TRAVEL // HONG KONG AS A FIRST TIME VISITOR

Hong Kong may be a small island, but it certainly packs a punch. Called "The Pearl of the Orient," Hong Kong is dazzling, frenzied, exciting and expensive. It's one of the most vibrant and bustling cities in the world and a place of contradictions where traditional old China meets flashy modern developments. I wasn't sure what to expect on my first visit but I absolutely loved Hong Kong. We had three days to explore the city, and while I think that's long enough to see the basics, it left me wanting more.

The fast-paced and crowded nature of the city can make it overwhelming for tourists, With so much to do, see, eat and explore it's hard to know where to start. As a first time tourist to Hong Kong, it helped me to categorize my trip in buckets... What I wanted to taste, what I wanted to see and what I wanted to explore.

TASTE

No trip to Hong Kong is complete without some dim sum. "Dum sum" roughly translates to "touch the heart." It's a traditional Chinese cuisine style where food is prepared in small bite-size pieces served in steamer baskets or on small plates. The dim sum dishes are served with tea and typically eaten as a breakfast or early lunch meal and it's a vital part of Chinese culture, specifically in southern China and Hong Kong. Some favorite dim sum dishes include shumai (a kind of  dumpling), steamed buns and egg tarts.

If you're looking for the city's best dim sum, make a beeline to Tim Ho Won, one of the most famous dim sum establishments and the world's cheapest Michelin star restaurant. Other well regarded dim sum spots are Mott 32 for a more modern experience and Yan Toh Heen.

Aside from dim sum, Hong Kong is packed with amazing restaurants, bars and cafes. Some favorite spots from my trip include funky modern Chinese spot Ho Lee Fook and trendy speakeasy joint Ronin which serves Japanese tapas and boasts a robust whisky menu.


SEE


First time visitors to Hong Kong must travel up to Victoria Peak and take in the city views from above. You can take the peak tram up the mountain and take in the sights as the buildings become smaller and it seems like you're standing on top of the city. Take a day trip out to Lantau Island to see Tian Tan Buddha, aka the Big Buddha. You'll travel via cable car up a mountain to the Buddha's base. Once you arrive it's up to you if you want to walk the 268 steps to see the massive bronze statue up close.


EXPLORE


Take in the sights and sounds of one of Hong Kong's bustling street markets. The markets offer a unique shopping experience where you're sure to find anything you need, and plenty of stuff you don't. Remember that haggling is expected and don't be shy to try to score yourself the best price possible. Here's a list of the best markets. Spending an evening in Lan Kwai Fong, the city's top nightlife area, is a must. This vibrant neighborhood features Hong Kong's trendiest bars and restaurants perched upon and some tucked into it's hilly streets. Sevva is a gorgeous rooftop bar that offers creative cocktails and sweeping city views, Quinary makes some of the city's best cocktails and Foxglove is a speakeasy jazz bar.


STAY

I stayed in The Park Lane hotel and recommend it. The staff is great, the location is perfectly central in Causeway Bay and the rooms are comfortable with nice amenities.

TRAVEL

Hong Kong is a hub in Asia, and there are tons of flights daily. I flew direct from Newark on United and despite their horrible press recently, I really enjoyed the experience. You can upgrade your seat to "economy plus" which offers more leg room and is worth it for the long haul. Once on the ground in Hong Kong don't take a taxi into the city center! The Airport Express train is easy to navigate, cheap and quick. Also, if you're returning to the HK airport to fly home you can check your bag through at the Airport Express train station! Super easy, fast and convenient! Can we please adopt Airport Express in NYC?!

Hong Kong is packed with amazing things to see, do and experience. This post is just the tip of the iceberg of things you can do there. Have you been to Hong Kong? What are your must-dos?

TRAVEL // PHU QUOC, VIETNAM ISLAND GUIDE

ABOUT PHU QUOC
Phu Quoc is a gorgeous tropical island off of Vietnam in the Gulf of Thailand, situated near Cambodia. The island is about an hour flight from Ho Chi Minh City, but seems worlds away.

WHY VISIT
Phu Quoc is still relatively under the radar as a tourist spot, but that's sure to soon change with the addition of a new JW Marriott hotel... so book your tickets now! I've never been to Phuket or the Thai islands, but there 's a lot of debate online about which islands to go to in South East Asia. It seems like a major benefit of Phu Quoc is the relative lack of tourists.

GETTING THERE
Phu Quoc has a small international airport. I was originally supposed to fly in on China Southern Airlines from Guangzhou, but due to weather issues the first leg of my flight was delayed and I missed my connection to Phu Quoc. I was able to easily change to an inexpensive VietJet flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Phu Quoc (they offer multiple flights a day). VietJet offers inexpensive flights throughout Vietnam with many going to Phu Quoc each day. You can also take a ferry to the island. 


