A Travellerspoint blog

Week Two: Sheung Wan

sunny 31 °C

It has been an extremely busy week, but mainly because of work and so nothing particularly newsworthy. I moved onto Hong Kong Island, at first into a suburb called Sheung Wan - it is a sort of in between place: to the west of the flashier terndier parts of Central and Causeway Bay (more on this next time) and to the east of Kennedy Town, which just about to emerge as it awaits its connection to the light rail system. So there's a lot of traditional Hong Kong about Sheung Wan - older buildings with clothes and air conditioning units dangling out the windows, narrow streets, customary industries, men in nooks and crannies going about their business.

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Hong Kong Island is a bit like Dunedin, in that it is very hilly, but perhaps more like Wellington, in that the narrow streets twist and curl their way along and up the hill, with numerous sets of steps to link them.

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I don't know how google maps does it, but it seems to have got its head around these steps - so tonight, it told me to head right, then left, then down 23 steps to the same street I'd been on by way of short cut. Then it told me which bus to catch to get me back home. It is a bit of a thrill to be sitting up in the front of a double decker bus as it navigates these streets, even better in the little minibuses that race aboout. For a more sedate, and older, form of transport you have these:

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My particular street was called Des Voeux Road, which some signs translated as dried seafood street. I actually managed to forget that, so a couple of times I emerged from my hotel and wondered at the rather pungent odours. I have to say that none of the food tempted me.

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At the same time, there's a new vibe emerging in Sheung Wan - apparently quite a few artists and fashion designers have moved in, and there's a huge range of what you might call ethnic food - I've noticed most countries represented, including attempts at classic American burger bars, a true southern pulled pork outlet and a Dutch cheese shop in among the more traditional sources of food. There is also redevelopment - the flash buildings are coming in.

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Something dear to my heart: the coffee shops, which are popping up in side streets and odd corners. I came across several where I could have just as easily been in Auckland as Hong Kong - not just the style, but the menu: full cooked breakfasts. Here, it is way too hot to be wanting to eat anything at all, let alone bacon, eggs, beans, sausages... I was a bit annoyed to finally discover my preferred cafe just the day before it was time to leave the area.

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Just to clarify - that is two different cafes, the interior is a place called Open Door, just round the corner from my hotel, really. Something else which annoyed me - the IFC Mall. It is a very posh place, very high ceilings, glossy shops, wide thoroughfares and completely befuddling. I only went in because I needed to restock my teabags and being a teasnob, the only place that would do was in the IFC Mall. I found the tea place immediately, but there is a cinema and a couple of other places I wanted to see. There was a digital map with shop numbers - but all of the shops were far too precious to actually put a number up - I still haven't found the cinema. I did enjoy the roof, where I could look back across to the mainland - the buildings were all lit up, so the sky was still blue at 10:00 at night, but the water was this mysterious inky black, with a few boats bustling about. I took a photo with my phone but the result is a bit embarrasing. I had more success with this

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I was a bit sad to leave my hotel because, apart from the seriously weird wifi - it worked perfectly, but they blocked access to various sites for "security reasons": after I complained, they seemed to work out which sites I used most, then blocked them - it was well set up for working in and had a huge room
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but my conference beckoned at HKU. I stayed in Kennedy Town, because google had told me it was a 12 minute walk, which it was, if you can cope with all the steps in the heat - after doing it once, I took the bus. Kennedy Town had a few western looking bars in among the more traditional Hong Kong shops and restaurants but I'm afraid I was barely there - up and away at 8:00 for the conference, and not leaving until 12 hours later. Conference was very, um, edifying - many of th sessions weren't really my thing, but it was interesting to see how far from the practice of law people in my profession can get. The last couple of days, they freaked us out with talks of an Extreme Typhoon (it killed about 30 people in the Philippines) but apart from a bit of heavy rain and a cooling breeze, it was a non-event (thankfully).

Posted by NZBarry 23.07.2014 08:18 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (4)

Hong Kong - Tsuen Wan style

storm 32 °C

When I was checking in at Auckland, the ground staff were a bit worried that it was a one way booking, and wanted me to show them I had an onward ticket, warning me that without it, getting into Hong Kong could be tricky. If they only knew! I was ushered to a counter where the fellow was already talking - I don't know if he had some sort of ear-piece, if he was talking to his colleague (who did not seem to be paying any attention) or if he was just mad. In any event, he never stopped talking - just took my passport, ripped off the top cover of my entry card, put a small piece of paper in my passport (I have NO stamps at all) and handed it back - never addressing a word or even a gesture in my direction.

