Chin to Chin Recap

Toronto Phodown Presents, Eastern Promises Presents: Chin to Chin
“I Have Always Felt Reinforced and Stimulated by the Temperate Climate”

Chin to Chin chronicles my explorations of Vietnam and Hong Kong with Mikey (from @ZeroWritingCredits). This is the eleventh and final part of the story.

I Have Always Felt Reinforced and Stimulated by the Temperate Climate

The above is a quote from a quote from David Landes’ The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. It always stuck with me – maybe because of the diction. Probably not for the meaning. I never really gave the latter a whole lot of thought.

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But having both lived in Hong Kong during the tail end of the summer, and experiencing several different climates as Mikey and I traveled from Hanoi’s downright chilly winter to sweaty, steamy Saigon, I think I finally got that quote’s full meaning. For those not familiar with Landes’ thesis, he uses a variety of cultural and anthropological measures to explain Western exceptionalism. My friend and erstwhile colleague Azim gave it to me, describing it as a companion piece to Guns, Germs and Steel which takes a more biological position. The quote is from one colonialist’s experience in the tropics, in particular how sapping he found the hot weather.

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I’ve always been more of a summer guy, and it gets damned hot in DC in the Summer. I’ve also been to China in the Summer and experienced some steamy weather there. But I don’t think I ever noticed just how draining continued exposure to hot and humid weather can be before living in Hong Kong. Maybe people get used to it. I never did.

It’s also a good organizational mechanism for this recap, where Mikey and I started with boundless energy in Hanoi and eventually found ourselves taking long, long air-con breaks in HCMC.

I never really described it in earnest, but the trip started in Hong Kong, where Mikey and I luxuriated for about a day and half. Most of the ground has been covered elsewhere in the blog as we dined mostly on dim sum and cha chaan teng.

From there we spent a few days in Hanoi, where we tried desperately to make the most of every moment. It’s where I have the fondest memories and a place I would truly like to return. The old town is a very walkable area, a place where it’s easy to get lost but not entirely unpleasant when that occurs. It’s also where I had the most memorable pho experience of my life. Ha Long bay was breathtaking at times, but it’s hard to not wish we had been there in the summer, when chilly moments in the boat would likely be replaced with splashing in the sea.

From the North, we took a train down to De Nang. Mikey would probably want a redo on this one (he got sick on the train), but I loved it. Rushing through narrow passages in cities and innumerable rice paddies, the train trip made me feel more connected to the people and places of Vietnam than any other mode of travel.

I think we’d both count our first night in De Nang as the most memorable, mainly for the adorable little girl who brought us beer she bought at a local convenience store. We’d also both count touristy De Nang as a low point, both for narrowly making it out of there and for the lack of authentic food.

Finally, Saigon was as fast-paced, gritty and sweaty as we imagined. Still it was home to one of the best phos of my life, and for that I will always have fond memories.

As with any good trip, it wasn’t just the places we saw and foods we ate, but the people we met. Jonnie was an excellent tour guide in Ha Long Bay and I still think about him frequently. There was something his story about going to university, finishing early and his very strong pride in his work that makes him a memorable character. I’ll also never forget him breaking into song several times during the tour. Mr. Henry and Mr. David, two other travelers in Ha Long Bay also made a strong impression both for their long history of traveling and strong sense of camaraderie.

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Annie, the (male) owner of the Pink Tulip, was also quite a character. We had read quite a bit about him as he replies to EVERY Trip Advisor review. This actually attracted us a great deal to the hotel as it was clear he cared a great deal about his business. It was also hard not to chuckle at the testy back-and-forths between him and guests with very innocuous complaints. A theme was guests’ discomfort with pushy massage salesmen working out of the hotel. Annie was adamant that the two businesses were separate but just shared space in the lobby. But in our experience this was a tenuous distinction as the night worker at the hotel also worked at the massage parlor during the day. Oh well.

Finally, there was Mr. Tong at the Royal Palace Hotel in Hanoi. While a smidge pushier than the staffers at the Pink Tulip, Mr. Tong was incredibly helpful and seemingly quite concerned that we left with a good impression of Hanoi.

Despite being exhausted by the end of the trip, Chin to Chin in Vietnam proved a transformative experience and one I hope to repeat one day.

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Vietnam to HK: The Reckoning

Toronto Phodown Presents, Eastern Promises Presents: Chin to Chin
Vietnam to HK: The Reckoning

Chin to Chin chronicles my explorations of Vietnam and Hong Kong with Mikey (from @ZeroWritingCredits). This is the tenth part of the story.

