next blog about our experiences in Vietnam:) We met some awesome people there but remember…snarky venting was also needed and can be oh so therapeutic:) Enjoy…;)~

9 April – 2 May, pt. 1: Thaison Palace Hotel, Hanoi

“So I started out
for God knows where
I guess I’ll know
when I get there
I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings
Comin’ down is the hardest thing”
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Learning to Fly”

As I write this, we’re just two days away from leaving Hanoi, and heading to Taiwan. A lot has happened, good, bad, and ugly. Unfortunately, most of our experiences here were the latter two, which is the main reason we’re leaving. I’m sure I would’ve found work here, but after experiencing what life would be like here, we just couldn’t do it; not here. That was my mistake, and a bit of a costly one, literally. Had we known what our personal experiences were to be in this country, we would have saved time and money going directly to Taiwan. But we lived and learned, and our options in Taiwan are already looking promising before we’ve even arrived. So what can I say about Hanoi, Vietnam? Where do I start?

I guess the beginning is the best place. So we arrived at the hotel at about 7:00. It was already dark by then; closer to the equator, the sunrises and sunsets occur at almost the same times everyday. When we walked into a beautiful lobby, one of the hotel managers, Joe, was there to greet us. He seemed very friendly and offered to help us in any way possible. Our room was initially on the 3rd floor, so we went up to get settled. The room smelled musty, but hey, it was only $18 a night, so I guess that’s okay. Then we realized we were now lord of the flies…or gnats to be exact.

They were everywhere, and even after we bought giant cans of Raid, they still kept coming; we haven’t been without their company during our entire stay here (We even adopted a few; we had named them and just couldn’t bring ourselves to kill them. Which reminds me; Timmy says hello.). We went around, trying to kill as many of those little fuckers as possible, until we felt comfortable enough to eat. Being new here and it being late, we ordered pizza from room service. Oh, but wait, there were more problems with the room. There were stains on the bedding! They LOOKED like coffee stains, and that’s what we told ourselves it was. All the A/C’s here are mounted up near the ceiling, so you need a remote control to operate it. We had a remote, but it didn’t work very well. It kept shutting off the A/C by itself. When we got them to change the batteries, it still didn’t work right, so we’d set it to a pretty cold temperature and just leave it. But I’m not done yet! The bathroom was the source of the gnats. We think they came in through the fan venting; there was a higher concentration of them there than in the whole of the bedroom, and the bathroom was small; just enough room for a sink, a space to stand in front of it, and shower and a toilet. They had advertised a bathtub, and the shower had a place to sit (but neither of us ever dared to), but that was it – that was our “tub”. Oh, and the shower leaked…a lot! They later “fixed” it by building a barrier behind the toilet where the leak in the pipes was, with scraps of metal and copious amounts of spackle. That way, it would only collect in an area where no one went! I’m sure it was good for the floor. And on our first morning here, we realized that gnats weren’t the only thing coming through that fan vent. So was the smell of every bowel movement from every room above us! It would linger until about noon; it might’ve lasted longer, but we’d turn the fan off in the morning and keep the bathroom door closed, to keep it from spreading. That was the room. Keep in mind, we generally preferred our room to going out in the neighborhood.
– For images of our trip, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston

SHA TIN, HONG KONG: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 7

Not too much snark this time. Just what to expect when you’re traveling there and how much we loved it. Enjoy:)

5 April – 9 April: Hyatt Regency, Sha Tin, New Territories, Hong Kong

So, after a melancholy drive up to Sha Tin, our cab pulled into the University district, where the Chinese University of Hong Kong is located. The Hotel sat up on a hill, towering over the MRT University Station, and our cab drove up the hill and pulled up to the lobby. The City Garden Hotel had a check out time of noon, but the Hyatt’s check in time wasn’t until 2pm. They checked us in, but a room wasn’t available yet; it was just after 12pm. So we went into their cafe/restaurant to get something to eat, and wait for our room. There, we both had a burger, strangely enough. My wife rarely likes to eat meat, but she ate the whole thing! We took our time there, had some jasmine tea, some decadent desserts and eventually, 2 o’clock came and our room was ready, again on the 15th floor. Again, they took our bag up for us. We found our room and went in.

