While this bustling, sprawling city-state can be chaotic and confusing at times, it is also full of hidden surprises, interesting quirks, incredible food and some great sustainability initiatives. In the latest instalment of our With Love From… series, Liz Wootton takes us through some of the ways you can stay sustainable during a trip to Hong Kong.
Before my trip, I’d always thought of Hong Kong as this vast, chaotic metropolis, full of noisy crowds, soul-destroying malls and an unhealthy dose of air pollution, with no parks or green spaces in sight. But I was completely wrong, not least about the green space side of things. A staggering 40% of this city-state is actually made up of stunning country parks, while another 35% of the land here is designated for agricultural and semi-rural land use.
Consequently, 75% of overall land in Hong Kong is actually green – and that’s not even taking public parks into consideration. In a way this is why the city seems so crowded: the majority of the population, which is currently 7.38 million, are crammed into just 15% of the space – no wonder they need lots of skyscrapers!
What’s more, while there are definitely many unsustainable bits to the city, some parts of it are just as green as its surroundings. In fact, Hong Kong was actually named Asia’s second most sustainable city in 2018, after Singapore. Furthermore, Hong Kong companies are currently ranked highest in Asia for environmental sustainability – considering this is a city renowned for business and commerce, this is a very big deal indeed.
Great news for all the eco-warriors: the public transport system in Hong Kong is top-notch. The MTR (Mass Transit Railway) is frequent and clean – the definition of a smooth operator. Hopping on a tram is another great way of getting around the city and is also useful if you are want to catch some of the sights as well.
The only problem with the MTR and tramway is that they only operate on the north side of the island, so if you’re looking to go south then you’ll have to explore other options, such as the complex network of bus routes which intersect the whole of the island. The buses here are frequent and services run from early morning until midnight, making them a popular choice of transport with the locals.
Another fantastic aspect of public transport in Hong Kong is hopping aboard the ferries which zip around all along the coast. Taking a ride on the Star Ferry is a tourist attraction in its own right as you’ll be rewarded by a stunning panorama of Victoria Harbour and the city’s towering skyscrapers. The ferries connect Hong Kong island with all the outlying islands which surround it.
With so many incredible public transport options, it’s a breeze to travel in a sustainable manner in this city. As long as you work out your route in advance, you’ll rarely need to use a cab. What’s more, the public transport options here are as cheap as they are varied, with fares starting from as little as 20p, meaning you’ll be saving both the planet and the pennies. Paying is pretty easy too as Hong Kong has its own version of the Oyster card, called the Octopus, which you can top up in most shops and at all the stations on the MTR.
WHAT TO DO
As I mentioned, Hong Kong is full of green space, so get out and explore it. There are so many great hikes you can do, many of them on the island itself. Two of the most famous (and popular) are the Dragon’s Back and the hike up to Victoria Peak.
Dragon’s Back includes some easy-going ascent and will reward the walker with stunning views across Hong Kong’s southern coast. One thing to note with this route is that it can get busy, especially at the weekend, so it’s best to do it at off-peak times if you can.
The trek up to Victoria Peak is well-paved but pretty steep, so you’ll be sure to work up a sweat getting there. The views of the city from the very top of the peak are simply breathtaking. You should also visit Lugard Road Lookout point on your way back down for some more incredible panoramic views. There is even a cable car service that runs up to the mall, which is located near the top of the peak (it is still Hong Kong after all). However, if you’re fit and able I’d definitely recommend walking up there under your own steam, if only for the sense of achievement once you reach the top.
These are two, pretty well-known hikes on the main Hong Kong island. However, the rest of the area is also teeming with lesser-trodden but equally as amazing trails and routes, just waiting for keen hikers and runners to explore. If you’re travelling by yourself but would like to meet up with other hiking enthusiasts then there’s a variety of groups on Meetup for such purposes.
Wander the streets
There’s simply so much to do, feel, smell and taste in this hustling, bustling city that it’s hard to know where to begin. I’d recommend simply wandering the streets of central and seeing where your feet take you. Somewhat like London, different sections of the city are known for their weird and wonderful specialities.