There wasn’t really a last day in Vietnam since we had to wake up quite early for a flight to HK. Moreover, unlike the Pink Tulip, our new hotel didn’t have breakfast included so there wasn’t a chance for some easy early morning eats. I will say, however, that the cab ride to the airport was great. It wasn’t via highway or freeway like you’d expect, but instead zipped through seemingly every side street in HCMC, giving us a great final experience watching the city wake up.

After a decent meal on the plane – Vietnam Airways treated us well throughout the journey – we arrived in HK and plotted our next moves. I had class from 6:30 to 9:30 (PM) and Mikey wanted to eke the most out of the remainder of his journey. We decided to check into our hotel (Mingle with the Star, a weird place, where you feel like you are in a little spaceship), FINALLY grab some BBQ at Joy Hing, and then check out my school.

joy hing roast goose

Joy Hing had been on our radar since Mikey arrived, but we hadn’t made it work up until that point. Tony Bordain recommended it in one of his HK episodes, and a friend from school swore by it. It turned out to be as good as we expected – truly a rare occurrence in most areas of life. We got roasted pork, pig and goose. The goose, as Bordain noted, was the standout. Dripping with goose-grease (a term I’ve been drying to use) it was subtly seasoned such that the flavor from the meat and skin shone through. The only complaint is that in the cold restaurant, it was really only warm for the first couple of minutes.

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Afterwards I went to class while Mikey messed around the campus, doing some live blogging from the computer lab. We ended our trip at a nondescript cha chaan teng where we had a perfectly competent chicken congee and beef chow fun.

Time seemed to fly from there as we crashed early and Mikey took off early the next morning.

Post mortem to come.

Big Wave Bay (Hong Kong)

Eastern Promises 7: Big Wave Bay and Noodles with Ken

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A new friend and fellow student, Ken, organized a trip to the beach last weekend. He proposed we go to Big Wave Bay, which is just a quick subway and bus ride away from downtown. The rub is that he thought we should we get off the bus early and hike to the beach.

Trying to be open to new experiences, I agreed.

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In fact, the trip unfolded precisely as he suggested, but I didn’t realize how challenging a hike it would be. Largely uphill, we navigated the jungle stopping briefly at incredible vistas of the beach and mountains. Fortunately, we had loaded up on bottles of water and Chinese buns.

Although I was in good shape before I left for this trip, a month of eating noodles and not exercising has left me in poor form. The hike was a wake up call, not-so-gently telling me that I should shell out for a gym membership while I’m here.

A long conversation with Ken helped keep my mind off the pain. Ken is a terrific guy, but he recently has had second thoughts about his decision to practice law in SE Asia and is considering moving home. It’s a time of great transition for him, something I could certainly emphasize with. We had a great chat.

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The beach was beautiful, although full of kids. During my brief swim to wash off the jungle, I couldn’t help but notice a fair amount of trash in the water, which is disappointing. Afterwards, we stopped a little family run noodle shop and had a snack before heading home.

Eastern Promises 2: More New Five Dragon and settling in

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The past couple of days have seen me slowly start to settle in here in Hong Kong, buying power adapters, a cell phone and exploring the area. Yesterday I did my best to register for classes, but there is some strange rule that international students have to do so by some form that must be approved by a couple of different offices. By that time, most of the classes that interested me (and those earlier in the week) were full, so I’m stuck taking Chinese dispute resolution on Fridays. I will have to do my traveling from Saturday to Wednesday, but I guess that really isn’t so bad.

HK nights pt 2

The day before yesterday I explored Causeway Bay and attempted to get all my electronics shopping done. It turned out to not really be the best day or time for it – a crowded Sunday. I had awoken at at about three in the morning and by the time I made it to Causeway Bay, I was already sick of the world. I didn’t manage to find a cell phone I liked, and I got overcharged for a power converter, so it was not a great day by any means (except for a very nice coconut drink I got on the cheap).

I also discovered that Causeway is home to an Ikea, where the hotdogs are actually worse than the ones in the US and Canadian Ikeas.

exterior new five dragon

In terms of meals, I’ve had breakfast at New Five Dragon every day since getting here, exploring most of the English breakfast menu.

New Five Dragon

Yesterday I had the eggs, toast and pork chop with iced milk tea ($30 HKD).