Amazing. We had a stunning view of Sha Tin Bay, a beautiful big room with two beds, a lounge chair, desk, and a sitting area right in front of the massive windows overlooking the bay and the towering buildings on the other side. The bathroom was equally impressive. It had a separate area for the toilet, a sink with a large counter, a shower with a rainfall shower-head, and a big, comfortable, luxurious bathtub, that my wife practically moved into when we got there. I did get in there once too (please don’t try to visualize that – it will scar you for life), but baths just aren’t my thing.

The one down side of the hotel that made us miss the City Garden even more – it’s not located near anything, other than the university and the subway station. There were a few shops around the station – a tiny 7-11, a bakery, and a nice little Chinese restaurant that we discovered WAY too late in our stay – but there was no neighborhood to walk through. The nearest one was two subway stops (about 5km) away. This was an area that people passed on their way to somewhere else, with the exception of the hotel. So unless we wanted to go to the trouble of getting on the MRT just to eat (which we did do a few times), we were stuck with the local shops and the hotel’s restaurants, which weren’t bad at all, just expensive. However, we ordered room service several times, for those burgers again, and their REALLY nice breakfasts. I love room service! It was decadent, and I didn’t give a shit. This was our vacation; we were allowed to be decadent, so don’t judge me!

Buddhist Monastery entrance
Buddhist Monastery entrance

So while at this hotel, we explored the Sha Tin area, and other parts of Kowloon. We went to a beautiful Buddhist temple located in the far southwestern part of the New Territories, and I went to the ruins of Kowloon’s old walled city. We went to a mall in Sha Tin one evening, looking for a restaurant that we’d seen on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations show, but it wasn’t there anymore. The mall was filled with more high-end stores for the mainland Chinese to plunder. However, we did find a restaurant with some room there, and had a nice dinner, but it was so big, we couldn’t finish it all, a common theme here. Afterwards, we went outside and walked out into a little square, where a young woman with a guitar, a microphone, and a couple of speakers was performing soft pop songs from the 1970s (The Carpenters, Olivia Newton-John, etc.), in front of a surprisingly large group of enthralled onlookers who applauded enthusiastically after every song. It was very entertaining, and we even joined in on the cheers.

On our last full day there, we went to Kowloon to go to the Ladies’ Market and the Temple Street Market. One thing about these street markets if you’re ever over here: learn to haggle. Bargaining over the price isn’t just common, it’s expected. It’s hard at first for an American to accept the fact that you don’t just accept the price that’s given to you. Counteroffer with half of what you think it’s worth, and go up from there. There are similar shops nearby, so it’s possible to tell someone that you can get it cheaper just down the street, whether it’s true or not. It’s hard to get the hang of at first, but it’s a good thing, and will most certainly save you money in the long run. Later on, I finally had my 1st Indian food – it was almost like a spicy lamb pizza – and it was very good! Dead baby animals are delicious! Think I’m being gross? You like eggs, don’t you? Thought so. Shut up.

