Visit Hong Kong – First Impressions Of The Island City

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Hong Kong - Perfect Mix of Tradition & Modern
Hong Kong – Perfect Mix of Tradition & Modern

When I was planning to visit Hong Kong, to me, it just stood for banking and financial services. I could visualize its glass and steel skyscrapers with bankers in their designer pinstriped suits and latest mobile phones. Well, that image has not changed after the trip, but many more aspects of Hong Kong now make up this city-state. Earlier this year I had written a post for Hong Kong Tourism Board talking about my Hong Kong Wish List and I am so happy that I could visit most of it within a few month’s time. It’s like the Travel Gods were really tuned in.

Visit Hong Kong First Impressions

Here are my first impressions & things you need to know before your Hong Kong Holiday:

Do I Need Visa to Visit Hong Kong?

No. Hong Kong is Visa-free for Indian passport holders. You just need to fill in a simple form online. Provide your passport details to get an instant pre-arrival authorization. Take a print and you are all set. Yes, there is no Visa fee. For an Indian Passport holder, this is a blessing to have such a hassle-free entry process.

An old Hong Kong Stamp
An old Hong Kong Stamp

Yes, there is no Visa fee for Indian Passport holders. Believe me, this hassle-free Visa process is a big reason to visit Hong Kong.

Safe Place to Travel

I traveled Solo to Hong Kong. In my attempt to see and experience as much as possible, I stayed out till late evenings. I used public transport – MTR, Buses, Trams and even walked a lot – at no point, I felt I am not safe.

One reason is, of course, the fact that you are never alone, there are always people around you, that gives you a safety net. I did walk some back alleys alone, but I always felt safe.

Disabled Friendly Hong Kong

At the road crossings where you wait for the pedestrian sign to go green before you cross,  Road signs are complemented by the audio signals.

Besides the disabled, it suits the mobile phone generation, most of who cross the road while looking at the mobile screens based on the sound based signals. In fact, by the third day, I also waited for the sound to indicate that I can now cross the road.

Follow the Pink Signs when you Visit Hong Kong

Visit Hong Kong - Pink Signs for Tourist Destinations
Visit Hong Kong – Pink Signs for Tourist Destinations

Most places in the world have brown boards for places of tourist interest. Hong Kong has them in Pink. Personally, I prefer the cheerful pink to melancholic brown. These pink signs happily lead you to the nooks and corners with some known and some not so well known tourist destinations of Hong Kong.

Language

Cantonese is the main language spoken in Hong Kong. All the signboards and the most public information is available in both Cantonese and English. So, as long as you understand English, you get all the basics. It may sometimes be challenging to converse with people as some people do not speak English. I felt lost a couple of times when I was doing my walks and Google Maps did not help. I had to depend on local help for directions and that was a challenge at times.

Note to self – It helps to pick up some words of the language of the destination you are visiting.

Vegetarian Food

Vegetarian food is available, but you must be able to explain what you mean by being vegetarian. Seafood and at times certain meats are understood to be vegetarian. There are ample vegetarian and vegan restaurants, so if you plan your day around them – it works. I intended to keep moving and stop for lunch or snacks when I felt hungry and that posed a bit of challenge. One day I had rice with sweet potato tempered with salt and pepper. I called it survival food. Italian food came to my rescue couple of times as a Pizza or a Pasta can always be made vegetarian.

I did try vegetarian Dim Sums at a Chinese Restaurants – they were tasty and so light on the stomach.

My best food discovery in Hong Kong was – Nai Cha or the Milk Tea that is available both as hot and chilled. I loved the chilled version & would visit Hong Kong again just for this.

Direct Flights to Hong Kong from Indian Cities

Hong Kong is well connected with all major Indian Cities. Cathay Pacific flies from Mumbai, Delhi,  Chennai, Hyderabad and Cathay Dragon from Bengaluru & Kolkata.

For me, Mumbai is the best connection. 5-6 hours direct flight and you are in Hong Kong. My flight from Mumbai was at 1 AM IST that landed in Hong Kong around 9:30 AM Hong Kong time – giving me almost all the day to explore.

Public Transport in Hong Kong

Hong Kong has probably one of the best public transport networks in the world. It has an underground metro system – called MTR. MTR network is like a parallel underground city in Hong Kong. Every station has so many exits that literally everyone lives close to an MTR station. There are street maps at the MTR exits that let you decide which is the best place for you to get out. Unfortunately, these exits are not marked on the Google Maps, so you need to know what is the exit closest to you. Ask anyone, they would direct you to nearest MTR station.