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The eggs were expertly fried with deep orange yolks (which I, perhaps mistakenly, use as a gauge for the egg’s quality). I never had a pork chop for breakfast and this one was quite thin, but it made for a fine partnership with the eggs.

Today I went with the Chinese breakfast – sliced fish congee, shrimp cheung fun and, once again, iced milk tea.

congee at new five dragon

This ranks right up there as one of the best congees I’ve had along with Congee Noodle House in Vancouver. I think I prefer Congee Noodle House for its richness of flavor and deeper texture. But the flavor of Five Dragon’s version was excellent, redolent of ginger and pork. I thought the cheung fun was a bit greasy.

And rounding out my recap of meals, I had beef chow fun at Harmony restaurant last night, another HK cafe.

Harmony Restaurant

Once again, I was impressed with the efficiency and speed at which this place operates. And the the chow fun was quite good with a surprisingly generous amount of beef and good wok hay. The chow fun and iced lemon tea came to $60 HKD.

beef chow foon, harmony restaurant

My culinary explorations in Hong Kong have only just begun. And while I’m excited about what’s in store for me, I have to say that, for the sake of my health, I’m going to have to have a salad at some point.

Eastern Promises 1: Breakfast at New Green Dragon Congee & Noodle Restaurant

easternpromises

New Dragon Congee & Noodle Restaurant

Until my apartment is ready on Wednesday I’m staying at Hotel de Edge in Sheung Wan. I have to admit, I’m getting quite used to this hotel, which is surprisingly cheap right now despite getting four stars from Priceline. The room is tiny, but it’s immaculately clean, modern, and overlooks the harbor. Well, it wasn’t supposed to overlook the harbor, but when I checked in (well before check-in time), it was the only room available and I was either able to sweet talk the front desk clerk, or she felt pity for the guy who had just endured 20 hours of travel, depending on how you look at it.

New Five Dragon menu

The time difference is an issue. Despite my best efforts, I fell asleep last night around seven at night and woke up at two in the morning. It was nice watching the harbor light up outside my window. And I got some writing done and selected my classes (more or less). But boy, I’m getting tired already.

Around seven this morning I went out for a walk and for breakfast, ending up at an HK Cafe called New Five Green Dragon. I engaged with one of my eastern promises and went in, despite seeing no apparent Westerners, and despite the menus not being in English (something I’m scared of). Turns out, the guy handed me a (limited) English menu when I went in with four breakfast sets on it, each $27 HKD.

New Five Dragon Soup

I have some familiarity with HK Cafes from my time in Vancouver where they are quite popular. I had not been in one until today, but have heard and read about them extensively. Suanne and Ben from Chowtimes write about them frequently. From what I understand, they serve diner food reflecting the East meets West cuisine of Hong Kong. You can get things like instant noodles with a pork chop, eggs and toast, spaghetti with tomato sauce and various Chinese dishes. They are often served with strong black tea flavored with evaporated milk, with an small upcharge if you’d like that tea iced.

Back in the day I was obsessed with authenticity. It was part of the reason I dragged Desmond out to the Sichuan province when we went to China in 2006. I wanted to taste the purest expression of the food I’d come to love. I even wrote a piece about authenticity of tacos for my old website, Eat Vancouver. I’d link to it now, but it redirects to a spam site for a reason only apparent to the individual I handed the website off to.

I haven’t softened on authenticity as much as I’ve come to understand it’s much more complicated than I thought it once was. I used to decry the Americanized Chinese food served at so many restaurants in the US and Canada. But who is to say they don’t provide an authentic form of culinary expression themselves (much in the way that HK cafes were born of a melding of Eastern and Western tastes in this capitalist haven in East Asia, an idea that itself was then ported to Vancouver)?

These are thoughts best left to someone with his wits about him. Let’s just say I just copied the Chinese guys next to me and got noodle soup with beef and iced tea. The total came to $30 HKD (a shade above $4 CAD). It was delicious. The noodles were instant, and the broth had a bit more depth than what you’d get out of a packet. The beef was type that’s dipped in corn starch and then quickly sauteed in some sauce. The tea was cold and creamy with an herbal note from the dark tea. I found the texture a bit muddy, almost grainy, which was somewhat off-putting.

I don’t know.  Maybe it was the brutally efficient service, the fact that some grizzled HK cafe vet in the kitchen, who had surely put together thousands of these in his life, made it, or the fact that I was sitting in a beat up little room across the street from a skyscraper, but I loved it.