Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Hong Kong - simply WOW

Remember the James Bond movies, when the hero walks into a five star hotel after a week of skirmishes in the desert, all dusty, grimy, unwashed and unkempt? That is how we felt as we arrived in Hong Kong on Wednesday, April 10.

After a last walk in Sapa, the northern frontier town in Vietnam, a 45 minute drive down the serpentine mountain road to Lao Cai, and an overnight sleeper train ride, we arrived in Hanoi at 04:30 in the morning. After arguing with three taxi drivers (nothing changed while we were away) we were on our way to the Hanoi airport and our flight to Hong Kong, where we arrived at 15:00 in dire need of a shower, a good cup of coffee and some good chow.

We got both. Our hotel, Lanson Place, is fabulous, a real treat at the end of a great journey. Located in the heart of Causeway Bay, we are just steps from everything. Stores, food, the MTR metro stop, the Harbour and Victoria Park. Right around the corner, we found a laundry which washed our clothes and a Michelin star dim sum restaurant that made us truly happy. We fell into a soft (!) bed with a soft (!) pillow and slept for 10 hours.

Day 2 in this incredible city:

Hong Kong Island is the island that gives the territory Hong Kong its name. Although it is not the largest part of the territory ( in total 7.1 million people live in 467 square miles), it is the place that many tourists regard as the main focus.

On day 2 the weather was cloudy and drizzly, quite a common occurrence in this city. Many a visitor has come to Hong Kong and never seen Victoria Harbour with the most famous skyline in the world. So, donning our rain gear after a great breakfast (the first cheese and brie in ages) we set out to explore the neighbourhood.

Helen, at breakfast

Hong Kong is a combination of New York City and London, condensed in a much smaller area. The amount of people is more than I have ever seen on city sidewalks before. The air and streets are very clean and the stores plate glass windows and entrance floor were spotless and wiped numerous times. In every department store and other premises we entered, our wet umbrellas were covered in plastic sheeting to avoid drips on the stone floors.

The wealth in this town is incredible, to the point of being disturbing. The top fashion houses of Europe, Japan and Asia are all represented, not just once, but numerous times. Imagine going around Sherbrooke street in Montreal and seeing a Rolls Royce in one window display and a Mercedes in the next. The selection in the stores is enormous, with three to fives times the quantities we are used to seeing. Sogo, the leading Japanese department store has blouses and summer dresses the likes and quality of which we had not seen before.

We came back to the hotel slightly stunned and feeling like country bumpkins in our trekking outfits. After a short rest and to regain our equilibrium, we set out again for a two hour walk through the neighbouring district of Wan Chai and explored some of the older lane ways reaching up to the Peak that housed some of the houses where "comfort women" were set up during the Japanese occupation of 1945. The area is now undergoing gentrification at a rapid pace.

After a glass of Prosecco, complimentary nibbles and a long luxurious shower we fell into bed overwhelmed, still talking about the wonderful things we had seen that day.

Day 3 in this incredible city:

The rain had stopped and we were off to explore Kowloon, the city across Victoria Harbour from Hong Kong Island. 2.1 million people live in an area less than 47 square kilometers - the most densely populated place on earth. The Metro took us from Admiralty at incredible speed across the channel. One stop and we were in Tsim Sha Tsui. Here, one shopping plaza follows another. Harbour City, the first one we encountered, has more than 3km of stores, none of which we could afford to shop in. Nathan Street in this area is lined with Gucci, Balmain, Dior, Tiffany's - need I go on? The Omega watch store is two storey's high. Every second store is a jewellery boutique, gold and diamonds galore and security guards at every door. An Apple store spanning a six lane highway on two levels.....

In between streets a wonderful park, an oasis and balsam for the eyes and senses.

Hungry at 17:30, we entered a recommended restaurant and were surprised that the lights were somewhat dark although some tables were occupied. We were graciously served but quite shocked when the lights went full on at 18:00 and the place come to life. Turns out, the restaurant only opened at 18:00 and the staff was eating before opening time. Overall, people are very friendly and helpful. When we stop on the street to consult our map, at least two stranger will stop and offer to help.

At dusk, we made our way to the Kowloon harbour front and the Star ferry to carry us back across to Hong Kong Island. There, in the failing light was the skyline of Hong Kong before us, and the skyline of Kowloon behind us, in all their splendours. WOW. ABSOLUTELY INCREDIBLE. Apartment houses, office buildings and hotels, taller (much, much taller) and wider, but less deep than in Canada, twinkled all around us in the darkening sky and we regretted not having a wide angle lens camera to capture it all....

