Read Before You Leave – Hong Kong

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Apr 05, 2017

by ALEX GREIG, Online Writer

Situated on the southeast coast of China, Hong Kong became a British colony after China’s defeat in the First Opium War in 1852. It was transferred back to China in 1997 though it retains a high degree of autonomy – 150 years of British rule (apart from Japanese occupation during World War II) have rendered Hong Kong culturally distinct from mainland China. It’s often described as a meeting of East and West – a place where traditional customs such as feng shui are taken deadly seriously and buildings lack a fourth floor (the number four is considered inauspicious) but where signs are often written in English and fashion and food take cues from the West. Although it is officially China, Hong Kong is designated a Special Administrative Region, which means it has its own laws, political system and currency. There is no “Great Firewall” here – wi-fi is readily available and social media is accessible; people are free to discuss politically sensitive issues with impunity; and the most common language spoken is Cantonese rather than Mandarin. Despite its tiny size, it’s a global financial capital and a mecca for ex-pats working in its financial centre. Here’s everything you need to know before you head to Hong Kong.

Flight time 

Qantas flies directly to Hong Kong from Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne; the flight takes nine hours and 20 minutes.

Entering China

As a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong has separate immigration regulations. Unlike China, Hong Kong does not require Australian visitors to obtain a visa for visits of fewer than 90 days. However, entry conditions can change at short notice. Check the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office for up-to-date information.

Flying in to Hong Kong International Airport

Hong Kong International Airport is located on the island of Chek Lap Kok, 30 kilometres from Hong Kong Island. It’s well connected to Hong Kong CBD by both rail and bus. The Airport Express train takes passengers from the airport to Central in less than 25 minutes and runs every 10 minutes from 5.54am until 11.28pm daily and then every 12 minutes until 12.48am. The fare is HK$100 one-way. Public buses are significantly cheaper and take passengers to most parts of Hong Kong – the A21 serves the tourist areas of Kowloon and costs HK$33. Taxies are by far the most expensive way to travel to town – the fare to Central is HK$295. Taxis are colour-coded: red are urban taxies that serve all destinations through Hong Kong.

Legalities

  • The legal drinking age is 18.
  • There are penalties, including heavy fines and imprisonment, for the possession of illegal substances.
  • There are strict laws regarding the import or possession of weapons or objects that resemble weapons including toys and fashion accessories. According to Smart Traveller, Australians have been prosecuted for possession of items such as knuckledusters, stunning devices and slingshots bought at Hong Kong markets.
  • Smoking is prohibited in all indoor public places, on public transport, and at public outdoors spaces such as the beach, swimming pools and the Hong Kong Wetland Park. Anyone caught smoking in a no-smoking area will be penalised to the tune of HK$1500.
  • Fixed penalties of HK$1500 apply for littering and spitting.

The language barrier

The official languages in Hong Kong are Chinese (generally Cantonese) and English. Some locals use both languages – sometimes in the same sentence – but generally, Cantonese remains the dominant language and the further away from tourist areas you are, the less English you’ll encounter. Due to its history as a British colony, however, official signage and announcements are in both English and Cantonese, and many restaurant menus also have dual listings.

Vaccine advice

Make sure your basic vaccinations are up to date. Smart Traveller advises that visitors take special measures to follow good food and hand hygiene practices. Hand, food and mouth disease, characterised by fever, blisters and rashes, is common in Hong Kong and it’s transmitted by contact with nose and throat discharge and faeces of infected people. In addition, Smart Traveller recommends visitors take measures to avoid mosquito bites. Hong Kong is humid and outbreaks of mosquito-borne illnesses such as dengue fever occur occasionally.

Upon arrival at Hong Kong International Airport, automatic sensors will take your temperature. If it is deemed high, you may be required to undergo a health check before you’re admitted into the country.

Hong Kong has excellent hospitals but a set free of HK$990 will be charged for any visits to the emergency room.

Insurance policy 

Smart Traveller recommends all visitors to China take out comprehensive travel insurance to cover overseas medical costs, including evacuation.

Transport tips

  • Hong Kong is extremely well serviced by public transport, with trains, buses and trams all crisscrossing the city. The prepaid Octopus card serves all forms of public transport as well as supermarkets, fast food restaurants and vending machines.
  • Historic trams have been trundling along the north corridor of Hong Kong Island since 1904. The double-decker streetcars are open at the top making a ride double as an excellent sightseeing opportunity. They’re also the cheapest way to get around at HK$2.30 per ride. Trams run in two directions so it’s virtually impossible to get lost.
  • Bus routes cover almost all of Hong Kong and fares are based on distance travelled.
  • The Mass Transit Railway (MTR) is fast and efficient, but avoid it at peak hour when it becomes unbearably crowded. It covers all the major districts in Hong Kong and goes as far as the boundary with mainland China.
  • Taxis are metred and cost HK$22 for the first 2 kilometres and HK$1.60 for every 200 metres or one minute idling time thereafter.
  • Eating and drinking are not permitted on most forms of public transport.

Money matters

  • At the time of writing the Australian dollar was buying 5.9 Hong Kong dollars (HKD) – check a reliable currency conversion service for up-to-date exchange rates.
  • Check with your bank that you won’t be hit with extra fees when using your credit card in Hong Kong. Your Australian bank and Hong Kong ATMs will both charge you for withdrawing money from your debit card, too, so it might be worth organising a travel card (most banks have one) with low or no fees to use while you’re away. In any case, inform your bank of your travel plans, lest overseas purchases are misconstrued as fraud and your card is cancelled.
  • A 10 per cent service charge will automatically be added to your bill in most restaurants. There’s no requirement to leave more, and tipping is not required at cheaper fast-food restaurants and stalls. Some newer restaurants forgo the service charge, so tipping is at the discretion of the customer – make sure to check your bill. If you have a beauty treatment, add an extra $HK20 or more to the bill, depending on what you have done. Small tips for hotel porters are typical. It’s not customary to tip taxi drivers.
  • Hong Kong is promoted as a shopping mecca, and the reason its high-end stores, shopping malls and curio stores have the edge over other shopping destinations such as Singapore is the lack of sales tax. That’s right – there’s no GST or VAT applied to goods here (in Australia, GST is 10 per cent) so leave some room in your suitcase.