I've been here just over a week now, in a city in the New Territories called Tsuen Wan. A hundred years ago, there was a saying along the lines that if you want a golden life, you go to California; if you want to die, you go to Tsuen Wan. I came here because I was careless with my hotel booking - I found a decent room for a decent price and really had no idea where it was. I was a little perturbed to find it was actually on the same street as the first hotel I stayed in, then confused to find the two hotels are 6 kilometres apart. After the space of that first hotel, the size of this one came as a bit of a shock (I am pressed against the wall to take this photo)

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I grew quite fond of the hotel (the Silka Far East) and its cosy room, and the fact that if you came in around 10:00 pm, the foyer would be crowded with people off tour buses and it could take ten minutes or more to get on a lift. It had a brilliant bakery right next door (I was there when they brought out freshly baked loaves of raison bread - I had no way to deal with one, but they would have been great for an X-Files night back home) and a 7-Eleven behind it for when a craving for beer came on at midnight.

Tsuen Wan was originally settled by the Hakka (or guest people): back in 1662, the mainland Chinese emperor decreed that no-one was to live near the coast (it was a defensive measure but sounds a bit loopy as invaders would get a free pass off the sea), then when the decree was lifted, clans settled in the coastal areas and in Tsuen Wan. Apparently not much changed until land was needed for housing around the middle of the 20th century. The one museum in Tsuen Wan is one of these Hakka enclaves - it had maybe ten four bedroom houses, three halls and a central shrine.

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Things have changed - here's the view out of my hotel window, then a few random street scenes as I wandered around

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I have to say that I really enjoyed my week here, and could probably have stayed my whole month here (although that would be a bit weird as it would mean not seeing the rest of Hong Kong, a bit like going to Cambodia and not going to Angkor Wat - oh, wait, I did that). But it has been a good way to spend my time - I'm working, so I'd stay in my hotel room for that, but for each meal, go for a 2-3 hour walk. I did find that my path almost always took me to a McCafe - I didn't see anywhere else that sold coffee, only one was undrinkable and it was cheap. The menu price was $22 but they always charged me $12 - it might be an old person's discount, but it has been the same in five different McCafes (they really are plastered all over the place and all are very busy). My favourite eating option is the Tsui Wah restaurant - open 24 hours, decent food, nice people running it

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I've only once gone into a place that has no English menu, but it was pretty easy as I could point and get my favourite (duck)

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Other bits I've had to eat:

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The last was called Chongqing style chicken - I was in Chongqing earlier in the year and had chicken, but it looked nothing like this - but it was nicely cooked, tender, moist and had a startling level of heat dusted on to it. There have been a couple of other odd incidents - one day I was in the Tsui Wah and someone dressed like a naval officer came in and demanded to inspect their books (TV watching makes me wonder if she was actually a customs officer) and then another day a travel agency had what looked like a flashmob (do people still do that?) - about a hundred people descended on it, flapping bits of paper. I initially thought it was some kind of party and went in, but nah, no party.

I read in the paper that a typhoon hit Japan and coastal China Tuesday - that explains the weather we had: it rained steadily for about four hours, there was plenty of lightning and, most impressive of all, the thunder sounding like aerial combat in a war zone. I've also been reading in the paper about the long list of legislation to be passed before the LegCo goes into summer recess, the urgency, the accusations that those who oppose the bills (with what seem to me quite legitimate concerns - why wouldn't someone challenge a tripling of stamp tax?) of filibustering, the accusations that the government set agenda means that bills that are to protect people won't get dealt with - all a bit familiar, really.

I'll finish with some other pictures I took as I wandered around with my camera:

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The last is the only that might need explanation - it is a mah jong shop.

Posted by NZBarry 11.07.2014 08:16 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

The Long One

sunny 33 °C

I started this little effort several years ago because I was embarking on a six month sabbatical, my longest stint of travelling since they invented the internet. The years have now rolled around to provide me with a further opportunity for a sabbatical, this time for an entire year. Plans are not well formed - I have bookings which will see me hit Canada and cross it by rail, and then fly one of the more obscure connections, from Orlando to Oslo. But all that is far far in the future.