A small section of Kowloon's waterfront

After a glass of Prosecco, complimentary nibbles and a long luxurious shower we fell into bed overwhelmed, still talking....................

Day 4 in this incredible city

It was Saturday, the day when people stream into Causeway Bay to shop, shop and shop. So, in order to avoid the crowds, we decided to explore the West End of Hong Kong Island and the Central Financial District - still the decidedly British part.

Using an Octopus transportation pass (much cheaper than in Montreal, is averages to about approximately 60 cents a ride), we traveled to Sheung Wa station and started a city walk recommended by the Hong Kong Tourist bureau. Strolling for about three hours we saw the Western Market, the Man Mo Temple, Soho and the Lao Kwai Fong entertainment district, Duddell Street with the only four remaining gas lights, the Legislative Building, HSBC, the Bank of China Tower and the Museum of Teaware. We rode the escalator going up to the Mid-Levels and sat in parks and gardens along the way, watching families with young children enjoying the various water features in the warm sunshine.

Man Mo Temple

One of four remaining gas lights

Soho apartment buildings

Legislative Building in Central

Bank Buildings

Escalators going to the Mid-Levels

In the midst of Central - an oasis

Going back to the hotel for a well deserved break we were again amazed the the MTR system, which is thoroughly modern and has long feeder corridors from many directions at every stop, all of which are light, airy, glass covered and branch off into office buildings, shopping areas and the numerous ferry piers. Working in Central you can pretty much go around a vast area without ever getting wet. Most of the stores are the same we saw in Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui: Gucci, Tiffany's, Ferragamo, Coach, Rolex, Cardin...........who can afford to live here???

At our usual time of 17:30 we visited a restaurant on the 10th floor of Times Square where we had a delicious meal of deep fried prawn, egg white and fish maw (sliced fish bladder - quite good, if you don't know what you are eating) and something that looked suspiciously like morning glory, and then visited an enormous English bookstore next door and bought something to read for the long place ride back home in a few days (boo hoo!)

After 1 1/2 glasses of Prosecco, complimentary nibbles and a long luxurious shower..............

Day 5 in this incredible city:

It was a beautifully sunny and hazy Sunday, around 23C, and we had designated this day to be a shopping day. Although we tried our best, it did not turn out quite the way we wanted. I saw a beautiful jacket at Sogo, but by the time I made up my mind 10 minutes later (we always think there is maybe something better around the corner) it was sold!

Next we tried our luck in Mong Kok, the heart of Knowloon. It looks just like 7th Avenue or Lower Manhattan in New York - but again, not much luck.

We then tried to find a restaurant that Helen had researched on the Web, but could not find it. Two MTR stops later we hunted for another recommended food emporium, but - would you know it - it was closed for renovation. Some days are just meant to be like this.

After (at least) 2 glasses of Prosecco, complimentary nibbles and....................

Day 6 in this incredible city:

A beautiful days, 24C and sunny and we decided to go to the Peak, one of the highest points on Hong Kong Island. After a 10 minute walk from Central, we boarded the Peak Tram, which steeply rises above the skyscrapers within a few minutes.

Unfortunately, the morning haze did not burn off the way we expected and, although the view was beautiful enough, we could not see the harbour or the near and far reaches of Kowloon.

Unless the visibility improves, we might have to buy some postcards!!

We spent the afternoon lounging around and taking it easy, doing a little bit more window shopping and enjoying a satisfying Chinese meal in the early evening.

Only window shopping......

After 2 glasses of Prosecco..........never mind the nibbles............

Our last day in this incredible city

Again we are experiencing a lovely day, 27C and partly cloudy and we finally decided to  spend the day doing what the locals do - shop till you drop.

No pictures......

Although the haze stayed with us during the day and clouds rolled in during the evening hours, we spent our last few metro credits to take one more look at the skyline of Hong Kong from the Kowloon side. Together with many other tourists, we sat on the harbour promenade and watched as night fell and the lights came on and shimmered on the waterfront before us. What an amazing city!

After 87 days, we are homeward bound tomorrow. What a great trip, what a wonderful experience.

Thank you so much for sharing it with us!!!!

Monday, 8 April 2013

Sapa, a Northern Frontier Town

After one last day in Hanoi, in which Helen finally was able to obtain a ticket to see the famous Water Puppets, we took the night sleeper train north to Sapa, 380 km from the capital city. Our travel companions in the compartment were a lovely couple from Australia. As a result, we felt safe and had a relatively good night's sleep.

