With its neon lights, towering skyscrapers, bustling street markets and extreme population density, Hong Kong can be an overwhelming place. This East/West hybrid is both fascinating and frenetic, so it pays to prepare yourself properly before heading into its fray. On one hand, the city offers a unique culture, fabled history, excellent cuisine and world-class attractions. On the other hand, its intense pace, crowds, smells and contrasts can be dizzying to a visitor. There are plenty of websites out there telling you what to see and do in Hong Kong. However, to experience the city at its fullest, you’ll also need to know what to avoid. Here’s a list of things NOT to do in Hong Kong.
1. Don’t Choose the Cheapest Place to Stay
Accommodation in Hong Kong can be extremely expensive. As such, many budget-conscious visitors are tempted to book the cheapest place possible, but this is a mistake. By choosing rock-bottom hotels, hostels and guesthouses, you’ll likely find yourself in a tiny room with substandard conditions. Chungking Mansion, for example, is a legendary magnet for penny-pinching backpackers, but this crowded Nathan Road flea bag is a fire trap rampant with petty crime and drunken patrons. These days, to beef up security, it’s decked out with CCTV cameras so your every move is being watched. You don’t need to splash out for a fancy hotel, but be prepared to spend a bit more to get a room that is safe and comfortable, and do a little research to pick a place with good reviews.
2. Don’t Spit
Anyone who travels in China knows that it’s a spitting culture, where people (especially the older generation) spray saliva on the streets with abandon. It can be a little unsettling for the genteel traveler, especially when the spitter chews red Betal nuts and their sputum looks like blood. Chalk it up to a cultural difference, as it’s just not considered rude there. Some believe it helps ward off evil spirits. However, cross over to Hong Kong and it is prohibited to spit in public. In fact, you can be fined up to HK$5,000 for doing so.
3. Don’t Assume Hong Kong is as Free and Open as the West
Under British rule for 156 years, Hong Kong reverted back to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 as is now a “Special Administrative Region.” While mainland China is communist, Hong Kong enjoys a limited democracy. It’s a complex dance between the two influences, essentially “one country, two systems.” The basic law of Hong Kong ensures that their government “shall safeguard the rights and freedoms of the residents.” Clearly, Hong Kong embraces more legal freedoms than the People’s Republic of China does – including the right to assembly – but Beijing is starting to flex its power more and more, as was seen in the recent electoral reforms (only candidates that supported China’s party line were deemed eligible). Activists in Hong Kong have taken to the streets to protest this encroaching influence from the mainland. Some believe that e-mails are being monitored and Internet censorship is happening. Travelers should be aware of these rising tensions and be cautious about engaging in politically charged communications.
4. Don’t Be Squeamish
Hong Kong has been nicknamed the “Fragrant Harbour,” and it can be a sensory overload for visitors not used to its many pungent aromas, cacophonous noises and unfamiliar flavors. Some of the sights, smells, sounds and tastes can be off-putting if you don’t have the right attitude. Resist the instinct to cry “yuk” at the sight of chicken feet or the smell of durian. Embrace the chaos, indulge in new experiences, brave some street food and tolerate the assault on your familiar sensibilities. That’s part of the adventure of traveling to an exotic destination like HK.
5. Don’t Overpay at Street Markets
Hong Kong offers a vast range of exciting street markets where you can buy just about any type of consumer good imaginable. However, as is often the case with these sorts of establishments, tourists often end up giving in to pushy merchants and paying too much. Learn the art of haggling. If you can hone your bargaining skills, you will often be able to buy things for little over half the asking price. Knock-offs abound here, so make sure you know what you’re paying for.
6. Don’t Underestimate the Summer Heat
Hong Kong has a humid subtropical climate where summer temperatures during the daytime can be over 80 degrees, and the insufferable humidity can make it feel even more oppressive. You’ll also feel the sweltering heat a lot more in the crowded urban areas, so if you’re going sightseeing, you’ll need to be prepared. Instead of walking, consider using public transport to get around, and try to do your outdoor exploring in the cooler mornings or evenings. Bring plenty of water with you and take breaks in air-conditioned spaces along the way. On that note, the air-conditioning is often cranked up excessively cold, so if you’re popping in and out of buildings, you’ll go from one extreme to the other.