Buses

There are buses going in all possible directions. Most buses are a double-decker, so if you sit on the upper deck, you enjoy the lovely views of Hong Kong. As a traveler, buses were my favorite mode of transport in Hong Kong as I could see the city moving around me. Buses also dropped me closest to the destinations I wanted to visit. With MTR, you need to walk a lot both within the stations and from the station to the destinations.

Trams

Trams are a reminder of the good old days of Hong Kong. They constantly reminded me of trams in Kolkata. They are slow, not airconditioned, but they let you absorb the sights, sounds, and smells of Hong Kong. I had to skip them most of the times in the interest of time, but I did take one joy ride, just for the experience. There are so many trams moving around – painted creatively, they look like toys moving on the roads.

Heritage Tram called Peak Tram takes you to Victoria Peak in vintage style while giving you a slanted look of the city.

Star Ferry Terminal - Visit Hong Kong
Star Ferry Terminal – Visit Hong Kong

To travel between two main islands Hong Kong and Kowloon – there is a ferry called Star Ferry.

For traveling to and from the Hong Kong Airport I used the airport express. It takes just 21 minutes to reach the center of the city – be it central on Hong Kong Island or Kowloon Side. Fast, comfortable and reliable.

Pro Tip – Buy return ticket on Airport Express, it works cheaper than two one-way tickets.

People of Hong Kong

Hong Kong has all kinds of people. I met the kindest people and some of the rudest. While walking around Wan Chai – I was searching for a temple. I asked the two elderly men who were chatting outside a shop. It took me a while to make them understand what I am looking for – my pronunciation was the culprit. When they figured out I was looking for the temple, around the corner – they laughed and I laughed with them. It was one of my beautiful moments in Hong Kong.

Visit Hong Kong - The Gold Fish Fountain
Visit Hong Kong – The Gold Fish you find everywhere

Most people who are not very comfortable with English would try to ignore your questions at the cost of sounding rude.

I happened to meet a college friend who is now living in Hong Kong after 20 years. I met another friend’s friend who has lived in Hong Kong all her life and I met a Katy – a Hong Kong based blogger. They were my windows to the life in Hong Kong along with my Airbnb hosts.

Hong Kong Currency

Hong Kong Currency
The Hong Kong Currency – Illustrative Only

Hong Kong has its own currency and passport even though technically it is China.

Here is the funny series of exchange rates that I was quoted by various agencies for 1 HKD.

  • Forex Websites – Rs 8
  • My Bank – Rs 8.92
  • Forex counter at Goa Airport – Rs 9.4
  • Forex Counter at Mumbai Airport – Rs 10.75
  • The Forex Counter at Hong Kong Airport – Rs 12

I ended up withdrawing from the ATM & net landed rate was about 8.3 Rs – Not Bad.

This is a case in point to tell you why I suggest ATM withdrawals in my Packing Checklist Post.

Topography of Hong Kong

Visit Hong Kong - Skyscrapers & the Sea
Hong Kong – Skyscrapers & the Sea

Hong Kong is just hills and sea. On a couple of islands, mankind has managed to carve out space for itself. So every time you walk in Hong Kong, you are either climbing the hill or coming down. There are very few flat surfaces.

Hong Kong is the only place I know of, where there is an escalator connecting the downtown office area with the residential areas called Mid-Levels. You must see this.

Colorful Hong Kong Skyline - Cityscape
Colorful Hong Kong Skyline – Cityscape

When I traveled to Victoria peak or to the quaint Stanley village – within minutes I was traveling from the congested skyscraper filled streets to the wilderness. There is a sudden transition from the chaos of a metropolis to the calmness of nature. From being surrounded by glass and steel, you suddenly land among the blue waters of South China Sea dotted with green islands.

Finally, remember Hong Kong was a British Colony till 1997 when it was handed over to China. So, people in Hong Kong are still in a transition state with a special status. It is an interesting time to visit them.

Hong Kong Tourism

Hong Kong Skyline
Hong Kong Skyline

I cannot really say that Hong Kong is a city designed for the tourists. However, its tourism board offices are located at the strategic places and the staff is very friendly.

I used the Hong Kong Tourism Board website extensively for planning my trip. And to acquaint with the destination.

I spoke to the Hong Kong Tourism person at the airport, as soon as I landed. I shared my plan with her and she gave me all the relevant information, suggested a few changes and handed me maps and walking routes. Everything she told me was helpful.

My second encounter was at Hong Kong Tourism office at Star Ferry Terminal in Kowloon. I was starving – unable to find a vegetarian food place. The lady literally walked me to a small restaurant close by.

So, are you planning to go to Hong Kong?

37 COMMENTS

    • I stayed at the Hong Kong Island Side – but next time I visit I think I am going to stay on the Kowloon side. Not fond of too many crowded festivals, but I loved walking in the gardens of Kowloon city.