As our hotel room was not available until 18:00, the hotel owner offered us a room in his B&B outside town. The garden was so beautiful, we sat for hours taking in the warm sunshine (no humidity), marvelling at the layout and symmetry of the trees, flowers and flowering shrubs, one of the most charming spots we had seen on our travel and an inspiration for us (incompetent) gardeners.

The Hoang Lien Mountains lie at the southeastern extent of the Himalayan chain. The National Park is located at the flank of these mountains and includes Vietnam's highest peak, Fanispan, at 3,143 m. The town of Sapa itself lies in the Muong Hoa valley, 1,600m above sea level. The hills are covered with rice field terraces and the area is coveted for trekking experiences and the visits to many hill tribes who are settled here. 

The weather is unique to Vietnam as it is highly seasonal, with a subtropical climate in the summer and a temperate climate during the winter. The temperatures during the last few days have fluctuated between 21C-26C during the day and 9C-14C at night. With a vegetation that resembles the countryside in the Laurentians, the weather can be misty and drizzly. We have been quite lucky - no drizzle - although the morning mist lingered and our photographs do not show the wonderful vistas that we experienced.

The people of the Sapa area have been very poor even by Vietnam rural standards. However, in recent years, tourism has steadily increased and last year over 1 million visitors have come to this special region.

Excluding the ethnic Vietnamese people (Kinh), eight different ethnic minority groups are found in Sapa, the majority being H'mong and Dzao.

A H'mong woman preparing land for corn planting as her daughter looks on.

A 90ish H'mong woman working on a needpoint piece - her thick glasses helped!

Mama cooking dinner over an open fire in a Dzao home

After a day of lounging about, we took a guided tour with Eric and Debbie, also from Australia, up and down hillsides and across a small river. The tour guide was the same one who had guided Inge, Albert and me last year and he remembered with embarrassment how he had told us last year that our trek was 15km when in reality we had walked for 21.4km until exhaustion. However, this year we had a pleasant 10k hike, although our calves and thighs, not used to the steep up and down hills were reminding us that we are definitely out of shape.


When we resumed our trek after lunch, a family of H'mong followed us, hoping to sell some of their wares. Although we had no intention of doing so, they followed us for some 5km, up and down hills, never giving up. We finally put up a collection to make them and us happy....

Our extended trekking family
To improve our fitness, we decided to undertake a trek to Cat Cat village the next day on our own, not realizing that it involved going down steep stone steps for 500m. When we reached 400m, we realized that the hike involved climbing a similar amount of stairs at the other side of the valley. So, faced with a stark choice, we turned around and climbed back up. Too pooped to walk a further kilometre uphill into Sapa, we took a motorcycle taxi and boosted our spirits with a cappuccino and lunch instead. Some hikers we are!

On day four of our stay we took a tour to Heavens Gate, at 2,000m a birds-eye view of the valley below and the surrounding mountains. What a panoramic view! Clouds and mist drifted below us - therefore no pictures. We took a long walk to the Love Waterfall and came back to Sapa and our last supper (smoked buffalo meat) and a great glass of wine at the Hill Station Restaurant.

Tomorrow we are taking the sleeper train back to Hanoi and a few hours later we will catch a flight to Hong Kong, our last stop on this amazing trip.............

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Cruising Halong Bay

There is not a travel brochure of Vietnam that does not have a picture of Halong Bay. More than 1,960 islets, formed over 500 million years, dot Tonkin Bay.

So, we are off on a two day/one night cruise to that UNESCO World Heritage site:

Our Junk for the Halong Bay experience

10,000 visitors a day make the three hour journey to the karsts, which mainly consist of limestone. Some appear to be made for rock climbing, while others harbour both wet and dry caves. Although boat traffic is heavy, there are enough quiet corners to anchor the vessels and transfer to smaller boats and then to even smaller crafts and kayaks to explore the surroundings.

The day started misty and foggy. We had small showers during the day, but a calm and warm evening and night. The mist added an eerie feeling as we glided among the islands..........

Steaming into Halong Bay

Aren't you getting tired seeing us in the same old clothes?

A floating fishing village


Helen getting ready for the 'wet' cave

On day two, we visited Sung Dot, a large cavern within one of the karsts. It could not compete with the Paradise cave at  Phong Nha National Park of course, but was good to experience nevertheless....


In the warm evening, we sat on deck with a Pina Colada and watched other boats come in and anchor for the night.....

.....and the next morning we sailed back to the marina and Hanoi.What a wonderful two day experience!!

And we are off by night sleeper train to Sapa, the northern most point in Vietnam, close to the Chinese border for a four night stay and some trekking. Hopefully we will be fit enough.....