SFO to Singapore

Arrived at SFO and checked in at the Business Class counter at Singapore Airlines. I was super excited to fly with SQ in business, given their sterling reputation for service and comfort. And? I was a just a bit underwhelmed. Their lounge in SFO, while certainly better than the hellmouth that is the United lounge, was nothing to write home about in terms of decor. It was kinda cramped and rather tired looking decor. Selection of food and wine was fairly meager. Now, I get that complaining about sitting around in a lounge at the airport is grade A dickish behavior – but having visited the Cathay Pacific lounge at SFO, with their huge modern and comfortable lounge, offering tasty food, lots of wine – and champagne! – plus made-to-order noodle soup, Singapore’s lounge was a big letdown, particularly in light of how great an airline they’re reputed to be.

It was a very different story on board! The business class section is gorgeous and the seat huge and comfortable, with a giant monitor and a great selection of recent movies. Dinner – which I’d ordered ahead via SQ’s “Book the Cook” service was tasty: a decent steak with potatoes. The appetizer wasn’t great – a couple of past-their-prime scallops. I’d’ve rather just had something less “luxurious” that was a bit fresher. On the other hand, the champagne was tasty and free-flowing.

Once it was time for bed (I was on SQ1 which leaves SFO at 1:15AM), the seat flips forward and converts to a bed. Sadly, the seat which was great for sitting was not all that comfortable for sleeping. A hard, uneven surface and a somewhat awkward sleeping position. Again, though, it’s a bed and way better than sitting upright for 14 hours. I did manage to get a solid 7 hours of sleep, though it was a bit fitful thanks to a bumpy jetstream. And kudos to SQ for taking note of my request for extra pillows that I’d emailed them a couple of days before flying.

I had a two-and-a-half hour layover in Hong Kong and it was a much nicer wait. Took a shower and put on some fresh panties before getting a glass of champagne, in spite of it being 7AM locally (that’s 4PM back in SF, so it’s totes OK!). Food selection was pretty good and the place was modern and comfortable with a friendly group of folks working there.

Flight to Singapore was on another 777 – though this one was quite a bit older and equipped for regional flights, meaning just a big comfy chair, no luxurious pod. With that being said, the flight crew on this leg were a delight. Engaging, friendly, helpful – one of them even asking me about my back injury (the reason I’d asked for extra pillows). They were probably about the nicest crew I’ve ever had – and a marked contrast from the crew on the first leg, who were nice enough, but seemed a bit more standoffish. Maybe because it was an overnight flight and they knew people just want to get to sleep?

Anyway, it was a very nice flight and soon enough I was at Changi International Airport. After nearly 24 hours en route, I wasn’t especially interested in exploring what is considered the best airport in the world – I’ll have time enough for that next week on my way to Thailand. Getting through immigration was slow and there was sadly no VIP lane for business class assholes such as myself. But I made it through and soon enough was ensconced in a comfortable room at my home for the next five days, WANGZ Hotel – which I chose thanks to it’s excellent reviews, reasonable price and, obviously, the fact that it is called “WANGZ Hotel.” And now to explore Singapore!

Well, let’s be honest – despite the pleasant experience of flying business class, it was still a long trip and I was kinda pooped. But I did manage to walk up to Chinatown, in search of a char siu place I’d read about online at a hawker center. I didn’t have any luck finding this particular place, but found a place with char siu that turned out to be very tasty. Frankly, I was lucky to find anything at all, given Singapore’s practice of giving nearly identical names to places right next to one another – in this instance, I got somewhat lost in People’s Park Complex before realizing it was not the same thing as the People’s Park Center, a separate and equally confusing to navigate place right behind it.

I also did a bit of reconnoitering in my neighborhood of Tiong Bahru. It’s a quite lovely area, much more residential in feel than Singapore’s center. The older section is mostly low rise art deco style apartment buildings, with a nice selection of shops and little cafes. And most important of all, I met two cats, one of whom appears to be the unofficial mayor of Tiong Bahru, given his extremely friendly welcome.