Random Observations

The people in the Sha Tin area were noticeably different from those in the North Point area. The people in North Point seemed a bit nicer, but quieter and more reserved in manner and dress than those in Sha Tin. I hardly noticed any girls in North Point, but it was hard to miss them in Sha Tin, because of what they wore…or more accurately, how little they were wearing or how tightly they were wearing it. It was nice to look at, but I was still a little taken aback over the drastic difference in socially acceptable dress codes in neighborhoods separated by a distance of less than 15 miles.
Pharmacies. In a grocery store or a Walmart back home, all pharmaceutical items you want, prescription and over-the-counter items, are in one section of the store. Not so here. Some items are located in separate, small pharmacy shops, scattered around town. Some examples: Feminine items for your menstrual cycle? Grocery store. Eye drops? Pharmacy. Colgate toothpaste? Grocery store. Sensodyne toothpaste? Pharmacy. Hand sanitizer? Grocery store. Hydrogen peroxide, allergy medicine, and acid reflux medicine? Pharmacy. Seems a little inconvenient to have to go to two separate places for your grocery list, but keep in mind one thing: at pharmacies here, you can also get birth control and antibiotics WITHOUT a prescription!
The children. I don’t know about you, but back home I’d seen A LOT of ugly kids. I mean, damn! Honey Boo Boo is exhibit A. Hard to find ugly kids here. They are friggin’ adorable. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to pull a Madonna or Angelina and adopt enough kids to start my own sweat shop. Still, they’re entertaining to watch, and they’re usually the first ones to say ‘hello’ to you.
The food and the people. Have I mentioned how much we loved the food and the people? Oh, nevermind, then.

View from our hotel.
View from our hotel.

So April 9 came around, and much too soon. After 8 days there, we had fallen in love with this place, and we DID NOT want to leave. But we had to; teaching opportunities for someone with no experience were not as readily available here as they were elsewhere, not to mention the fact that we already had reservations in Vietnam. So reluctantly and tearfully, we checked out of our wonderful hotel, and our driver picked us up for our little ride in a Mercedes back to the airport while we told us about Hong Kong, what the people there thought of the mainland Chinese (see part 5), and how we should visit Macau sometime. Due to the checkout time, we had plenty of time to explore the airport, look in its shops, even get something to eat, before we went through security (easy, this time) and wait for our plane. They began boarding about 30 minutes late, but otherwise, everything went smoothly. The flight was only 2 hours this time, very manageable. We landed in Hanoi at about 5:30 local time. After a lengthy wait at customs (hint?), we walked through a disturbingly quiet airport to our ride, which was waiting for us to take us into the city.

Now, I know there may be some of you who know me who might be thinking, “Richard, you were so nice and polite writing about Hong Kong. Where is that snarky, sarcastic attitude we know and love about you?” Don’t worry…Vietnam’s coming next.
– For images of our trip, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston

KOWLOON, HONG KONG: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 6

Enjoy it while it lasts because I go for the throat when we move on to Vietnam:) Enjoy!

3 April – 5 April, pt. 2: City Garden Hotel, North Point, Hong Kong

While we didn’t do as much sightseeing as we had originally planned, we had gotten to experience the culture, which in some ways may have been better and certainly less touristy. However, we did go to some of the places we wanted to go. The subway was our main mode of transportation for these excursions, but sometimes a taxi supplemented the journey, when the remaining distance was short, but too far for walking.

One of the first places we went to was the Hong Kong Botanical and Zoological Gardens, which was so beautiful. This lush hilltop park filled with exotic plants, birds, reptiles, and mammals, was very peaceful, with one exception: the primates, and no, I’m not referring to the humans. We were about to head back when we heard a loud commotion coming from one of the monkey exhibits that we had passed earlier. The were whooping, chattering, howling so loud, you could feel the sound vibrate in your inner ear. It was amazing; never heard anything like it! It was a very beautiful place.

My hubby goes to the zoo:)
My hubby goes to the zoo:)

Our last full day in North Point, I took my longest MRT trip to date. I went across most of Hong Kong Island, transferred to another MRT, which took me under Victoria Harbor to Kowloon to see the Avenue of Stars, which is basically the Hong Kong film industry’s version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, combined with Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. They have marble stars scattered along a broad sidewalk, with a breathtaking view back across Victoria Harbor to Hong Kong Island. Some of the stars also include hand prints. They had Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Chow Yun Phat, among others, and of course, Bruce Lee. They even have a beautiful 10-foot bronze statue of him. It was fun to see and the view was magnificent, as it was a bright, sunny day.