‘Dried Seafood Street’ is known for, you guessed it, almost 200 shops selling a variety of withered-looking fish products. Unsurprisingly, you’ll also find a small army of neighbourhood cats hanging around this area. ‘Tonic Street’ is home to a plethora of Traditional Chinese Medicine shops, cooking up batches of cures for Hong Kong’s residents.
Head to the beach
As well as an array of lovely hikes, Hong Kong is also home to a surprising amount of seriously stunning beaches – this city really just does have it all. Some of the very best spots are a bit of a trek to get to, being out on the surrounding islands or across in the New Territories, such as Ham Tin Beach on Tai Long Wan or Clearwater Bay. Stanley Main Beach and the somewhat ironically-named Repulse Bay Beach are really accessible spots, but can also get very busy at peak times.
While I was at the beaches I was annoyed, but maybe not surprised, to see bits of litter in the sand. I picked up what I could and deposited it in a bin, but would advise any eco-conscious visitor to bring along a spare bag with them and collect up as much as possible. If everyone visiting the beach did that then the beaches would stay squeaky clean.
Visit the islands
Did you know that Hong Kong is made up of no less than 263 islands? I definitely didn’t before visiting and once I found out it blew my mind! If you fancy getting out of the main city part and going on an adventure then I’d definitely recommend hopping aboard a ferry and exploring some of these islands.
The biggest island in Hong Kong, Lantau Island is well worth a visit. Head to Tai O, a sleepy little fishing village on the western side of the island, for a complete change of pace. As well as plenty of peace and quiet, you’ll find an incredible wealth of culture and heritage here. The place is home to the Tanka people – a community of fishing folk who have been building their houses on stilts above the tidal flats for many generations.
If you’re visiting this beautiful spot for longer than a day, then book a room in the award-winning Tai O Heritage Hotel. This boutique hideaway is a non-profit social enterprise which focuses on creating jobs for local residents, thus improving their well-being and quality of life.
Another great thing to do on Lantau Island is to catch the cable car up to the island’s colossal Tian Tan Buddha. This immense bronze statue is situated on a hilltop close to the Po Lin Monastery and is an incredible sight indeed. The cable car leaves from Tung Chung Cable Car Terminal, which is easily accessible from the MTR and the round trip takes about five hours, making it perfect if you happen to be blessed by a relatively cloud-free morning or afternoon during your stay.
Those craving a bit of greenery should take a trip out to the wonderfully-lush Lamma island. Boasting a handful of laidback restaurants, some fantastic hiking trails and a scattering of stunning hidden beaches, a deep sense of tranquillity pervades the atmosphere of this jungle-clad isle.
Do some good in the world
If you have the time, and the inclination, then there’s a whole array of volunteer projects you can get involved with in Hong Kong. If you’d like to help those less fortunate then yourself, then you can see a list of upcoming volunteer opportunities, such as HotMeal services for the homeless, on the HandOn Hong Kong calendar. If you’d like to help out with a beach clean, then Plastic Free Seas runs a community beach cleanup programme on Discovery Bay on Lantau Island.
WHERE TO EAT
Although it may not be the most picturesque of cities at times, when it comes to eating Hong Kong is always at the top of its game. A deep love for food seems to run through the very veins of this city. With bustling street markets that offer everything from fresh fruit and veg to dried fish, and shady-looking street shacks selling steaming portions of curried fish balls, egg waffles and rice noodle rolls situated on every corner, you’ll be spoilt for choice. As well as street food, you’ll also find plenty of svelte Western-style joints and fancy fine dining options scattered around the city, but in all honesty, it’s the local food which really stands out.
Whilst the sheer abundance of food options in Hong Kong can be a little overwhelming, the decision to stick with sustainable and/or plant-based eateries will automatically narrow the choices down for you, especially if you opt to go for local food. Luckily, I found a number of great veggie options, right in the centre of the city.
Fook Luk Sau is a traditional Hong Kong noodle joint in central Hong Kong, ideal for a quick, laid-back and delicious veggie lunch in between spates of sightseeing. Don’t expect fancy here – it’s very rough around the edges but super popular with local workers and the food is utterly delicious. What’s more, a decent meal there cost me the grand total of £3.60, so it’s great value too. One thing to note is that you serve yourself rice and noodles out of the giant vats located towards the back of the restaurant – don’t sit there and expect them to arrive of their own accord because they won’t! One thing I noticed was that unfortunately if you opt for takeaway then your meal will be served in a polystyrene container, which obviously isn’t great in terms of sustainability. However, they will also happily fill your own reusable container if you remember to bring it along.
If you’re looking for a lovely setting, really reasonable price tag and, most importantly, delicious vegetarian food then Sound of Veggie (previously called Pure Veggie House) is the spot to head to. From the dim sum to the noodle dishes, everything we tried on the menu was fantastic and, most importantly, completely meat-free (yay!). Finally, Happy Veggies is another really special vegetarian spot. Serving an array of tasty noodle, dumpling and tofu dishes in a bright and casual setting for a great price – you really can’t go wrong with dinner here. What’s more, the restaurant is actually also a social enterprise, employing elderly and hearing impaired waiting staff.
With a large expat community in the city, you can find an array of Western-style restaurants catering to a variety of diets and beliefs, such as vegetarian, vegan, raw, paleo and sustainable. Although the food is generally decent, the majority of these places do tend to be more on the expensive side of things, whereas local eateries are much, much cheaper. If you really just fancy a fresh salad and are happy to pay the higher price tag, then you’ll find some really great places.
Vegans visiting Hong Kong will absolutely love Pop Vegan, which serves up great pub-style classics with one giant twist: they are all vegan. If you’re in the mood for Asian food, then head to Kind Kitchen by Green Common where you’ll find a plethora of vegan dishes, such as plant-based bahn mi and vegan ramen.
Those concerned about soaring levels of food waste (aren’t we all?!) should head to one of the MANA! branches for a tasty plant-based, zero-waste lunch. The zaatar flats (flatbreads) served at MANA! even come wrapped in specially-made biodegradable and compostable wrapping paper. If you’re looking for a gorgeous plant-based brunch in a stylish setting then head to Grassroots Pantry on Hollywood Street. Or, if you’re curious about the overall vegan and vegetarian scene in Hong Kong, then the city has an annual vegan festival where you can find out more.
If you’re not vegan, but still want to dine in the most sustainable way possible then there are still plenty of options for you in Hong Kong. Try Fishteria and Neptune’s Restaurant in Ocean Park for fresh, delicious and, most importantly, sustainable seafood. If you’re in dire need of a caffeine fix, then make tracks towards Africa Coffee & Tea for a sustainable and socially impactful cup of coffee.
In central parts of Hong Kong, it feels like there’s a mall, market or street of shops everywhere you turn. The place is full to the rafters with swanky, air-conditioned malls, cave-like local joints brimming with money cats and mobile accessories, and bustling markets selling everything from socks to fidget spinners.
While these shops and markets may be fun to wander through, purchasing anything from them is definitely not the most environmentally-friendly course of action. Instead, gravitate towards the city’s zero-waste shops and antique markets.
Head to Edgar in Wan Chai for your organic veggies, bulk grains and everyday essentials. Live Zero, Hong Kong’s first zero-waste store, is also a great option if you’re needing to stock up on any essentials. The vast Slowood sustainable lifestyle grocery store in Kennedy Town boasts a collection of environmentally-friendly crockery and homeware as well as a delicious vegetarian kitchen. For great smelling toiletries and beauty products, make tracks towards the Lush Naked shop – the brand’s first packaging-free shop in all of Asia.
If you’re looking for something a bit more special, then browsing the antique stalls and art galleries which line Antique Street (Hollywood Road) and Cat Street (Upper Lascar Row) is a lovely way to spend an afternoon. Here you’ll find an eclectic array of items, ranging from antique jade pendants and ancient bronze buddhas to rare furniture and vintage propaganda posters from the Cultural Revolution.