Back to the hotel and did my best to adjust to local time. Got started early the next morning and got to do some sightseeing on my own at the National Museum of Singapore – and I must say it provided a fascinating introduction to this young country’s long history. I wandered a bit on my own and joined up with a guided tour offered by the museum. The guide was great and, as a San Franciscan whose city is in the midst of a housing crisis, I was particularly interested in learning just a bit about how the housing market works here. Fully 80% of the population lives in government-built and subsidized housing – and residents come from across nearly the entire economic spectrum. As it was described to me, workers and employers both pay into the system, so one’s starter apartment is modest but affordable. Within a few years, the value has appreciated sufficiently, that one can sell and move into a bigger place – and this continues, potentially resulting one day in sufficient proceeds to buy a condo on the free market, then re-sell that for a fortune, downsize back into a small government place after retirement and use the money you’ve made to travel and enjoy life.

While I’m sure not everyone follows this exact path, it certainly seems as though housing policy here is doing something right. And frankly, I’m ready to move! Though I don’t think the system is set up to benefit grizzled old foreigners such as myself.

There was also a cool video display in a sort of spiraled rotunda. I entered at the top and was treated to an immersive projection of flowers above, around and below me. After this, I walked down a spiral ramp and the a video forest with birds and animals frolicking about. I really enjoyed my visit – not just for the exhibits but also exploring this amazing old building, constructed as a museum and library at the end of the 19th century.

Headed back to the hotel to meet my friend Ak who was arriving from Thailand that afternoon. I did manage to squeeze in a pit stop to the hawker center I’d visited yesterday for a plate of char siu at the place I’d tried and failed to find yesterday. While it was tasty enough, the random char siu stall I’d chosen the day before was better, in my opinion.

After Ak got to the hotel, we spent some time catching up before we headed out for cocktails at Jigger & Pony. Really great drinks, though the vibe was a bit too “loud-mouthed Westerners” thanks to a large birthday party occupying a large table up front. However, our bartender was extraordinarily skillful and prepared me an excellent French 75 – plus he was genial and gregarious.

Now, this is the point where I have to point out my one real issue with my visit it to Singapore – the cost of booze here. Prices are ridiculous. This is apparently intentional, with alcohol imports taxed heavily in an effort to drive the socially desirable behavior of teetotaling. But seriously, prices are breathtaking: a can of Tiger at a local shop is nearly SG$2 and you’d be hard-pressed to find anything less than SG$11 on a menu – and that’s likely to be cheap beer. A glass of wine is likely to be SG$16 minimum, cocktails at least that much. And that French 75 I enjoyed so much? SG$22! That’s nearly US$16.

Anyway, that’s how they roll here, so it’s not really any of my business – but I guess if nothing else it ensure that I was able to wake up early every morning completely free of even the mildest of hangovers…

Dinner that evening was at Wild Rocket, a “modern Singaporean” place I’d discovered online. We liked our dinner here – though as I’ve learned in my several visits to Bangkok, as much as I enjoy going to a nice restaurant, I really do wind up preferring simpler local places and street food. But Ak and I ate a tasty meal in a nice atmosphere (and drank a bottle of wine!) while we discussed what sights we wanted to see (and, more importantly, what hawker stands we wanted to visit) over the next several days here in Singapore. First up tomorrow: dim sum and the Science Centre.

Our Last Couple of Days in Hanoi

Up early to hit the road to Trang An! Our guide showed up in a super-deluxe luxury van, since we’d originally scheduled a tour for three people – but Mom was still battling her stomach ailment, so it was just Ak and me.

The ride out was fine – I think we both dozed – and a couple of hours later we arrived at Trang An. The pictures I’d seen were lovely and it was quite a pretty spot, with lush green hills surrounding the lakes and grottoes. Our guide led us down to the small paddle boats and I made a major error. He asked if we minded sharing our boat – and I responded “Sure, that’s fine!” But it really wasn’t – not least because we’d already shelled out a good chunk of change for this excursion, which to me means we shouldn’t have even been asked to share a boat frankly. Of course, I should’ve just said no, but it was too late for that.