  1. Thanks for sharing this helpfull info. I ususally also withdraw from ATM when travel, but do you need much cash or is it possible to pay with your card in most places? Comming from Sweden I’m use to paying with card everywhere.

    • Lina – you need to cash to top up the Octopus card, to pick up small things like a water bottle and the mini busses do not accept any cards in Hong Kong. Even the street markets mostly deal in cash. I guess you can use cards at shopping malls and restaurants though.

  2. I love you insight on the city and the fact that you also included a section for disable travelers! <3
    I've been there with Cathay as well. It was a 7h stop-over so I just had the time to see the view from a skyscraper and to browse the markets (it was too foggy for the Peak). I loved the vibe and I'm definitely going back! I also loved that as you land you have a super organized tourist info-point that in 2' drew an itinerary for me considering that I had just a few hours. They also showed me the Paek's webcam from an iPad to show me how foggy it was! LOL super organized!

    • Sabrina – guess we do not find most cities disabled friendly, so Hong Kong stands out. HK tourism department is quite well organized, though I would like them to put some more of those pink boards. They also need to work with Google Maps on improving the MTR information.

  3. Very thorough article on the place and sounds like you nailed down a lot of things on your first visit! Agree with almost everything mentioned in your article, except that I’m really surprised you find it disabled-friendly. True about the traffic lights but other than that, there are just too many stairs and slopes in the city. I find baby stroller quite challenging (small space, too many slopes and stairs in the city), I always wonder how the disabled can live and get around here. In fact, us expat parents living in HK always lament that this is a very child-unfriendly city :p…Anyway, I’m glad a visitor think HK has done well and that you liked the city!

    • Eve – Our reference points are different. I did not think from a child perspective or from elderly perspective. I just had a travelers perspective. You are right it is too up and down and too congested a place for both of them.

    • Anindiya – we shall travel together, sometime, somewhere. I did read your post on Hong Kong and I see that our itineraries were almost mutually exclusive. I did not do most of the things you did. You will see that in upcoming posts on Hong Kong.

  4. Hey! A very helpful and comprehensive article. Hong Kong is definitely on my list 🙂 Sometimes you need to take city vacations too, a break from the beaches and the mountains!

  5. I have always been very curious about the South East. However I don’t know much of the culture and now that I think of it I haven’t even read many books from this region. On my list 🙂 Nice to know the friendliness of the people. It is always a big plus for a traveler!

    • Ishita, Hong Kong would be more of South China. It was a British Colony till 20 years back and that gives it a very different character. Even I have not read many books on China – apart from a bit about Opium trade in Amitav Ghosh’s books.

  6. Yeah right you are. Have you heard Anchee Min?? Her books are very good apparently and I’ll buy one soon for Kindle. No space for paperbacks currently 🙁

  7. Dear Anu, thank you very much for your mention! Nice article, it is quite special for me to see Hong Kong through the eyes of a traveler.
    We are celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival in Hong Kong these few days. I think the scale of the festival is a bit like Diwali in India. Many people celebrate it. Consider coming to Hong Kong next time during the festival. I can bring you somewhere which are not that crowded, while you can still admire the moon and lanterns 😉

    • Katy, I would love to come and see the ancient festivals of Hong Kong and China. I attended a feast in Hyderabad for Mid-Autumn festival – where the Chef made a vegetarian moon cake for me with red beans. It was nice. He also told us the story of how messages were passed using mooncakes – I want to hear those stories.

  8. It kind of sounds like you went to europe. lol
    When you say vegetarian in Austria and Germany, most people will think you are eating seafood and fish too. Do you eat eggs because noodles are rarely made without eggs. Having some locals being friendly and the other half being rude is something what once can find anywhere in the world. It has almost always something to do with the language (or the ethnic look). Tourists visiting europe just don’t understand that English is not a language there. Only the British and Irish island are English speaking and that’s it. People have not spoken English and they never will and lot of people are outraged when they go to europe and when a local seems to be rude but what is actually happening is that the local feels awkward and just doesn’t know how to react. The same must be happening to Hongkong locals too. As visitors we need to be aware that English is not a world language, as some have been trying to make us believe.
    Anuradha I feel like visiting Hongkong after your reading your post. 🙂

    • Helene, I agree with what you say about language. I think it was the language that was a barrier and maybe too many tourists too.

      I was really hoping that the Vegan App would help me but it did not. I would also blame Google maps – it was pretty misbehaved in helping me with navigation in Hong Kong. Most places it works like a charm. As my local friends said, businesses move very fast in Hong Kong and specially restaurants. They close soon and apps are not updated regularly.

      I know I may be consuming eggs in various forms – but I avoid whenever I know, else I would not be able to travel at all.

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