My last few days in the country were, unsurprisingly, rather frantic. I saw no sense in keeping a broken down car hanging about awating my return, so onto trademe it went. I listed with a $1 start bid, and for a couple of days was worried I wouldn't get my listing fee back, then worried that some bloke with no trading history from Te Awamutu would buy my car and not complete. Luckily there is more than one nice lady in Christchurch who likes elderly Hondas - my buyer was so keen she set her alarm clock for 2 a.m. to be awake when the auction closed (I somewaht foolishly just randomly listed it at 3:40 a.m. so that's when it closed) and then organised for a transporter to take it away. For a pretty much accidental buy four years ago, it was a great car and I'm a bit sad to see it go.

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There was really only one mishap - I managed to leave my boarding pass and a library book on top of my car when I left it at the transport yard. Oops. The rest of my time was a blur of marking, house and office cleaning, trying unsuccessfully to instal a house-sitter, a rather nice farewell dinner at Ombrelloes and two very late nights - so late that when I finally caught my flights out of Dunedin, I managed to sleep through both take-offs. Unfortunately one seat mate had irritating leg syndrome - at first I thought he was tapping along to his music, but then his whole leg would start oscillating and, horror of horrors, touch me. That kept me awake.

My last three days in New Zealand were taken up by a quick drive down to Tauranga to see my family and then two days locked up in a motel near the airport, to finalise the last of my marking. I did manage to find two nice meals - I took a drive over to Panmure to eat at a highly rated Malaysian place but it was closed for some sort of holiday. Luckily I found an enormous Vietnamese place where I could have a beer and curry and the next day popped over to Birkenhead for a great Malaysian curry. In between I dined on KFC burgers, to use up some vouchers I had.

I was at the airport in time for a relaxed departure, and the Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong was unexceptional. I've never been here before so caught the bus into town in order to sit on the upper floor and see what could be seen. I enjoyed seeing the lights of the high-rise buidlings lining the harbour and then the bright lights of Nathan Road. My digs are pretty good - in Hong Kong it is hard to get spacious rooms with free internet cheaply but by going a bit out of town I succeeded. The only real downside is that it is up a bit of a hill from the train station, and this June was the hottest Hong Kong has ever recorded (since about 1880). I had to have a bit of a sit down when I finally dragged myself and my bags into reception.

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The Heritage Lodge is part of an old (100+ year old) hospital compound (the rest is something called the Jao Tsung-I Academy, which is a sort of museum honouring the works of a local academic, Professor Jao Tsung:

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This really sets the bar quite high as a marker of academic achievement! I took a quick look round - it was mainly a collection of some calligraphy and paintings of his, but there was a nice group of photos of old Hong Kong. The security guard was cute - she saw me in the main exhibition hall, waved, told me to take no photos and dashed off. Then she waved again, came rushing up to me and said :welcome, I hope you have a nice visit".

The local area, Mei Foo, is very much a residential area, made up of a large high-rise private housing estate

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and a small central town (although each tower seemed to have its own little collection of shops)

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- lots of real estate agencies, banks and bakeries, and a quite pleasant local fast-food chain restaurant, Cafe de Coral. I've just read that it is run on Taylor's (i.e. Frederick Winslow) scientific management principles, which is a little scary. He invented the stop-watch based time and motion study and apparently believed that workers are not capable of understanding what they are doing, so all power is in the hands of managers. All I can say is that the people I dealt with seemed cheery enough and I didn;t see a stopwatch anywhere. I've also just read about Mei Foo - when built it was the largest housing development in the world, with around 80,000 occupants in 13,500 apartments. Mei Foo is the Chinese trading name of Mobil Oil, the former owners of the land. I can't say it is the most exciting part of Hong Kong, but it was a good relaxing place to spend my first three nights.

Posted by NZBarry 05.07.2014 20:02 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (1)

On to Bangkok

sunny 27 °C

My last couple of days in Hanoi were basically spent wandering around without much of a plan, eating when I was hungry, popping in to look at things that looked interesting, sitting in parks and the like. The one specific place I visted was the Vietnam National Fine Arts Museum. This did a good job of showing the historical development of local art, but I have to say that only about three elements of the collection really caught my eye. A large ground floor space was given over to the work of one artist: some of it was quite eye-catching.

