I thought Hong Kong was nothing but a commercialized concrete jungle where the most common feature is a forty-story apartment building blocking your view to the harbor. I soon learned that Hong Kong has many beautiful hills, beaches, and swimming holes surrounding the island.
From Thailand, I flew to Hong Kong to meet up with Andy and John, both high school friends. My plan was to stuff my face with as much delicious dim sum and other scrumptious morsels until my stomach could take no more. My friend, John, is a Hong Kong native and quickly showed me there was more to our itinerary than eating.
It was pleasant to have my preconceived notions of Hong Kong blown away by the nature of the island. Nothing beats a day out in the sun exploring beaches and waterfalls and then following it up with delicious food.
I am not very familiar with international food rankings or awards. When I heard that the cheapest Michelin star restaurant in the world is in Hong Kong, my brain quickly made it a priority to go wherever it was and eat as much as I could. The restaurant, Tim Ho Wan, specializes in dim sum, which can and should be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Hong Kong does not disappoint when it comes to food. Whether it was gigantic stuffed buns on the street, small bakeries tucked away on every block, or wet food markets, I always walked away satisfied. A return trip to Hong Kong could be made on the basis of food alone.
After seeing the sights and tasting the food of Hong Kong, John, Andy, and I headed to Hoi An, Vietnam.
Vietnam was one of the first countries I ever traveled to over ten years ago. Without knowing it at the time, my first trip to Vietnam planted the seeds that grew into my passion for food, language, and culture. Visiting a floating village, learning to haggle without remorse (but still friendly), and trekking through the Hmong villages north of Sapa are vivid memories that continue fuel me to travel.
My first day in Vietnam over ten years ago I was completely enthralled by the mass of scooters, motorcycles, rickshaws, wagons, and cars on the road in Ho Chi Minh City. I was at a loss for words when I was told to walk at a steady pace into the mass of traffic in order to cross the street. I felt immediately out of my element and every day was a new adventure. One that I quickly felt myself falling in love with.
It may come as a surprise, but I used to be one of the pickiest eaters around. Grilled cheese, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, pizza, and pasta were about the only things I would go near. Traveling abroad you are often confronted with limited food options, most of which are vastly different that what you are used to. I realized then and there that I had to take an effort and try new things that looked gross, smelled funny, or didn’t have bread coating at least one side of it. I didn’t want to be rude by refusing dishes or become the center of attention in a negative way (this is a powerful feeling that continues to be with me when I travel). I can’t say I always enjoy everything I eat, but Vietnam marks the point in my life where I decided to explore and experience everything the world has to offer. It was good to be back.
We met up with Andy’s Vietnamese friend, Richard, at the airport and took off to the town of Hoi An. Stepping out of the car I started to scan the streets, ready to see how the country had changed over the past ten years. I realized that I had most likely changed an equal amount and my perspective would be vastly different than that of my teenage self. Deciding it would be a waste of time to focus my attention on what had changed, I turned to see what was great about the present.
In central Vietnam, we visited Hoi An, Hue, and the extravagant caves of the Quan Bing province near Dong Hoi. Traveling with Richard turned up the level of local experiences we had. We enjoyed drinking the local rice wine with the guesthouse owner on Cham Island (off the coast of Hoi An). We got the best tips from local residents on where to eat, places that were well outside any tourist areas. With any person anywhere we could stop, ask questions, and learn a lot from them. It was great having a native guide with us through the country (thanks Richard!).
From central Vietnam we traveled north to Hanoi on an overnight train that brought memories tumbling back of my first ever overnight train ride ten years prior. It also provided a fun evening where we must have been drinking with the entire staff on the train. Looking back I wonder if anyone was driving the train. Arriving early in the morning we were treated to a lovely breakfast at Richard’s home in Hanoi and headed out to explore Ha Long Bay.
Cat Ba Island, Lan Ha Bay, and Ha Long Bay
On my previous adventures in Vietnam I had never visited Ha Long Bay and had always hoped to get the chance to move through the stunning archipelago taking pictures of my own. Not wanting to head to the main tourist spot of Ha Long itself, we traveled to and shacked up on Cat Ba Island, the largest island in the archipelago.
During our time on Cat Ba Island we took two voyages out onto the water. The first explored the nearby Lan Ha Bay. The second day we took a boat from Cat Ba through Ha Long Bay. Rumbling across the water on our boat and kayaking around the islands brought us to many floating communities who live within the shelter various small island clusters. Heading back to Hanoi we had twenty-four hours left to enjoy Vietnamese food together before we all headed in different directions.
On my own again, I headed back south to central Vietnam and took a bus to Southern Laos.