Hong Kong: Concrete Jungle

Growing up, my mom would regale us with tales from her high school days growing up in India. Part of that adventure included some amazing world travels: Afghanistan, Nepal, and Hong Kong, for example. I was always intrigued by her accounts of Hong Kong and dreamed of someday seeing it for myself. That someday was February 2017, on my way back from Vietnam.

Upon landing, I bought an Oyster Card and took the Airport Express, Hong Kong's super fast and modern train between the airport and Kowloon/Hong Kong island. Bonus: great free wi-fi. I got off at the Kowloon and then took the K3 shuttle to the Holiday Inn stop and walked to my hostel around the corner. I checked into my hostel in the central Tsim Sha Tsui (TST) neighborhood of Kowloon and knew it wasn't going to be a place to meet people. (None of my roommates were ever there and there was no social space/common area.) Wanting to go out and explore the city, but also have a travel buddy, I did what any normal person would do- scroll Tinder. After weeding out the standard creepers (No, dude, I'm not going to answer whether my room in my hostel is a solo room or not), I found David, a nice enough looking guy also from Seattle and in town for a few days. After a brief back-and-forth chat, we found out that our hostels were both located in the same high rise tower so he elevator-ed up to our floor and we set out to explore the city just in time for happy hour. First stop? Butler, a Japanese cocktail bar within a stone's throw from our building. We whisked ourselves up the elevator to a formal space and sat at the counter. The formal service included hot towels to start and an expertly-concocted shiso mojito which the bartender began by carving the ice by hand. After that first drink, we went upstairs to the next bar, Buonasera, where we received more hot towels and this time I opted for a glass of cava. Seeing as it was a Saturday night, a trip to Lan Kwai Fong (the nightlife district) was in the cards so we took the highly efficient MTR and pretty soon we were imbibing in tangy gin cocktails at Ori-gin.

I had Sunday morning to myself to wander and decided on venturing to the Mong Kok neighborhood, a cool area also on the Kowloon side. I had read about the breakfast at Kam Wah Cafe and it was hard to find because the sign was in Chinese only, but once I arrived, I knew I was in a solid place. A stern-looking elderly woman brusquely seated me at a table with a man and his young daughter. Going off the online recommendations, I settled on milk tea, an egg tart (Portuguese influence), and a DELICIOUS warm pineapple bun which I still dream of to this day. After this excellent sustenance, I headed out to explore the streets of Mong Kok. Just like Hanoi, many of the streets were dedicated to selling one type of item. There was Goldfish street, Flower street, Sneaker street, Ladies street, etc. There were some fun little street markets and I bargained for what was probably a fake jade bracelet, but pretty nonetheless! Afterwards, I took theMTR to Soho (Central station) for fancy window shopping and neat boutiques like Seed Heritage, an Aussie label. The Mid Way escalator, the world's longest outdoor escalator, happened to be on the way to my meeting point with David, my travel friend from the night before so I hopped on it to reach the Cupping Room, a nice coffee shop. We explored the Soho area, checked out the medicinal herb shops near Des Voeux Road where we also saw dried fish hanging from the street, stepped into a neat temple, checked out a street market and stopped for some a snack where a woman was slicing into the biggest jackfruit I had ever seen. We went to a noodle place on Hennessy for hot and spicy lamb noodles and ventured down the street to Hui Lau Shan for mango sago, a quintessential Hong Kong dessert. We then walked all the way to Victoria Peak (the line for the tram was well over an hour)-what a steep climb but boy was it worth it! At the top of Victoria Peak, we had Prosecco at a Japanese place and decided to take an old school Hong Kong taxi back to Soho/Hollywood Road. We put our name on the list at Ho Lee Fook (a buzzing restaurant), and then went to La Cabane, a French wine bar around the corner where I sipped on white wine while we waited for our table to be ready. The dinner at Ho Lee Fook did not disappoint. Highlights included amazing spicy chicken wings, delicious and moist roasted goose with plum sauce, oysters and shanghai noodles with nori (great umami).

Monday morning: another day, another MTR ride- back to Soho for some Earl Grey tea. There's nothing like Asia malls so I wandered around IFC Mall getting hopelessly lost while attempting to find the General Post Office where I could mail my post cards. After endless circling, my mail was sent off and I met David at the Four Seasons for lunch at Lung King Heen, a 3 star Michelin restaurant (and my first Michelin star restaurant, period). Word was that lunch was the secret to having an affordable meal and it was reasonable overall. We started off with puer tea, and then selected the executive lunch which included dim sum (beef dumpling with kimchee and a shrimp dumpling), jellyfish (the texture was not for me), roasted goose (one of my favorite Hong Kong dishes), soup, stir-fried quail, and noodles with lobster (too rich, especially for lunch). The meal was rounded out with petit fours and the ubiquitous mango sago. While I'm not too keen on stuffy restaurants and a bunch of showy presentations, it was a fun experience overall. The service was professional but bordering on overly attentive and fussy (they seemed to come by to refill our tea after each sip!) and I'd wager to say that our meal at Ho Lee Fook the evening before was way better. But alas.