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I couldn't quite work out the technique but assistance was at hand, in the shape of the artist herself. I had blundered into the space as they were getting it ready for the official opening (which I think means it was closed while I was there), and the artist came over to see if I was from the press. Even when I wasn't she gave me her card (if I had it with me here, that would be helpful as I have forgotten her name), so I asked her about the technqiue - lacquer. This is a big thing in Vietnam, which I would have learnt had I seen the rest of the gallery before I saw this work. Here is another, older, work of Hai Phong Harbour

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These just amused me

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and this one was vaguely intimidating:

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Early on Boxing Day, I was off to Noi Bai airport where I caught a Vietjet (totally innocuous) flight to Bangkok. Apart from a brief stopover between trains, I haven't been here since the late 1980's: it was the very first place that was not New ZealandI ever went to. My visit then was cut short by my need to flee (got caught up in something very dodgy, something that felt dangerous) so I had decided to spend a week exploring Bangkok. I had another reason: there was a particular hotel I wanted to stay in, not because it was flash, not because it was particularly charming but because it was an anachronism. Most people I am sure will be aware that Bangkok has a reputation for, shall we say, being a fairly easygoing sort of place, with Nana Plaza being one of the two most easygoing spots. My hotel was a mere block away, but it had a morals code, literally: long lists of do nots were posted on the wall (including "no catamites, junkies and degenerates") with the suggestion that if people did not like them - the rules I mean, not catamites, junkies and degenerates - they could go somewhere else. The poster went on to say that the staff may well be "sweet and ineffectual" so it might be up to guests to police the rules but reassured us that if we were not up to the task, people would be procured who could.

The hotel was originally a chemical factory, but in the 1950's its German owner turned it into a R&R resort (it had the first hotel swimming pool in Bangkok)

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for American soldiers. The owner died, the place went to the dogs and then in the 1980's the fellow who had inherited it visited and was shocked at what he found - hence the morals code. The outside was nothing special, the rooms were basic but its public spaces are a bit of a time warp. Here are the front and rear entrances

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the foyer

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I spent quite a lot of time in the dining room - I'd come home at the end of a day and relax here with a nice cold one, and use the internet. I had a couple of meals and snacks - I had thought that it was the sort of hotel that people would gather here and get to know each other a bit, but no. Maybe it had something to do with the staff - here is how one fellow describes them on tripadvisor: "However the staff are certainly quite stern, and any smiles in the restaurant seemed fleeting and strained, so it didn't feel that relaxed a place to eat for a solo diner."

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I spent my first morning in here making a long list of the things I would do during my week, and I did start off quite assiduously (I have a couple of posts for those things) but as the week went on, I moved more from an active sight-seeing mode into the hanging out not doing very much mode. But even on my first voyage to do something on my list, I went past this place

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and couldn't resist - the Scala is another piece of Bangkok history. 47 Ronin, by the way, would have to be the most ridiculous movie I have ever seen. It takes an actual Japanese historical event (Ronin are former Samurai, stripped of that honour), but brought in supernatural elements and, even worse, had a battle for control of Japan between north and south depend upon Keanu Reeves. I saw a much better movie at another cinema - I should have taken a photo. It had been a multi-story multiplex, but had not prospered so the building was largely abandoned - there was a go-kart track in the car park and a very nice arthouse cinema on an upper floor, simply called House. The movie was called "Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy" - based on a true story, a story told in 410 tweets. Mary was dropped by her parents into a boarding school and has no contact with them while she is there - the story is essentially of her adjustment, her being a teenager, the friendships she develops, the weird way that teachers have and a crush she has on a particular boy. I enjoyed it so much more than 47 Ronin.

Posted by NZBarry 03.02.2014 05:33 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Hanoi Food

sunny 20 °C

Being back at work, where I have already submitted two pieces of writing this year, has really sucked away my energy for writing here but I will get there!