So, Ak and I squeezed into the second row behind an older Vietnamese couple, who were there with their adult children, son-in-law and little toddler grandbaby who were all on the boat in front of us. There was a lot of shouting back and forth between the boats, presumably encouraging granddaughter to do something adorable – but it wore thin.

The other thing that wore thing was the boat ride itself. Sure, the scenery is lovely and paddling through the low-ceilinged caves was pretty cool – the first couple of times. But the boat ride goes on for a solid two hours. It was really hot out, the views all start to look the same, the bench we were sitting on was really uncomfortable, especially since we had to sit far forward so the lady paddling our boat wouldn’t yell at us again. I’d read some of the write-ups on Trang An and many of them mentioned that the boat ladies were a pretty surly bunch – and this proved to be pretty accurate. Granted, I’d be hard-pressed to object to their surliness – I’d be the same way if I were paddling a bunch of fat-assed tourists everyday – but I will say that it didn’t really enhance the experience.

After the ride was finally over, it was time for lunch nearby. It was a buffet-style deal catering to busloads of tourists. The food was mediocre at best. It was a real disappointment, especially given how delicious Vietnamese food is. Afterwards, though, while we were waiting to get going again, Ak and I happened upon a local fellow shepherding his herd of goats down the hill and across the road. They were noisy and hilarious.

Back into the van to visit Bái Đính Temple. It was fine. The grounds were pretty and there were some impressive statues and carvings. Overall though? This was not my favorite day trip. It was a long way to go to visit sights I didn’t find all that interesting. Ak and I agreed we’d’ve been happier spending the day exploring more of Hanoi. Oh, well, guess we’ll have to go back then!

At the hotel, Mom was much improved but decided to stay in while Ak and I had dinner at a place called Home. He’d been the one to find it before our trip and it looked nice – and it was! Located in a charming old house behind a large iron gate, it’s a lovely little oasis in the midst of the intensity of Hanoi.

We were seated in the cozy back room. It was an intimate setting and nice view of the patio outside. Refreshing cocktails started things off and our apps were really tasty – bún chả and fresh rolls – while our main course was OK. Honestly, I probably should’ve ordered something different.

The service was a bit unpolished, though it was so genuinely friendly and accommodating, it’s hard to really find fault with it. I’d say this if our meal had just wrapped up ordinarily – but it didn’t. When I’d reserved our table before my trip, I mentioned that the dinner was to celebrate Ak’s birthday (which was actually a couple of weeks prior), hoping they’d put a candle in his dessert or something.

Anyway, as we were waiting for dessert menus, several of the staff members came into the room with a birthday cake, singing “Happy Birthday.” I wasn’t actually sure what was happening and assumed one of the other patrons had ordered a cake. WELL. This was for Ak! I think he was a little embarrassed by the attention (though I think he liked it a bit too!), but it was such a wonderful and unexpected treat. The other diners all joined in singing and there was a great round of applause when Ak blew out the candle. It was really just delightful and an extraordinary surprise for both of us – not least because Ak had mentioned when we chatted on his birthday that he’d never had an actual cake on his birthday! A great big thank you to everyone at Home for making this night so special.

We adjourned to the terrace for a couple of after dinner drinks (and maybe a bit more cake) to enjoy the warm evening, then headed off in search of Unicorn Pub, recommended by Tu, our guide from Sunday’s food tour. Found the place with no problem. Didn’t seem particularly fancy or anything – but the cocktail menu was pretty interesting.

Ak got a pho cocktail – IKR? – while I ordered one that included chili and fish sauce – IKR? Honestly, this could’ve gone either way – I was a little worried that the drinks would be gimmicky and weird. Instead, they were amazing! Ak’s even got set on fire and poured through some kind of triple-decker contraption on the bar. And it tasted like boozy pho – in a totally yummy way, with hints of star anise, cinnamon, coriander and other spices. Mine was tart and citrusy with a kick from the chilis and a nice roundness, thanks to the umami from the fish sauce.