No trip to Hong Kong would be complete without a ride on a boat, so we took the Star Ferry back to the Kowloon side for some more exploring. Jasmine's account of the Chungking Mansions intrigued me so that was first on our list (it was just down the street from our hostel building). It is a labyrinth inside! People loiter about the first floor hawking everything from samosas to suitcases to SIM cards to bootleg Bollywood films and everything in between. The smell of competing curries filled the air with stalls selling Indian food. The massive building contains crazy elevators (organized by "blocks" and waits). We took an elevator up after getting lost/trapped in the stairwell and snooped around the hallways. It appeared to be mostly just cheap guest houses everywhere. CCTV cameras were installed recently and you can see them when waiting for the elevators (you can see the people inside the elevators as well as outside the elevator on each floor). Again, an interesting experience!After being cooped up in the mansions, some outdoor time was called for so we walked to nearby Kowloon park and took in some urban nature and saw some cool birds at the aviary. After a quick freshen-up sesh at the hostel, we headed out to Central/Soho yet again for some pre-dinner drinks. Stop one: Quinary Bar for a delicious Pisco lime sour. Stop two: 121bc for a glass of Friulano. Yard Bird was on our list of places to eat but there was a wait so we put our name on the list. A brief stop at Stazione Novella for a glass of Gavi and we were pretty hungry so we stopped at Little Bao restaurant. Yard Bird ended up calling us but we decided to stay at Little Bao and it was a great dinner. We sat at the bar and had tasty smoked eggplant salad w/yogurt and fried Szechuan chicken bao washed down with a glass of sauvignon blanc. Dessert was green tea bao (fried) with condensed milk. All delicious! Ryan, our server, was from HK but had also lived in CA and Vancouver and an interesting person to chat to. He gave us some good recommendations for where to go next. We ended up at The Pontiac (apparently all the HK bartenders go there). We drank more white wine,  took in the interesting interior (bras were hanging from the bar) and there was even a Frida Kahlo-inspired bathroom. The bartenders shared some friend shrimp-chocolate (??) snacks with us and recommended Iron Fairies bar (just down the street in an alley) so we headed down there next for live jazz and drinks. The interior of this place alone and the live jazz was worth checking out. After all that wine it was homemade ginger beer for me. The next morning I headed back home on a direct flight to Seattle but I'd say the Hong Kong trip was a success and I'd love to return!

Lan Kwai Fong drinks at Ori-gin

Best brekkie in Hong Kong at Kam Wah Cafe
Mong Kok shopfronts: goldfish/flowers
Art everywhere you look
Hong Kong's beautiful pastels
Temple visits
Des Voeux Road aka "Dried Seafood Street"
Worth the climb up to Victoria Peak!
Sunset views (from the other side of Victoria Peak)
Beautiful city at night
Ho Lee Fook restaurant (left: life-changing chicken wings, right: amazing roast goose w/plum sauce)
Tea at Cupping Room
Michelin-star experience
Ferry views
Chunking Mansions
More mansion madness
Garden tranquility 
Bye for now, HK!


Eating in Vietnam: a food diary

Bun cha breakfast and spring rolls (from 27 Dao Duy Tu)

Last fall when Jasmine and I began talking about a potential Vietnam trip, I started getting excited about all the food we would eat. A big inspiration for the trip was the caving trek, but as long as I could get in a few bowls of bun cha and pho, I was down. In seven days, we did our best to sample as many dishes as we could. Here goes!
Egg coffee from Cafe Giang, the place it was purportedly invented 

It's no secret that I'm not a coffee drinker, but I'm always game to try anything when traveling, including the intriguing-sounding "egg coffee" that graces many of Hanoi's cafes. It was just the perfect drink for me, as the creaminess/custard quality of the egg masked the bitter taste of coffee beans. If you're a coffee purist, you might scoff at this creation, but it certainly provided a nice buzz of energy nonetheless. As the story goes, egg coffee came about in Hanoi during the mid-20th century when milk was scarce and egg provided a creamier (and tastier, if you ask me) alternative. It's stuck around and you can find many egg coffee cafes in Hanoi. It comes in an espresso size cup which is then placed in a slightly wider and more shallow cup filled with hot water to keep its temperature warm.

