By LUXE City Guides; images by Jeremy Cheung
Nature Meets Nostalgic Charm
Closer to the border with the Mainland Chinese metropolis of Shenzhen than it is to Hong Kong’s illustrious Victoria Harbour, Yuen Long may not be on the tip of travellers’ tongues, but it should be. A beautiful natural landscape, wetlands and wildlife, a rich heritage, indigenous communities and urban bustle make this jewel in the northwest of the New Territories well worth a detour.
Populated by Chinese settlers since the late Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), Yuen Long is a treat for those wanting to get a handle on clan culture, foodies in search of traditional mom-and-pop eateries, and twitchers, conservationists and nature-loving families.
Keen to learn about Hong Kong’s fascinating indigenous history and clan culture? The Ping Shan Heritage Trail takes you past ancestral halls, temples, walled compounds and Hong Kong’s oldest pagoda, still maintained by descendants of the original Tang settlers. Old-school eateries, traditional teahouses, hawker-style dai pai dongs and lively wet markets give you a taste for nostalgia, literally.
Want to escape the urban hustle? Then head to the low-lying wetlands, bisected by waterways brimming with fauna and flora. If you have family in tow, a day at the Hong Kong Wetland Park, with its excellent visitor centre, justifies the trip on its own. Meanwhile, the western point of Ha Pak Nai, flanked by mountains on one side and the shimmering waters of Deep Bay on the other, is arguably Hong Kong’s top spot for sunset views. Smartphone camera ready, set, click.
Learn about historic clan culture along the Ping Shan Heritage Trail.
Chow down on wonton noodles and other local fare on the foodie strip of Yau San Street.
Enjoy 360-degree views of Yuen Long from the top of the Aviary Pagoda.
Observe flocks of the endangered black-faced spoonbill and other birds at Mai Po Nature Reserve .
Head to the mangrove beach of Ha Pak Nai, Hong Kong’s best sunset-snap spot.
Hike the MacLehose Trail.
Extremely popular old-school tea shop famous for its savoury-sweet pineapple buns filled with a slab of butter, egg and tomato. Mrs Tang gets packed on weekends and although the service can seem brusque during busy times, the buns are delicious, as is the tomato noodle soup with pork chop and chicken wings. Best of all, it’s perfectly positioned for a mid-walk refuel when doing the Ping Shan Heritage Trail.
Yuen Long is well known for its local food scene — from the casual eateries lining the town centre streets to storied noodle shops and lively dai pai dongs at the West Bus Terminal that only open at night. But there are also a handful of international eateries. With its pared-back concrete-walled interior and industrial decor, Chef’s Stage Kitchen veers more SoHo than Yuen Long and on weekends, pulls a young crowd for brunch through to dinner. Helmed by three experienced cooks, this contemporary eatery serves all-day western fare from eggs Benedict to steaks and salads.
This renowned Hong Kong bakery has several branches around Hong Kong, but Yuen Long is its home — the bright and bustling scarlet-hued shop still occupies the original early 20th-century building in which it was founded. Specialising in traditional Chinese pastries, it’s the go-to for traditional wife cake (a flaky pastry filled with winter melon and almond paste), autumnal mooncakes, honeycomb egg rolls and other sinfully good treats. Buy to eat on the go or take home as edible souvenirs.
The expanse of green that is Yuen Long Park is an ideal place to walk, seek shade from the sun and rest. Built on an undulating hill, the grassland is dotted with more than 800 trees and is home to a lake filled with fish and lotus plants, a waterfall and pretty ravine. Perched at the top of the park’s hill is the brick-red Aviary Pagoda, named because its first floor has been converted into an aviary with shrubs and plants attracting birds. It’s worth climbing to the pagoda’s upper floors for sensational views of Yuen Long, Tin Shui Wai and beyond.
The striking, modern eight-storey library at Ping Shan might at first seem more at home in Stockholm than Hong Kong, but it’s consciously designed to reflect the surrounding heritage sites. Based on a Chinese-style cabinet, the library is built from natural materials like brick, timber and stone, just like the neighbourhood’s Tang-clan structures. Its outdoor areas are sublime when weather permits, while the extensive collection of over 330,000 books (the second largest in Hong Kong) ensures there’s plenty of reading material to choose from. It’s a peaceful enclave to read, study or simply contemplate.