Someone (I think a staff member or their significant other) came in with a baby, who was adorable. Ak and I were waving and making faces – but I think being faced with two tipsy bearded tourists was a bit much, since his initial expression of concern slowly morphed into terror and tears. Sorry, kid! Just trying to be nice – but I know we’re kinda crazy looking.

Woke up Tuesday morning and Mom had recovered from her bout with some type of food-borne illness. It was good to see her back up and about. She was still taking things easy, so she stayed behind while Ak and I headed out in search of the chicken wings our food tour guide had told us about. We actually found the place, but it was closed. Curses!

We wandered the streets for a bit – Hanoi is an amazing place to do exactly that, with gorgeous old buildings, shops and stalls selling everything from banh mi to stuffed animals, some teeming and noisy while little alleys are quiet and shadowy. It’s an amazing city.

We eventually made our way to Phở10, an apparently rather famous place for (what else?) phở. Yes, there was a line, but it moved quickly. And the phở? It was pretty darn good.

Back to the hotel, gathered our belongings – and Mom! – and headed to the airport for the short flight to Bangkok. Happily, I’d had a few thousand old British Airways points lying about (as one does) and booked all three of us in business class on Qatar Airways – and it was pretty deluxe! The flight attendants were especially nice – a short flight like this doesn’t usually include the fancy amenity kit, but when I asked for one for Ak, they were happy to provide it. Honestly, the one disappointing thing about the flight was how short it was – but I still managed to quaff my share of champagne.

Soon enough, Mom and I were ensconced in Le Meridien Patpong. I’ve gotten to stay at a handful of really nice hotels in my visits to Bangkok. Le Meridien is not the fanciest – though it’s extraordinarily comfortable and well-located. What makes this my first choice for hotels in Bangkok is the service – not just top-notch, but delivered with with both authenticity and discretion, along with a genuine focus on making their guest feel at home.

And so, the next chapter begins! I was very excited to show my mom around this city that I fell in love with so quickly on my first visit just a year ago.

Back to Hanoi

As we got ready to disembark from our Ha Long Bay cruise, Mom reported she was starting to have some stomach issues – seemed she’d eaten something dicey at some point. She got worse rather quickly. We decided to hire a driver to get us back to Hanoi rather than taking the van. It wasn’t a very fun ride for either of us, though for Mom especially. We did make it back to Hanoi and our rooms at the MK Premier Boutique Hotel without incident, though there were some close calls on the three-and-a-half hour journey. Mom retired to her hotel room and unhappily had to miss out on the next couple of days in Hanoi – though she did make a full recovery by the time we were flying onto Bangkok that Tuesday.

My friend Ak was waiting for us in Hanoi. He’d flown in from Bangkok the night before so we could all spend some time together in Vietnam. We were both unhappy that Mom would be sitting out the plans we’d made for our time in Hanoi, but she insisted that we not make any changes while she was recuperating – and I did check in with her regularly to make sure she was OK!

Ak and I had dinner on Saturday evening at Chả Cá Thăng Long whose specialty is (wait for it…) chả cá thăng long, a dish prepared at the table made of fish with fresh dill and scallions, along with the usual Vietnamese accompaniments like vermicelli, fish sauce and peanuts. It was simple and delicious and went great with a couple of cold beers. Ak and I had no problem polishing off everything.

The next morning was our Hanoi street food tour with (wait for it…) Hanoi Street Food Tours. Our guide was Tu and he really knows his food! And he was kind of a riot. Hailing from the south of Vietnam (which I gather is a bit like being a New Yorker in terms of one’s demeanor), his decidedly straightforward approach took a moment or two to adjust to, but once I did, I found him to be both knowledgeable and pretty hilarious – for example, giving us the following advice about photographing: “Just take the pictures. Don’t ask first or they’ll just say no.” Tu himself is a pretty impressive photographer and is really good at the Instragrams. Check out his stream at vietnamesegod.