One dish of from our multi course dinner at Koto

Koto (Know One Teach One) is a social enterprise founded by a Vietnamese-Australian fellow whose aim is to empower at-risk and underprivileged youth by giving them useful training in hospitality so that they can improve their lives. We enjoyed a satisfying multi-course prix fixe meal from appetizers to dessert.

Drinks at Sofitel's Bamboo Bar, a beautiful colonial-style outdoor bar with wooden ceiling fans, dim lighting, and strong drinks

Lunch at State Run Food Shop 37 (ration tickets)

State Run Food Shop 37 models itself after the government-run restaurants during the austerity period beginning in 1976. You purchase ration coupons (as seen in the picture below) which go towards your meal. 
Clockwise from top: interior of the restaurant; the tables were made out of repurposed Singer sewing machines (!); the exterior of the restaurant 
Lunch: fried morning glory (our "birth" flower, haha), spring rolls, rice, etc.
 Beef pho and fried dough at Pho 10, a no frills, very efficient corner restaurant our Airbnb host recommend to us
Breakfast on deck on our Halong Bay cruise

We had some time to kill (before heading to the train station) after we got back to Hanoi, so we went to another place for egg coffee. Not quite as good as Cafe Giang, but still did the trick.

Next stop? Central Vietnam (Phong Nha National park area) where we spent the first night in Phong Nha town. The following day we started our two day cave trekking adventure (for more, read Jasmine's amazing account on her blog here). As we entered our first cave, it was impossible to miss the lunch spread that was laid out across a tarp. We rolled our own spring rolls, made banh mi, peeled tiny, sweet-as-can-be oranges and capped off our meal with Choco pie, a Vietnamese delicacy. ;)

Our clothes at the campsite 

At the end of the first day, we went for a quick dip in the ice cold waters at our campsite, and hung our muddy clothes to "dry" before the following day's trek. (Spoiler alert: one night in February is not nearly long (or warm) enough to render clothes dry.) We meandered around the camp site, set up our sleeping bags, and got ready for our group dinner. 


The Oxalis cooks were talented- whipping up everything from grilled meats cooked over open coals for dinner to homemade crêpes in the morning.
Video of cooking in action

Just a sampling of our amazing dinner cooked outside: homemade French fries, tofu topped with flavorful tomato sauce, rice, grilled eggplant, chicken, soup, steamed greens, delicious cabbage. They also gave us local "moonshine" aka rice wine that could knock your socks off. 

Guava with salt dip and jackfruit for dessert

Day two of trek: Breakfast consisted of fresh crêpes with lime, sugar, & banana, piping hot noodles, assorted tropical fruit, and hot ginger tea before we embarked on the more challenging trek of the two days 

A digression from the food: on day two of our trek, we awoke in our tents and set out putting on our clothes for the day. Since Jasmine and I were paranoid about leeches (from the group we met at our homestay two nights before), so  I decided to reach my hands into my muddy boots before putting them on in case there were any leftover from the previous day's muddy trek. I felt something rubbery and immediately pulled my hand out only to see a huge spider in my boot. I screamed and tossed the shoe a good 10 feet. Bao, our guide, came over and was able to knock the spider out of my boot, while remarking, "Oh yeah, that's definitely poisonous." What a fright. 
The day two trek was an experience from start to finish and it was the the perfect blend of adventure, unknowns, and challenges without seeming impossible. By the end of the second day, we were exhausted but felt like we'd accomplished so much. Back at base camp, we showered off two days worth of caked-on mud (quite possibly one of the best showers of my life) and packed up our stuff before the Oxalis van took us down the dirt road to a local family's home for one final meal as a group. We cracked open cans of refreshing cold Coke as we slurped on mi quang, a savory soup of thick noodles, tomatoes, tofu, crushed peanuts, herbs, limes, and chili. According to Bao, our jack-of-all-trades trek leader, the dish is originally from Hoi An but served in a smaller bowl there. 

(Aside: As delicious as the bowl pictured above was, it was quite likely the culprit of Jasmine's intense food poisoning which she had to endure over the course of our 10+ hr train ride back to Hanoi!!!)