7. Don’t Take Taxis
Taxis have earned a bad reputation in many countries in the world, and Hong Kong is no exception. While you’re not likely to get ripped off if you stick only to official taxis, it is still an unnecessarily expensive way to get around. Also, due to the high traffic, it can take a long time to get anywhere through the gridlock. Instead, try using the efficient and affordable Mass Transit Railway (MTR) around the metropolis. Buy and Oyster Card if you’re going to use this more than a few times.
8. Don’t Take the Star Ferry at Rush Hour
With its huge crowds, Hong Kong can be an intense and daunting city for first-time visitors. The Star Ferry is a great way to get across the harbor between Kowloon and Hong Kong island, but avoid the peak times from 8 to 9:30am and 6 to 7pm, when the commuters make the congestion unbearable. Don’t expect to get anywhere fast by walking around the city center, either, as it’s thick with pedestrians. If you’re traveling with someone else, be sure to stick together, and have a way to keep in contact or a place to meet later on in the likely event that you lose each other.
9. Don’t Bother With the Sky Terrace
Hong Kong offers some spectacular city panoramas, but you don’t always need to pay extra for the view. Instead of going to popular and overpriced tourist traps such as the Sky Terrace, consider some of the other options. Take the escalator to the top of The Peak Galleria mall, where the viewing platform is free and the crowds are nil. Some other options include Central Plaza, the Bank of China, Two IFC and One Island East. There’s something offensive about paying to go up the Peak Tram and then having to shell out even more to gaze upon the Sky Terrace view.
10. Don’t Take the Peak Tram
Most people will tell you this is a must-do. The Peak is undoubtedly one of the best vantage points in Hong Kong, but taking the overpriced, over-crowded tourist tram up to the top isn’t the only way up there. Instead, if you’re fit, consider hiking up the hill using the designated footpaths. There are various trails and routes to consider. If you want to avoid the summer heat, you’ll need to go early in the morning.
11. Don’t Underestimate the Language Barrier
Although English remains an official language in Hong Kong, you’ll undoubtedly still find a major language barrier in certain areas. Learning a few basic Cantonese phrases (note, not Mandarin) is not as difficult as you might think, and it can go a long way. If you need to ask anyone for directions, try to find younger people to help, since they’re more likely to speak English. Be aware that taxi drivers rarely speak English, so have a map or written address on hand to convey where you want to go.
12. Don’t Forget about the Entry Requirements
While Hong Kong is an autonomous dependency of China, it has its own entry requirements. Citizens of the US and most western nations do not need any visa to visit Hong Kong for a period of less than 90 days. However, if you have a plan to pop over the boarder to Shenzhen (cheap shopping!) or other parts of mainland China, you will need a separate visa. If you are going to China, you can obtain a ten-year multiple-entry visa or a transit visa for visits of less than 72 hours.
13. Don’t Expect Traveling to Mainland China to be Easy
Although the city of Shenzhen is just across the border from Hong Kong, getting to mainland China is often fraught with delays. Most nationalities can get a visa at the border when traveling on the MTR system, but US nationals cannot. Instead, you will need to organize your documents beforehand if you intend to continue on to mainland China, even if only for a day trip. Things have gotten more streamlined in recent years, but when it comes to China, it’s always advisable to be prepared for bureaucratic hassles.
14. Don’t Bring Chinese Currency
While China uses the Yuan, Hong Kong still uses its own currency; the Hong Kong dollar. Although you shouldn’t have any problem changing money anywhere in the region, many visitors forget about the different currencies. If you’re arriving via mainland China, you’ll need to withdraw or change some money as soon as you get to Hong Kong.
15. Don’t Neglect the Rest of Hong Kong
Hong Kong is more than just skyscrapers and street markets. Beyond the bustling downtown of HK Island and the crazy crowds of Kowloon there are outlying communities and 260 small islands to explore. Over 70 per cent of Hong Kong is comprised of mountains and parks. Venture into the New Territories and you’ll find traditional walled towns like Kat Hing Wai. See the fishing villages on Lamma Island. Hit the beaches in Lantau. Surf in Big Wave Bay. Peruse the markets in Stanley and Repulse Bay. Visit Cheung Chau island and its Cheung Po Tsai pirate caves. Hong Kong a diverse and wondrous place well worth venturing beyond the core.