Tu was also very hands-on. Our very first meal was not at a food stand, but courtesy of a woman on the street with her carrying pole, a gas burner on one side and ingredients on the other. She made us a simple and tasty omelette – with Tu providing her with some very specific instructions on preparation, even grabbing her spatula at one point to help with the cooking and to make sure the omelet was cooked through.

While Ak and I were eating, our chef disappeared – leaving us with her plate and utensils. Tu explained that this was due to the police coming down the street. Apparently, this is a game that everyone plays here: the cops make the technically illegal vendors pack up and leave (or they just take off on their own); then everyone comes back in ten minutes and continues what they were doing.

We stopped at a cool cafe and juice place for a little pick-me-up – coffee for Ak and Tu, some really tasty fresh apple juice for me. A mom and dad were in there with their adorable little girl – and she couldn’t stop staring at Ak and me, likely due to our hairy (and monstrous, obv) visages. She kept looking back and forth, back and forth, with an expression on her face that bordered on terrified. When we tried to get a little closer and say hello, she immediately burst into tears. Eh, I’m used to that – it’s how most people respond when meeting me…

Other food on our tour included grilled pork skewers, crab noodles, a really cool cafe, stewed pork, coconut-coffee slushies (sublime!) and I’m sure I’m forgetting lots – but I took photos of most everything. Surprisingly, thanks to the portions not being crazy big and lots of walking, the amount of food didn’t feel overwhelming at all. It was a really fantastic morning! Our three hours with Tu were over in the blink of an eye and we were sad to see him go. A really excellent tour and I highly recommend it.

Ak and I spent the afternoon at the Ho Chi Minh complex. The mausoleum is currently closed for renovations, but we were able to check out the exterior of the building. We also visited the HCM Museum which was… odd. Given Uncle Ho’s importance to the founding of modern Vietnam, I was surprised at how unwelcoming the museum was. It was quite difficult to navigate, there were signs everywhere instructing “DON’T TOUCH” or “DON’T ENTER” or some other scolding message. The displays were a bit dated and definitely had something of a ‘70s Soviet feel to them – though with that being said, I certainly did leave the museum knowing more about Ho Chi Minh, his life and the history of colonialism and revolution in Vietnam.

After a lie-down and checking in on Mom’s vital signs, we went out for bún chả at (wait for it…) Bún Chả Ta. Ak had eaten here his first night and I hadn’t had bún chả yet, so it was a good choice and we both enjoyed our meals.

Afterwards, we headed off in search of the massage place Tu had pointed out earlier, advising they did a great foot massage. Well, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, the picture I’d taken of the place contained its location in the metadata and pulled up the spot in Google Maps and we found it with no problem – even including a quick stop on the way at Bánh MR HEO, a little bakery specializing in pig-shaped waffle-y treats (IKR?).

Massages were fine. The place wasn’t exactly the most luxurious nor as clean as an operating room – but then the massages were US$5.00 – so the price-to-value ratio was just about unbeatable.

During my massage, three Western dudes came in and were carrying on a lively conversation in a language I couldn’t identify. At first, I thought it was Russian, but the sounds weren’t quite right. Was it Norwegian? Probably not. Turkish? I don’t think so. Anyway, I finally asked and it turns out they were Hungarian – they actually chatted me up a bit about the origins of the Hungarian language, which is to some extent shrouded in mystery. In an odd coincidence, the gal who was on the cruise in Ha Long Bay with us was also fluent in Hungarian! Maybe the fates are telling me to visit Hungary…

Back to the hotel then. Mom still alive and improving – but she did decide to skip tomorrow’s scheduled tour to Trang An. More to come on that!

Ha Long Bay

The ride out to Ha Long Bay was a bit more than three hours and was pretty much uneventful. Not a whole lot in the way of extraordinary scenery, but it was interesting to see a glimpse of life outside bustling Hanoi.