A few other memorable food experiences with sadly either no pictures or address (or either):

  • Milky tea outside a random cafe in Hanoi
  • Gin and tonic on the terrace outside Tadioto, a cute bar in Hanoi
  • Beer corner (Bia corner) in Hanoi for more G and Ts
  • Delicious beef noodle soup at an makeshift place on the sidewalk near Beer Corner. No sooner than I could finish the bowl did the cops shut down the place and make the owner dismantle his impromptu "restaurant"
  • Sidewalk Banh mi at an inconspicuous food cart in Hanoi
  • Delicious strawberry smoothie across the street from said unmarked banh mi shop
  • Vietnamese coffee at Kafe village 
  • Drinks at Avalon BBQ rooftop over Hoang Kiem Lake (drinks are nothing to write home about but the view is quite pleasant)
  • Happy hour (buy one, get one free wine) during our Valentine's Day Halong Bay cruise with 60-something Europeans
  • Banana peanut butter smoothie at Bamboo Cafe in downtown Phong Nha
  • White wine in front of river at our Oxalis guesthouse in Phong Nha (not memorable but it was locally made, from Dalat)
  • Tasty BBQ dinner at Oxalis guesthouse's Expedition Cafe

A few random, non-food observations:

The address plates in Hanoi were identical to those in Paris, a random remnant of colonization? 
Constant smog and haze blanketed Hanoi's skies so that we never saw a clear day
Motorbike drivers carried the randomest of items including extremely bulky, full-size trees
Little stools are the way to go for sidewalk eating- great for a short person like me!

And finally- many streets in Hanoi are  dedicated to selling solely one item, i.e. Mirror Street (pictured above), Sunglass Street, etc.

What an adventure. Vietnam, I hope to return!


Flavio al Velavevodetto in Rome

Flavio al Velavevodetto is an experience from start to finish. The restaurant is located in Rome's Testaccio neighborhood, which was just across the river from where were staying, and the setting is beautiful. If you're dining there in the summer, I recommend the patio which is surrounded by flowers. Each of the pasta dishes we had was superb including the summery tomato one above. You won't regret their take on cacio e pepe as well.
We wanted to try a Lazio wine and the lore of "Est! Est! Est!" always intrigued me, but we were a little disappointed in the one above. The first bottle tasted corked and the servers agreed, but the second bottle wasn't much better. I'd heard that service here could be hit or miss and while some of the people were a bit stuffy, we had an enjoyable dinner. Reservations are essential so call ahead.


Copenhagen Guide

Necessary attire for my free walking tour

Gearing up for an outdoor concert at the museum

Moving exhibit at the Louisiana Museum

Top-notch yogurt at my home-away-from-hostel, Kompa'9

Coming from Tunisia this past August, Copenhagen was a complete change (including the unseasonably dreary weather) but I embraced the Scandinavian city and tried to find my inner hygge!*

Where I stayed: Copenhagen Downtown Hostel
PROS: good location, nightly family dinner for a nominal fee, luggage storage for a fee
CONS: very big and informal, pricey

Good places to eat/drink
  • Kompa'9- quaint breakfast/lunch spot for decked-out yogurt, good coffee/tea, delicious unfiltered apple juice, friendly service, and free wi-fi, all in a very Scandinavian pinterest-esque setting
  • Torvehallerne Market for smørrebrød, aka open-faced sandwiches, at Hallernes
  • Streetfood on Paper Island for great international food (I heard from several people that it may be closing so get there quick)
  • Ruby for excellent craft cocktails. I walked past the place twice thinking I was lost. The signage to this place is very discreet- if the sign says you're at the Georgian embassy, you've come to the right place. Just take the first right once inside the building, sit at the bar, and watch the mixologists do their magic.

Things to do:
  • Nyhavn- walk around the harbor and take in the picturesque buildings
  • Louisiana Museum- this may be one of my favorite museums ever, as the entire grounds make up the museum and there is art and beauty to take in whether you are inside at an exhibition, or outside enjoying the seaside, sculptures, and live music that I was lucky to enjoy. (Yayoi Kusama's "Gleaming Lights of the Souls" is a favorite exhibition.)
  • Tivoli Gardens- has bragging rights as the world's second oldest amusement park (the other one also in Denmark). Come here to test your fear of heights, listen to live music, stroll through the gardens, and relive your childhood.

Interesting observation:

  • *On my free walking tour, I learned more about the danish concept of "hygge" which very loosely translates to cosiness (although it seems difficult to translate). Visit Denmark says that hygge "is as Danish as pork roast and it goes far in illuminating the Danish soul. In essence, hygge means creating a warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with good people. The warm glow of candlelight is hygge. Friends and family – that’s hygge too. There's nothing more hygge than sitting round a table, discussing the big and small things in life." For whatever reason, hygge seems to be all the rage now thanks to a recent New York Times article.


Can't go to Denmark without having smørrebrød

Rooftop views in Copenhagen

Tivoli Gardens madness- somehow I thought getting on this torture device would be fun

Craft cocktails at Ruby
On the left: a "postie fizz" containing homemade rhubarb syrup, geranium leaves, blanca rum, lemon juice, egg white, and soda water
On the right: a "green bees" made up of pisco, thyme, sorrel, and honey