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My next stop was to Hong Kong’s 3D Museum. It’s a very touristy place, and overpriced considering how small it was. It was still kinda cool to see this impressive 3D artwork, but it’s hard to describe it. I’d recommend checking out their website to get a feel for how impressive it really is. Still, it only took maybe 30 minutes to go through all of it, and the entrance fee was the equivalent of $30.

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After that, I walked around Kowloon for a bit before heading back. Not as much of a fan of Kowloon as I am Central Hong Kong. This place used to be and overpopulated slum; not anymore, though based on the southernmost tip of it, I’m not sure it’s an improvement. It’s a massive shopping district for the wealthy, filled with stores that may only the wealthiest 5% can afford. And the salespeople standing outside of some of the privately owned stores…they are pushy. They’ll see a tourist, and aggressively try anything to get you to go into their store.

I’d see other parts of Kowloon later, but the next day, we were leaving North Point, and switching hotels; to the Hyatt Regency in Sha Tin, New Territories, about 22km to the north. By this point, we weren’t looking forward to the move,and were regretting dividing our vacation in Hong Kong between two separate hotels. We’d fallen in love with this neighborhood, and we didn’t want to leave. To be honest, I was a little tearful about having to go. Nevertheless, on 5 April, at noon, we checked out of the City Garden Hotel and took a cab up to the New Territories.

One thing I’ll say about cab drivers here; they may not know much English, so you need the hotel concierge to give you one of their business cards and write where you want to go in Cantonese. But those drivers are honest. They’ll take you exactly where you need to go, and they won’t take the scenic route to boost their fare. It’s something we wouldn’t always encounter in our travels, but we were very grateful for it.

North Point
North Point

As we left North Point, we were feeling rather melancholy about the move. We knew the hotel would probably be nice, but it wouldn’t be the same…it wouldn’t be North Point. Nevertheless, off we went, not sure of what to expect from our new surroundings.
– For images of our trip, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston

NORTH POINT, HONG KONG: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 5

3 April – 5 April, pt. 1: City Garden Hotel, North Point, Hong Kong

The next few days sealed the deal for me and Hong Kong. We explored so many places, but we didn’t buy much. I did buy my wife a new camera, and we bought some small items to send to friends back home. For me, it was all about the atmosphere of the place, the food, and the people.

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The Atmosphere

All of Central Hong Kong is very cosmopolitan, but in different ways. Downtown, in the business district, everything looks rich. The clothing, the buildings, the cars, the stores; it looks like Rodeo Drive with skyscrapers. North Point is different. North Point looks middle class, with the possible exception of the cars. The clothes are middle class; they’re not shabbily dressed; their clothes just didn’t cost $2000. Almost every building is for housing. The bottom floor might still contain a shop or two, but above that, it’s all apartments. Those 25-story buildings make up the majority of Hong Kong’s skyline. I did the math on it; based on the apartment buildings I could see within one block of our hotel, I estimated that there were at least 7000-10,000 people living within one block of us. And yet, it didn’t feel overcrowded anywhere we went. It was shocking paradox. It should have felt like a crazy tumultuous zoo, with everyone going everywhere in some form of organized chaos. But instead, it felt like a sanctuary. It made you feel small, in a good way, as if the city around you would swallow you whole and keep you someplace warm and inviting. You can lose yourself in its streets, its beeping crosswalks, its taxis and buses, its hustle and bustle, and its rhythmic cacophony of sound. Sometimes, I literally did get lost, but I always found my way back (thank you, sense of direction). You would have thought that someone who had spent the majority of their adult life in a metropolitan area of 250,000 would be overwhelmed by all this. But to me, it was paradise on concrete!

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The Food

Apart from the overrated, overpriced food at the hotel, and McDonald’s and KFC, the food here is wonderful. We probably could’ve been more experimental and brave with our choices, but did try some new things. To start with, you can even find good food or snacks at the Circle K’s and 7-11’s here, something you can’t say about convenience stores in America. But the big one for me was roast suckling pig! We just picked a restaurant in the area that had it and took a taxi there, which was about $3. It was sooooo worth it! I know this was one of the best places for suckling pig in North Point, but certainly not the best rated suckling pig in Hong Kong.