Got to the piers and were rather quickly on board our boat, our cruise manager Huy getting us all sorted. We were on a charming and comfortable barge with six cabins, run by Bhaya Cruises. Besides Mom and me, there was a family of American ex-pats currently living in Hong Kong – husband and wife and their 9-year-old daughters. And that was it! Almost like our own private boat.

Ha Long Bay is really just as beautiful as I’d been led to believe. Yes, there are a lot of tourist boats out on the water – but most of them are quite lovely to look at and there’s enough space around that it doesn’t feel like a full-on armada. There are also plenty of local fisherman out making their living on the bay, along with some occasional giant work liners off in the distance. I never tired of gazing at the fishing boats and the men and women working on them. Just fascinating to see a tiny slice of a life so different than anything I know.

Of course, the real draw are the hundreds of islands in the bay – from tiny rock outcroppings to pretty substantial limestone islands towering above the water. It’s pretty much impossible to tire of gazing at them – especially from a comfy chair on the top deck. We visited several islands over the course of our two nights aboard and also got to do some kayaking and swimming. It was relaxing and wonderful – plus we were looked after by a very friendly crew who made sure we were kept well-fed and happy.

There’s not really a whole lot more for me to say about this trip. I loved it and the timing was pretty great, giving us a break from the urban intensity of Hong Kong and Hanoi. I think the photos speak for themselves.

Hong Kong to Hanoi

Our last day in Hong Kong! And it’s one of those kind of weird last days: our flight isn’t until after 5PM, so we have some time to do stuff in town – but not really that much time since we need to get to the airport, deal with luggage, etc.

The original plan was to visit the Asia Society for a photography exhibit, then have a reputed-to-be-excellent dim sum lunch at one of the fancy hotels. Well, given our track record with fancy expensive meals, Mom and I decided to head back to Joy Hing for a breakfast of char siu – it was amazing, of course and only about US$8 for two. As much as that dim sum place seemed interesting – and probably tasty! – I’m glad I went with a third trip to Joy Hing for their incredible bbq pork as my last meal in Hong Kong.

The Asia Society is a pretty cool venue in and of itself. It’s a modern exterior built into the side of a hill. After passing through the entrance then up to quite lovely roof garden, one heads back to three old British colonial buildings used to store arms back in the day. They’ve been updated with the middle converted to an exhibition space.

The show itself, Picturing Asia, was a “conversation” between photographs taken during monsoon season by Brian Brake and Steve McCurry. There is a clear streak of exocitizing of Asian people and culture in the works of both photographers – I wouldn’t go so far as to say fetishization, so I guess that’s good?- and I just recently read a critic refer to McCurry’s work as boring. But I found much of the imagery to be quite striking – and McCurry in particular is adept engaging the viewer in the humanity of his subjects.

It wasn’t a large show, so it proved to be just the right way to wrap up our stay in Hong Kong.

Had an uneventful transit through HKG and arrived in Hanoi on schedule (flying in coach! #howdreadful). Made it to the MK Premier Boutique Hotel wiith nary a problem and were ready for bed soon after arrival. We’d been upgraded to large suites – IKR? – which was pretty deluxe. So, we had huge rooms each – but they weren’t the most thoughtfully laid out: no dresser or other drawers; the bathroom was large but with a huge, high-sided tub/shower which was a bit of an ordeal to climb into; not much space to lay out one’s toiletries; and the AC seemed to struggle to keep the room cool. But still – the staff was friendly and accommodating and the lobby bar on the front patio proved a nice location to knock back a few beers.

This part of the Old Quarter is also home to some rather prominent boots-and-pants-and-boots-and-pants song stylings from the backpacker bars along the street  and it was rather audible from our rooms at the front of the hotel. Happily, though, it turned out not to interfere too much with sleep and Mom and I both slept well.