Etiquette

  • Stand to the right of escalators to let others pass.
  • Dining etiquette in Hong Kong is fairly relaxed and you’ll see people shelling prawns onto the table and sloshing soy sauce over the cloth. There are a few no-nos, but don’t worry – the locals will forgive a faux pas.
  • Don’t leave your chopsticks sticking upright out of your rice bowl – it’s considered inauspicious. Use the chopstick stand provided or rest them across the top of your bowl.
  • Space is at a premium in Hong Kong, so if you and a friend take a four-seater table in a café, expect some company.
  • Tea is served in all cafes and restaurants – your cup will be continually refilled. Leave it full if you don’t want any more tea; an upturned lid in your teapot will indicate you’re after more tea.
  • If you are being hosted for dinner, make sure you try a little bit of everything offered – but always leave a little food on your plate or your host will think you’re still hungry!
  • You will notice people in Hong Kong give you things with both hands – you should accept them with both hands too. It’s considered polite and respectful, whether you’re accepting a business card or change. 

Good to know

All retail businesses are required to charge a HK$0.50 fee for each plastic shopping bag.

Scams

Violent crime is extremely low in Hong Kong. Petty crime such as pickpocketing and bag-snatching do occur in crowded areas such as markets and on trains. Smart Traveller warns that crime syndicates have been known to hire young women to approach Western men and spike their drinks then steal their wallets.

Public toilets

There are public toilets at all MTR stations, but sometimes they’re difficult to find. It’s wise to always carry tissues with you, though – many facilities don’t have toilet paper.

Weather wise

Summer is extremely hot and humid in subtropical Hong Kong. Typhoons and thunderstorms occur with some regularity between May and November. When a typhoon is approaching, weather warnings will be broadcast on TV and radio. Find up-to-date weather updates at Hong Kong Weather Information for Tourists. Spring is warm and humid with cooler evenings; autumn is warm with pleasantly cool breezes and winter is cool but dry and temperatures average between 12 and 20 degrees.

Air pollution in Hong Kong is a problem. The smog comes from coal-fired power stations and traffic, as well as factories in China’s neighbouring Pearl River Delta.

Smart Traveller advises that the air pollution in Hong Kong may aggravate bronchial, sinus or asthma conditions. People with existing heart or respiratory conditions should reduce physical exertion and time outside when high levels are recorded. Go to the Air Quality Health Index for up-to-date readings.

When to go

The autumnal months between September and October are recommended because the weather is less extreme that at other times of the year. Expect warm, sunny days and cooler nights.

Dress code

Bring light, breathable clothing for those humid days and lots of layers. Even if you’re visiting at the height of summer, bring a cardigan or wrap – air conditioning is everywhere and generally set to high. A hat and sunglasses will also stand you in good stead for long days of wandering. Also pack comfy, closed-toe walking shoes – you’re going to need them.

Tap water

Hong Kong tap water is drinkable and confirms to the World Health Organisation’s recommended guidelines.

Where to stay

Space is at a premium in Hong Kong (more than seven million people live in the city), so chances are, any accommodation – from B&Bs to high-end hotels – will be located somewhere vertiginous within a multipurpose high-rise.

Central is the financial district but it’s a great place to stay, located near Victoria Peak and Lan Kwai Fong. There are plenty of places nearby to eat, drink and be merry frequented by the city’s expats. Tsim Sha Tsui is another popular spot with tourists. It is close to Victoria Harbour in southern Kowloon and home to many of Hong Kong’s museums as well as restaurants and shopping.

Phone calls and mobile data

Before you land, disable data roaming and don’t answer incoming calls on your mobile phone if you want to keep your monthly bill in check. Invest in a prepaid travel SIM card if keeping in touch with home is important, or buy a prepaid Hong Kong SIM card. The Discover Hong Kong Tourist Sim Card costs HK$30 for five days and includes free local calls, cheap international calls and SMS and five gigabytes of data. Remember, this will only work if your phone is not locked to your Australian carrier.

Phone home

To call Australia, dial +61 followed by the phone number – including the area code minus the zero. So, to call a Sydney landline telephone, you would dial +61 2 then the phone number. To call a mobile phone, use the same country code and dial the mobile number minus the first zero. 

Gadgets

China has almost the same voltage as Australia (220V as compared to Australia’s 230V) and the same frequency so all gadgets and chargers should work without a problem. If you have concerns with a medical device, you should seek professional information. You will need a power adaptor – most electrical outlets take UK-style plugs.

Internet

There are more than 15,000 wi-fi hotspots around Hong Kong, including at all MTR stations.

Handy apps and websites

The Australian Consulate-General in Hong Kong for emergencies.

The Environmental Protection Department for up-to-date air quality reports.

Hong Kong International Airport provides flight information.

XE for currency conversion.

Hong Kong Airport Express for the train timetable from the airport.

MTR for subway lines and timetables.

Hong Kong Tramways for tram timetables and routes.

Travel Doctor for pre-travel health advice.

Smart Traveller for up-to-date safety information.

Toilet Rush to find your nearest public toilet.

SEE ALSO: The Foodie’s Guide to Hong Kong