BLISS!
BLISS!

Nevertheless…absolute bliss! Mischa took one of the few pictures of me in existence of me looking truly content. There was nothing special about this restaurant: it looked like any number of Chinese restaurants or diners you might find in America. But the food was so much better. It was like that for most places in Hong Kong. It’s hard to make a mistake with where to go to eat, once you get outside your hotel. Simply walk down the street until you find a place that looks good and go in. A good clue is if people are lined up outside, waiting to go in, which we saw quite often.

Fried pork skin and chicken fried rice
Fried pork skin and chicken fried rice

Another thing: coffee. It’s black. Very black. They do have creamer there, but it’s just like half and half. No flavored creamers there. You can add sugar, but that’s it for non-artificial sweeteners. Second thing – learn to like tea. If you can, you’re golden here. There’s no shortage of teas here, and once you acquire a taste for it, you’ll find that they’re all quite good. All in all, it’s hard to go wrong with food here.

The People

Now this one is tricky, as we discovered in hindsight from our driver that took us back to the airport. There are, for the most part, two distinct groups of people who live in Hong Kong: Native Hong Kongers (for lack of a better term), and Chinese, meaning mainland Chinese. Now the descriptions I’m going to give for both of these groups is a paraphrasing of our driver’s comments, but they are comments which, after careful reflection, I agree with. People who are from Hong Kong are generally quiet, shy, and just want to live their lives in this beautiful city. They can be hard to get to know, but they are still generally polite. What really starts to open them up are attempts to speak to them in Chinese, preferably Cantonese, but Mandarin coming from a white guy works too. For example, the lady at the Circle K saw me every day, usually buying cigarettes, but sometimes other things as well. At some point, I remembered my Chinese lessons from the movie, Rush Hour, and after paying for my purchases said, in my best Mandarin, “Xie, xie.” It wasn’t Cantonese, the primary language in Hong Kong, but still, you should’ve seen her face light up! Being able to have that effect on someone, with just two words, made my day, probably my entire week. Later on, I learned that I was saying thank you in Mandarin, and that the proper way to say it in Cantonese is, “m’goi”. Nevertheless, every time I said, “Xie, xie” to anyone in Hong Kong, it made them so happy, just that I was trying. THAT is how Hong Kong people are.

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On the other hand, the Chinese, especially from the perspective of Hong Kongers, are rude, ill mannered, generally superficial parasites. Their exploding middle class comes to Hong Kong to buy up properties, which drives housing costs up. They come there to buy up everything they cannot get in China, or better quality versions of what they can get in China. They treat Hong Kong like a giant Costco, buying everything in bulk, then going home. They are demanding, and while few Hong Kongers spit or litter, the Chinese do it anytime they can get away with it (Hong Kong has laws against littering and spitting in most public places…were those laws there before or after the Chinese started coming in droves?). Most people from Hong Kong find them disgusting, and would gladly welcome British influence back over their being a Semi-Autonomous Region of communist China. Hell, one of their parks still has a statue honoring King George VI!!! Maybe there is a different view of the Chinese, but those that I spoke with from Hong Kong, DO NOT like them.

One last observation about the people of Hong Kong. They do have one thing in common with the Chinese: Neither of them like the Japanese…at all. One day, my wife was wearing a vintage looking Star Wars movie poster shirt, that was in Japanese. Everyone was staring and glaring at her. I don’t think she’s worn it since.

So that lovely little combination of Hong Kong culture, food, and people, combined to make this little vacation of ours such a happy one. I never thought I could live in a city this size, but after just 2 or 3 days, I would’ve fucked someone to stay there permanently. And we still hadn’t really seen anything yet! But we’d squeeze in some sightseeing soon.
– For images of our trip, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston