In late May/early June, my girlfriend Amanda and I visited Asia for the first time together. We’d been on a few other trips: Miami, New York, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic. While those were all solid vacations, none involved a flight longer than five hours or a stay longer than a week.
Asia is a different beast. An Asian vacation requires a lot more planning and a lot more travel time. And once you factor in the time it takes to get over jet lag, I’d peg two weeks as the bare minimum. The longer, the better, but I wouldn’t recommend trying to squeeze an Asia trip into a single week.
Our itinerary consisted of eight nights in Hong Kong (with day trips to Macau and Shenzhen) and six in Vietnam, including Hanoi, Ha Long Bay and Hoi An. With Toronto as my barometer, when you travel within North America and Western Europe, a lot of it feels familiar to me. The bars and restaurants feel familiar. The way the traffic moves feels familiar. The shopping feels familiar. The culture feels familiar.
In my mind, to truly feel like you’re in a different world, to step out of your comfort zone, and to experience that uncomfortable yet exhilarating thing we call culture shock, you have to leave the Western world. With that in mind, here are some takeaways from our trip:
- People are glued to their smartphones. While this phenomenon exists around the world, I noticed a few differences in Hong Kong:
- Smartphones work on the subway so people are never without service.
- Hong Kong people love to send and receive voice memos instead of writing text messages.
- Many people have an iRing on their phone, a metal ring that attaches to the back of their devices. The idea is that you slide your finger through it while on your phone. The purpose is two-fold: You’re less likely to drop your phone and it functions as a stand so your phone can be upright on a surface. A nice, little invention.
- It seems like everyone has a portable charger. You’ll often see a wire going from the phone into a bag, providing a steady stream of juice.
- Hong Kong has more than seven million people in just 1,104 km², the second-highest population density in the world. So you know things will be a bit tight. For example, our hotel room was a mere 200 square feet. The bed took up most of the space!
- They have one of the best subway systems I’ve ever seen. Clean, efficient and punctual. It feels like the year 3000 compared to the TTC, Toronto’s system.
- It’s all about the Octopus Card, a charge card that works on subways, buses, and also at many convenience stores, restaurants and supermarkets. Once you arrive in HK, picking up one of these should be the first thing you do.
- In certain areas of Hong Kong, especially Hong Kong island, you can feel the wealth oozing out of every corner. All you have to do is walk into the three-storied Apple Store or into a bar in Lan Kwai Fong for a $15 beer. No surprise here since HK is one of the largest financial centres in the world.
- There’s 7/11s everywhere. And they sell beer. Enough said.
- Shopping is like a religion in HK. Their malls are palatial and their streets markets seem to go on forever. Be prepared to bargain at the markets but there’s no point at the malls. Oh, and Uniqlo quickly became one of my favourite clothing stores. It can’t come to Toronto soon enough.
- There are always little differences when you visit a fast food chain in another country and HK was no exception. Like how McDonald’s gives its drinks in individual plastic bags instead of the cardboard tray we’re used to. Or how you can order a Lychee McFizz drink or a matcha green tea ice cream from a Mickey D’s. Or how plastic gloves are a default item when you visit a KFC.
- Speaking of food, I had the best dim sum I’ve ever tasted at a place called Tim Ho Wan, apparently the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world.
- Oh, and it’s hot. Damn hot.
- The first thing that struck me when arriving in Vietnam from Hong Kong was the difference in wealth. Exit the skyscrapers and the futuristic public transit and enter a simpler (and decidedly poorer) way of life. In Vietnam, it’s not uncommon to see an entire family (i.e. dad, mom, two kids) on a scooter. We never entered a Vietnamese home but I imagine that most would be modest (likely) with no AC. I’ll get to the heat later.
- Speaking of scooters, they are friggin’ everywhere. Much more so than cars or bicycles, scooters are the mode of transportation of choice in Vietnam. And it’s not even close. It’s a legitimate sport to cross the street amidst the sea of scooters coming at you like an army of two-wheeled assassins. But like anything else, you got used to it. The key seemed to be crossing the road with confidence. Don’t be afraid to cut someone off. Otherwise, you’re never getting to the other side. Timidity won’t get you anywhere in this case.
- On our first night in Hanoi, a lady selling what can best be described as Vietnamese timbits stuck one an inch from my face, repeating “Buy, buy.” A bit frazzled, I grabbed the thing and stuck it in my mouth. Then she asked for money. I felt this wasn’t deserved since she basically forced it down my throat. Anyway, she walked off none too happy. Much like crossing the street, being timid doesn’t work with those trying to sell you things in Vietnam. They can be some pushy, aggressive mofos. The best approach is a firm “No” without making eye contact. They’ll leave you alone after that. Two of the oddest places where people tried to sell us things: From a rowboat while we were on Ha Long Bay, and from someone on a scooter who started driving beside us. I think she was selling a map. It did not feel safe.
- The food! So fresh, so delicious and so affordable. There seems to be a pho spot on every corner. A banh mi sandwich will cost you a couple bucks, if that. You just really can’t go wrong with Vietnamese cuisine. One of my faves.
- I bought a t-shirt that had the above on it and it’s definitely true. The best word to describe the driving and traffic in Vietnam is chaotic. But it’s controlled chaos. They somehow make it work.
- Definitely build in some time to pick up some custom-made clothes. There’s something about having clothes made for you that just makes you feel like a king. And for high-quality clothing, you’ll pay a much lower price than what you’d pay in Canada. I picked up a three-piece suit and two dress shirts for around $400 CDN.
- Last thing is the heat. Coming from Hong Kong, we couldn’t really imagine a hotter climate. But yep, Vietnam managed to top it. Heat stroke was narrowly averted on a few occasions. So don’t forget to hydrate. And no, beer doesn’t count. Although you should definitely have some of that too.