WHERE TO STAY
I stayed at Salinda Resort and I can't recommend it enough! It definitely goes down as one of my favorite hotels I've stayed at. The resort is situated on gorgeous Long Beach in the middle of the island. While the grounds are stunning with a beautiful infinity pool, stately palm trees and beautiful gardens, the staff  really makes this a five star resort. The entire Salinda Resort staff went out of their way to be accommodating and helpful during our stay. 

Another major stand out point of the hotel was the food! While you'll definitely find food options off property (more on that below!) we enjoyed having a few meals at the resort. We especially loved the breakfast, which was included in our stay, and was one of the nicest, most expansive breakfast buffets I've encountered. Our morning guava mimosas and Vietnamese iced coffees were the perfect way to fuel up for the day! While there are plenty of budget and less expensive hotel options on Phu Quoc, I highly recommend spending a little extra and trying out Salinda.




WHAT TO DO
Bai Sao Beach
Being an island, the main draw of Phu Quoc are its gorgeous beaches. I absolutely loved Bai Sao beach for the fun swing, sugar-white sand and easy access to Paradiso restaurant and (clean!) bathrooms.



An Thoi Islands
If you're on Phu Quoc you must visit the An Thoi islands. An Thoi is actually the name of the harbor on the southern tip of the island. From here you can get on a boat and visit some of the small islands and coves off of Phu Quoc. There are a few ways to go about doing this, but my research led me to Mr. Phu, a local who owns a boat and gives visitors tours of the islands. Mr. Phu can take you out for the whole day or to specific islands. We did a five hour trip and stopped at two places (Mong Tay and Ram Ri). We spent a long time at Mong Tay, but if I went back I'd want to see more of the farther islands. Mr. Phu was amazing, it was a great private tour with his brother and a helper and was only around $80 USD for the five hours! You can reach Mr. Phu at 0123 7799 141. He speaks a little bit of English, but we had people at our hotel call to ensure nothing was lost in translation.


I was so excited to visit my first Asian night market, and Phu Quoc's definitely didn't disappoint! Dinh Cau offers a sensory overload of food vendors, shops, outdoor bars and tourist stands piled into a narrow road with tourists and locals hanging out and motorbikes speeding by. Phu Quoc is known for their pearls, and there are plenty of shops in the night market selling them. I've been wanting a specific type of pearl bracelet and one of the shops custom made it for me. I can't remember the shop name, but I think it's called Roberta's and it's its right at the beginning of the market on the left hand side. I'm not sure I got the best deal, but it was certainly cheaper than a custom pearl bracelet in the states and the people were great to work with.

WHERE TO EAT
May Restaurant - For fresh seafood and vegetables grilled outside, the BEST crab fried rice and super affordable prices

Bun Cha Ha Noi - Bun cha is a traditional northern Vietnamese dish of vermicelli noodles, grilled pork (or you can get it without), fresh herbs and a lukewarm soup like dipping sauce. Bun Cha Ha Noi is THE spot to go on Phu Quoc if you're interested in trying this dish... it's the only thing on the menu! The lady who runs the restaurant is so sweet and the meal is delicious, and super inexpensive!



Paradiso - Paradiso is location on Bai Sao Beach and has gorgeous ocean views. I don't know if I'd necessarily go there to eat if I wasn't spending time on the beach, but it's a great spot for cocktails and small bites like spring rolls and calamari



Grilled Seafood on Mong Tay - If you do the An Thoi island trip there's a good chance one of your first stops will be on Mong Tay. Island locals have set up a sort of make shift restaurant grilling freshly caught seafood and selling ice cold beer. Do not miss this!

Beer Garden Dong Phu - Phu Quoc's own microbrewery with two types of beer, light and dark. The outdoor beer garden is a great place to spend the evening and the staff is lovely.

TRAVEL // 24-HOURS IN SHANGHAI

Shanghai is such an electric, buzzing city. Population-wise it completely blows New York City out of the water, with TRIPLE the amount of residents (24 million)! It was our first stop on our Asia trip and a perfect entry point for my first time in China. The first week of our trip was spent in China, and had a work component to it, so unfortunately we were on a bit of a timeline. We did, however, get to spend 24 hectic, thrilling, eye-opening hours in Shanghai before taking the high speed train to Hangzhou for the work portion of our trip. Although our time there was short, I think we were able to do A LOT and really get a feel for the city. If you're pressed for time in Shanghai, here are my recommendations for must-dos in a 24-hour timeframe. 

MORNING
9:00-11:00

Try an egg pancake (jian bing) for breakfast. Jian bing is a savory crepe with different fillings, most frequently cilantro, scallions and a variety of sauces. They're a very popular Shanghai street vendor breakfast food and you're sure to find someone selling them along your way to our first stop.