Spent our first full day in Hanoi touring with Guang and Kien, two young men from Hanoi Free Walking Tours. It’s a total win-win: they get to practice their English and we get a local perspective on the city. We visited several temples, ambled through the French Quarter, had some coffee in a “secret” cafe on a rooftop overlooking the lake and a great lunch at a big, busy Vietnamese place where our guides ordered for us. Needless to say the lunch was delicious. Also stopped at Hỏa Lò Prison, which was grimly fascinating – and a stark reminder of the cruelty of colonialism.

After our walk our guides delivered us to Spa SF, where I’d made appointments for Mom and me – she for a foot treatment, me for the whole works: massage, reflexology, facial. WELL. It was delightful and I was very happy with my treatments – though I’m not sure how happy the therapist was with my snoring during the facial component.

It had been a long day, so Mom and I just had some snacks and cocktails on the roof of our hotel and called it a day. Tomorrow we out to Ha Long Bay for a two-night boat excursion.

Monday in Hong Kong

Woke up about 4:00 Monday morning and decided to get a jump on our visit to see the Big Buddha on Lantau Island by pre-ordering our tickets for the cable car ride up. The site to book directly required printing the tix (IKR?), so I used Klook – the travel aggregator/reseller I’d used to book my ill-fated airport pick-up at HKG. But it seemed legit – order via their app and you get instant confirmation and a voucher sent directly to your phone. What could go wrong?

Well, after placing my non-refundable order, instead of a confirmation, I got a “we’re still processing your order” – and this being a local holiday, Klook’s help desk doesn’t open until 9:30AM which was exactly the time I planned to already be at the cable car desk redeeming my voucher. So, this was infuriating. I was able to contact them at about 9:31AM from our destination and get things sorted and the voucher was delivered. But I shan’t be using Klook’s services again…

Anyway, the cable car ride up to see the Buddha was pretty cool. There’s a pretty good stretch of the trip that provides a fantastic view of Hong Kong’s airport and I loved watching all the planes taking off and landing. We also got to watch from above as the many more physically fit types hiked up the mountain via the well-maintained but no doubt grueling trail to the top.

The Buddha is quite magnificent, with his serene expression and raised hand. To get up close, a hike up  what I seem to recall is 268 steps from the bottom – not too bad, but definitely a trek! Great views from the top, both of the surroundings and of the Buddha.

After making it back down, we treated ourselves to the vegetarian lunch served at the Po Lin Monastery. It was decent, though nothing to write home about – and certainly superior to the Subway sandwich shop we’d passed on the way in.

The ride back down on the cable car was as nice as the ride up – and I felt like quite the smart tourist for getting an early start. The lines to ride up were massive and here we were already on our way back into town!

Mom and I decided to go our separate ways: she headed back to the history museum and I decided to check out the Tea Museum. It was OK, but I did have a nice walk through the park. On my way back to the hotel, I treated myself to a match latte followed by a foot massage at a little place near the hotel called Sala Raj. Not luxurious by any means, but very well-priced and really excellent service. After five days of non-stop walking, my dogs were barking – and I left here feeling like a million bucks.

Dinner was at Mott 32, a trendy space done up in a sort of 1930s Shanghai-via-Hollywood with a dash of tiki. Drinks were tasty and the food was quite good – though also quite pricey. And as much as we enjoyed our meal, it didn’t seem to have as good a price-to-value ratio as some of the simpler joints we’d tried. I guess that’s pretty much true everywhere in the world…  I will say that I loved the dessert. Maybe a post-modern Moonpie? Chilled disks of chocolate mousse enrobed in a matcha couverture and encrusted with sesame seeds. Simple tastes with a nice variety of textures. Really delicious!

Back to the hotel to start wrapping up our visit to Hong Kong. We fly tomorrow to Hanoi – though not until late afternoon, so we’ll probably squeeze in one or two more activities…

More from Hong Kong

The one nice thing about jet lag flying from US to Asia is one generally wakes up early. So, on Sunday morning, Mom and I were in a taxi to Victoria Peak before 9AM, bypassing the popular tram to the top in favor of trying to beat the crowds. It turned out to be a good decision. The ride up was quick and the Peak was still pretty calm.

