We arrived in Hong Kong on a dirty, smoggy day with shockingly low visibility. But we didn’t mind as we weren’t there for the view 🙂
[Hong Kong smog]
We had a packed itinerary for our week including arranging visas for China and Vietnam, vaccinations for the Asia trip, tax office, sorting out banking issues, camera repairs, check-ups with our doctor, dentist and optometrist, shopping for the next leg of the journey, as well as catching up with friends and colleagues, and visiting our favourite old haunts. We were staying in a serviced apartment in one of the busiest parts of HK, Causeway Bay which we had booked through the website AirBnB (see more below of our first experience with this site). Being in Causeway Bay, although convenient for getting everything done, was a shock to our system. We emerged each morning from our apartment onto a street teeming with people, busses, trams and taxis and into the din of honking horns and roaring traffic. We charged around for most of the day ticking off our list of chores, and in the evening caught up with friends or planned our attack for the following day. For the lazy idlers we have become, it was an exhausting week 🙂
Our first priority in HK was to get our China visa, and immediately afterwards to arrange the Vietnam visa, as each of these processes take several days. On our first visit to the China visa office we were stymied as we were missing some paperwork, so returned the next day. At this point we were told that a 3 month tourist visa was no longer available and the longest single trip we would be permitted was 1 month. We swallowed this disappointment reluctantly, and went ahead to apply for the 30 day visa. When we returned the following day just before the office closed, we found the visa had been issued…BUT with immediate effect, meaning that by the time we flew, we would only have 3 weeks in China. This seemed almost a waste of time, and money (at almost 100 USD per visa), so we declined the visa. ‘Declining’ the visa meant an amusing conversation with the visa office who couldn’t understand why we were unhappy with our 3 week visa, and with every point we put forward they repeated their standard line “the 30 day visa you requested has been issued”. God how we missed the easy communication of Aus and NZ where people actually answered the point you made! We found ourselves too late that evening to reapply for a 30 day visa and probably no longer welcome in the China visa office anyway. So, on the spur of the moment we took a decision: skip China and indeed SE Asia altogether and rethink the whole plan!
We found ourselves in a peculiar position – in 5 days time we needed to leave HK and fly somewhere, and anywhere was possible. Well, except China as we had no visa 🙂 When you CAN go anywhere in the world, where do you go? We started by looking at countries where we wouldn’t need a visa, and then checked flights. As we screened the internet for deals, surprisingly France kept appearing as a cheap destination. As it dawned on us that France was a realistic option, our eyes lit up in a way that no mention of China or Vietnam had ever triggered, and we realised Europe was really where we wanted to be. We spent barely a minute considering the merits of swanning around Europe as opposed to roughing it in the wilds of Asia, before confirming our flights to Paris. We then booked an apartment in the city of Bordeaux and could scarcely wait to get there. But the decision to go to France presented new demands, chief amongst which was the need to get equipped for a European Winter. A warm jacket, jeans, some non-travel/hiking clothes followed and we were good to go.
[Place de la bourse – Bordeaux]
Early into our HK trip we realised that we had loyalty points with the Shangri-La hotel group which were soon to expire. Given the lack of Shangri-La’s in Yunnan and Vietnam (or Bordeaux) either we used the points in HK or we would lose them. So we converted them to food vouchers and dined every second day at the hotel’s sumptuous lunch buffet. My God, what a buffet! We gorged on sushi, indian, chinese, western food and every manner of dessert, and on the days we ate there, that was our only meal of the day. We grazed steadily for 2 hours and for a finish were on first name terms with the staff. In HK’s relaxed culture no one looked sideways at us despite our grubby travel clothes and we enjoyed to the full that last link with our previous life of 5 star hotels!
[Shangri la buffet]
Our departure from HK involved a 4 hour flight to Singapore, a 1 hour stopover, a 14 hour flight to Paris, a 3 hour wait at the airport and then a 4 hour train ride. The night before, Clara had a few too many drinks with an ex-colleague and was desperately unwell for most of the journey. Being such an exceedingly rare event, it was almost funny, except for the chronically bad timing. Daniel meanwhile had come down with a cold and was also unwell, although a little smug as to the more virtuous origins of his affliction. Anyway, so it was that we left HK, slightly guilty at forsaking the adventurous Asian travel and heading instead for a civilised month in Bordeaux. Asia will have to wait, and probably for some time too, because when we first began to contemplate leaving work and traveling, we set up a spreadsheet of attractive destinations and from memory Europe features heavily 🙂
The AirBnB experience
It was our first time using this site, which matches travellers with homeowners willing to rent either a room in their house, or the whole house itself. In our case, we were renting from a (mainland) Chinese lady, whose new employers had booked her a serviced apartment for her first month’s work in HK, while she meanwhile was staying with family and so leased the apartment. The arrangement seemed ideal – we paid about a third what would be the going rate in a hotel room and an otherwise empty apartment got used. We were renting for the last 9 days of the month, and with twice weekly linen change, assumed that nobody would have been in the apartment since the previous linen change. Not so! When we checked in we saw that the bed had been slept in and the towels were used. Off-putting, even by our humble standards! When we complained, our host said she couldn’t at all understand why we had an issue with that (“I’m not offering the hotel service!”, “the cost of clean sheets is not included in my price” etc etc). We weren’t happy and as the tone of her emails became increasingly unpleasant, we made it clear we would expect a partial refund. At the end of our stay, we were to be refunded the deposit we had paid, and the hapless husband of the Chinese lady was sent to meet us. He barely spoke English, and idiotically had brought no change. He held in his hand an amount equal to the agreed deposit refund AND the refund we had requested(!) So we took his money – all of it, laughing in disbelief that he had come to meet us without change. How ridiculous, given the acrimonious exchanges we had had with his wife! For a moment he thought we were actually going to flee with his money, and although we enjoyed making him squirm a bit, we did repay him. AirBnB, once we made them aware of the issue, gave us our requested refund without hesitation but nonetheless we will be more cautious the next time we use AirBnB.