Start your day in Shanghai with a walk along The Bund an iconic waterfront area that's regarded as the symbol of the city. This area is known for its diversity in architectural styles and you can see various buildings designed in Gothic, Baroque, Romanesque and Renaissance styling. I suggest starting your day here to get a quick walk in as well as some photographs of the well known vistas before it gets overrun with tourists!


AFTERNOON
12:00-4:00

Visit the Yuyuan Garden and Bazaar. Yuyuan Garden, known as "Yu Garden" is a classic Chinese garden built in the 1500's by a rich family of Ming Dynasty officials. The architecture is gorgeous and serene, with numerous ponds, pavilions, rockeries and hidden pathways. Spend a couple hours getting lost in the gardens, soaking up the classical design and admiring the foliage. Next, walk around the neighboring Yuyuan Bazaar, a touristy area with shops, restaurants and teahouses. The bazaar's narrow streets can get quite packed, but is worth a walkthrough. Pop into different shops and make lunch out of sampling food from the variety of vendor stalls. Don't miss the delicious crab xiao long bao (soup dumplings).



EVENING
5:00-7:00

Grab a cocktail before dinner. If you're in Shanghai in the warmer months visit Sir Elly's Terrace bar on the roof of the Peninsula Hotel for delicious cocktails and amazing views of The Bund skyline at night. If beer is more your speed, a visit to Boxing Cat Brewery is a must. It's not exactly Chinese, but it's one of the first microbreweries in China producing quality craft beer.

NIGHT
8:00-10:00

Of course there's no shortage of amazing and diverse restaurants in Shanghai. Din Tai Fung is a highly regarded xiao long bao chain that's sure to provide some of the best dumplings you've ever had. Fu 1088 is a great dinner option if you only have one night in Shanghai. It serves traditional Shanghainese cuisine set in a charming 1930's colonial villa chock full with antiques.


HOTEL
We stayed at the Fairmont Peace Hotel and loved it. It's a very historic Art-Deco hotel right across from The Bund. Its central location makes it easy to fit in all your sightseeing in a short amount of time!

*photo one via

Travel // Planning Your First Trip to Asia


I'm so excited to be heading on a pretty big adventure next week... to China and Vietnam! I've been dying to go to Asia and I'll get to cross visiting a new country off my 2017 goals list. Everything came together pretty quickly for this trip and it's been a bit of a whirlwind to plan in a short time.

As I've been figuring out an itinerary, I find myself referencing a post I wrote about planning a BIG trip before I went to Africa. So many of those points hold true for this Asia trip, especially the google travel map (if you haven't made one before, you need to for your next vacation!). But planning this adventure is proving to be much more complicated than Africa. The intense language barrier, Chinese internet limitations and strict visa requirements are all new-to-me travel issues. Needless to say, I've been learning a lot. Below are some tips and important things to keep in mind if you plan a trip to Asia.

Find out if you need a visa
I've needed visas to travel before, but never had as tricky a time getting one as this trip! In Africa we only needed them for Zambia and Zimbabwe and they could be purchased right at the border- super easy. We need visas for both China and Vietnam, and they must be obtained before you travel. That means filling out the paperwork, gathering and printing all necessary documents (hotel reservations, flight confirmations, a note from your employer) and carving out time to go to the Consulate or Embassy of China (the lines are LONG!). The visas take a few days to process, so make sure you plan ahead or else you'll have to pay a hefty fee to expedite. They're also pretty pricey, expedited or not, so if you're on a tight budget this is something to consider.
*A note on the paperwork for the Chinese visa- you have to be very careful here. They are extremely particular and will send you away if anything is wrong (like not typing out the application in all capital letters!). The Yelp page for the China Consulate was super helpful as I planned and prepared. Our experience getting our Vietnam visa was easier and more straightforward than China.

long lines outside the Consulate of China
Figure out your phone situation
It is possible to use your cell phone in China, but it's complicated. Most phones are network locked to a specific carrier (Verizon, AT&T, etc) and won't work in China. It's an option to unlock your phone, but it won't always work. Likewise, you can purchase a cheap unlocked "burner" phone to use abroad, but that may not work in China. I opted to get a month long international plan on my phone and plan to mainly use wifi. After you figure out your phone, you still have to deal with the "great firewall of China" aka the blocking of many sites we use daily- Facebook, Twitter, Gmail. To get past this you can download a VPN (Virtual Private Network). There are a lot of VPN apps out there and this site outlines the best ones.

Bring local currency with you
Plan to arrive in your destination with local currency already on you. Changing money ahead of time is likely to be cheaper (some banks even have no fee) and it will definitely be less expensive than doing it at the airport. Taxis in China don't take credit card, so you'll need cash on hand to get to your hotel or destination. 

I hope these tips help anyone planning a trip to Asia! When I return I'll do a follow up post of the top things I learned while traveling in Asia for the first time. Be sure to follow along on Instagram!

*photo via