One of the top rated things to do in Hanoi is to go on a walking tour to sample its street food: I had booked in for a tour for my first day back in Hanoi. Luckily the bus-induced illness had passed and I was feeling quite peckish when (Miss) Ngang turned up at my hotel to take me to the tour. I nearly opted out, however, when she said she'd be taking me there on her motorbike: this is Hanoi, world famous for the pandemonium on its streets, we were travelling at the peak of rush hour and, not to be disrespectful, my rider was tiny. But she was all "I know what I'm doing" and "you'll be fine" and "it isn't far" so I went with the flow. There was certainly a lot of traffic, mainly motorbikes, and they seemed to be going in all directions at each intersection - we basically bumped and nudged our way through. Naturally, I took no photos while I was clinging on for dear life, and I never saw traffic quite like I experienced it, but these give some idea of how things are:

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The walking tour was great: nominally finishing at 8, we were still sampling beer well after 9. It was me, a young fellow from Estonia, an Indian woman of maybe 30 working in Singapore and two women in their mid 20's from London (one Indian, the other from the Maldives). Ngang was the life of the party, telling us lots about Hanoi generally as well as specifics about the food we were sampling - in between jibes about the size of my stomach and how scared I was on her bike. We started with that Vietnamese staple, Pho, made by a woman who has been doing it for more than 60 years, in premises no wider than a carshed but apparently worth more than a million bucks! I thought I took more photos but have only found two - a pile of fruit and some deep-fried sweet potatoes and bananas:

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We ate a whole lot more, about 7 stops in all to the point that at the last one we were all saying "no more". Apparently the beer we finished up with was the stuff made fresh each day in Hanoi - I am not convinced, as it tasted a lot like regular beer. The pub we went to was on the corner of a street that was given over to drinkers, but even here you could not escape the motorbikes (I really don't think that having motorbikes in crowds of drinkers is a very good idea)

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One of the things that Ngang talked about was the legend of the Hoàn Kiếm Lake, which means lake of the returned sword. As the legend goes, a god sent a turtle up to demand a sword back from the Emperor. Apparently there were a handful of giant turtles living in the lake, but they have been dying off (I actually saw one in the Temple of Jade Mountain)

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People believe there is still one in the lake, but there have been no sightings for quite some time. The Temple of Jade Mountain is on an island in the lake: to get there you go across the Welcoming Morning Sunlight Bridge (or The Huc Bridge)

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Apart from the turtle in its glass case and a gift shop, there are several shrines to commemorate a famous soldier and a couple of scholars (now that's an idea I can get behind!)

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Further down the lake, there is something called the Turtle Tower, to honour the mgic turtles which guard the sword

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Emboldened by my food tour and internet research, I went in search of a dish called Bun Cha and thanks to a wee lack of carefulness on my part had one of the best things so far. Essentially Bun Cha is BBQ grilled pork, although there seem to be variations after that. Recipes I have found talk about a dipping sauce, but in the version I had, the pork was put into broth with noodles, bean sprouts and other bits and pieces. The broth was lightly spiced (with something like star anise and maybe cinnamon) and a bit sweet. It was up to me to add other ingredients: I could only recognise coriander and chilli, so that's what I had. Man, the chilli heat really spreads when it is in broth! I was almost in trouble, I had made it so hot.

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I was in Hanoi for Christmas, but there was (to quote a favourite TV programme) a bit of a cock up on the catering front. The food I had was nice, but the place I went to (one of the top rated in town) was a bit budget, I even had some random sharing my table for a bit, and I was in and out in half an hour. Luckily I'd had a great experience on Christmas Eve - another top rated restaurants in a hotel had really looked after me. I had a couple of these

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(it is a Hanoi Sunrise - tequila, rum, Campari & orange), followed by very posh spring rolls and something called Bo Lo Lat ("minced beef with pork grease, garlic, black pepper wrapped in Lolot leaves then fried").

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One other notable meal was in a place called Highland Coffee: the coffee and Banh My were nice, but I was more impressed with the people watching opportunities. This is where the young Vietnamese middle class come and just hang out, chatting, using the internet. The guys in particular intrigued, as a lot had gone for the James Dean look - leather jackets, belt buckles, pompadour (I had to look that one up - it is the combed back high hair style he adopted).

The worst food experience I had was at the airport. When I change countries and have a small amount of money, too small to get changed, I normally swap it for chocolate or, back in the day I did such things, cigarettes. The chocolate I obtained at Noi Bai airport was truly dreadful - it tasted of nothing but palm oil, no sweet, no chocolate, just this oily flavour.

I'll finish with a few random images of Hanoi

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Posted by NZBarry 31.01.2014 05:39 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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