It’s always a bit of question mark as to whether or not it’s really worth going to tourist spots – be they peaks or tall buildings – whose primary attraction is a view. In this case though, I think it was worthwhile – not just because the views are pretty spectacular, but I also felt like I had a better grasp of Hong Kong’s geography (at least the parts north of Victoria Peak).

It certainly looks like one could make a whole morning of a visit, thanks to trails that circle the Peak – but Mom and I took in the views and posed for photos with our feet in the fetid, ringworm-infested pretend Nikes in front of Bubba Gump’s (no we did not) before taking the tram down the hill.

The tram was great fun – not least because there was no line to board and only about a half dozen other passengers headed down the hill with us. And what a hill! I’m a semi-regular rider of the California St. cable car back home in SF and I think the Peak Tram has it beat in terms of how steep some portions of the ride are.

Upon arriving at the terminus, we were even happier with our decision to get an early start, as the line was already huge to ride the tram up. I love feeling like a smart tourist!

Took the subway over the Causeway, primarily so I could visit the basement food hall at Sogo, home to an outpost of Bake, one of Japan’s more well-known cheese tart purveyors. The food hall was fun to see (though rather unassuming compared to some I’d seen in Tokyo #humblebrag) and I got us a couple of cheese tarts to go.

We went off in search of lunch at Times Square mall. I guess I was expecting something more akin to my favorite malls in Bangkok – namely a huge and tempting food court and wide variety of restaurants. This was not the case. There were a few cafes and restaurants, but pretty limited in scope. I did find another place on the map and they had a good selection of restaurants up on the top several floors – though sadly it was only 11AM and most hadn’t yet opened. But we found a place serving dim sum and had a reasonable meal before heading back to the hotel.

Oh, and about those Bake cheese tarts? We ate them back at the hotel and they were sublime. Tangy, creamy filling; not too sweet; and the crusty like the happy offspring of a cookie and a pie crust. Delicious! Thankfully they have an outpost in Bangkok, so I’ll be able to find another one this trip.

Our afternoon was taken up with our last walking tour. I’ve included some of the photos I took during the tour – but I’m not going to go into much detail about the tour itself other than to say Mom and I were extraordinarily disappointed, particularly considering its exorbitant price (though we did have a good lunch and I loved my beef brisket noodle soup). Of the three tours we took in HKG, this was by far the least enjoyable – and with a price tag more than triple the others.*

But we did visit parts of Hong Kong away from the center, so it was nice to see a different part of the city. We also stumbled across a dragon boat race competition, which was fun to watch.

Later that night, we had drinks at tiki bar I’d read about called Honi Honi. It’s up on the third floor of one of Hong Kong’s many non-descript looking office buildings – but inside is like a little slice of ersatz Polynesia and even includes an outdoor terrace. We really liked this place – and my favorite drink was the Maori Spring Punch: vodka, watermelon, lemongrass, Thai chile. Yum!

Dinner was at Little Bao. I’d heard about it in my research for this trip and Yvonne, our guide from the other day, pointed it out to us on our walk and said it was really good. She was not wrong! Started with a plate of brussels sprouts, prepared Thai style with fish sauce and chiles – really delicious.

We got a fish sandwich and a fried chicken sandwich for dinner. Very tasty! I was pretty full but forced myself to have some dessert – a fried bao sandwich filled with match ice cream and topped with condensed milk. Oh man… I was super-full, but glad I made room for it.

Made another early night of it and hopped on the tram back to the hotel. Tomorrow we visit Lantau Island and the Big Buddha!

* I contacted the owner of the tour company once I was back home in SF and provided a detailed account of all of the things that made for a sub-par tour. I’m happy to report that she refunded the entire price immediately (over US$500) with no questions and an apology that she hadn’t done a successful job matching us with a guide. I was very happy with this response – though even if we’d had an excellent guide, I didn’t see how there’d be much to differentiate this company’s tours from those offered by other companies. Certainly not enough to warrant a price more than triple any of the others I took in Hong Kong – or anywhere else in the world for that matter.