With its long stretch of mangrove beach, mudflats and calm, reflective waters, Ha Pak Nai is frequently touted as Hong Kong’s best sunset spot. Flanked by mountains on one side, and views of Deep Bay on the other, this area is known for its biodiversity and the six-kilometre coastal trail along the western, sea-facing wetland; it’s great for hiking, jogging or gentle cycling. And those cranes in the background? That’s the Mainland Chinese city of Shenzhen. Prepare to jostle with professional shutterbugs and amorous couples when trying to capture that perfect Instagram moment.
Ha Pak Nai, Yuen Long, New Territories (View on Map)
For history, culture, sightseeing, food
Lest you think Hong Kong is all glinty skyscrapers and luxury malls, the Ping Shan Heritage Trail shows an altogether different side to the territory. This trail, the first of its kind in Hong Kong, weaves about 1.6 kilometres through the low-rise residential neighbourhoods of Hang Mei Tsuen, Hang Tau Tsuen and Sheung Cheung Wai and highlights the importance of the district to the city’s history.
It’s a fascinating amble featuring a series of well-preserved ancestral halls, temples and courtyards built by the Tang clan, who were thought to have settled here in the 12th century. Longtime Yuen Long resident, Ms Tang, says of the heritage attractions: “I think it helps people look back and understand the old-time village culture, the ancient architecture and traditions of worship in Hong Kong, and creates a sense of nostalgia.”
Most visitors to Ping Shan will arrive by MTR and hop off at MTR Tin Shui Wai Station; first stop is the nearby Tsui Sing Lau Pagoda, a simple, elegant structure built during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), and the only one of its kind in Hong Kong. From here, wend your way through the village for more historic, grey-brick buildings with distinctive sweeping tiled roofs and ceramic figurines.
You will also meander past Kun Ting and Yan Tun Kong Study Halls , the impressive 700-year-old Tang Ancestral Hall and 500-year-old Yu Kiu Ancestral Hall , temples, courtyards and the village well. In Ping Shan, modern, everyday life flourishes alongside the traditional; boxy apartment blocks are tightly packed in next to historical monuments, while children whizz past their grandparents’ well-tended gardens on bicycles.
Eventually you’ll wind up at the commanding colonial-era white building perched on a hill above the village — this former police headquarters is now the Ping Shan Tang Clan Gallery cum Heritage Trail Visitors Centre. As well as providing a refreshing blast of aircon on a hot day, a small but insightful exhibition outlines the history of the clan (one of the original five in Hong Kong) and Ping Shan’s development. Outside, you can admire terrific panoramas of the surrounding hills, burial grounds, and — when it’s clear — even the gleaming towers of Central in the distance.
By now you’ll be peckish. Thankfully the popular Mrs Tang Cafe is perfectly positioned for a pitstop. Replenished, it’s a short stroll back to the Tin Shui Wai station. On your way, pause at the Ping Shan Tin Shui Wai Library (you can’t miss it, it’s the tallest building this side of the station) and gaze up at its serene, striking, modern-meets-feng shui design that reflects the neighbourhood’s heritage. From Tin Shui Wai, it’s two stops to your next destination, Yuen Long.
On the Hong Kong ‘Monopoly’ board, Yuen Long was once one of the cheapest locations. While this may no longer be true, the area still offers more affordable, spacious housing than most other parts of the city. Unpolished and low-key, the district is defined by its light railway, dai pai dongs, laidback atmosphere, and more homegrown stores than global retail chains.
Leaving MTR Yuen Long Station, it’s a five-minute shuffle to Yau San Street, a winding road lined with duck and wonton noodle restaurants, ramen stalls and traditional bakeries. Mr Wong, who works at popular Hang Heung Cake Shop, says: “I have lived here all my life, and travel to work by light railway from Tin Shui Wai. For me, the food in this area is delicious — there are many things to try on these two streets (Yau San Street and Yau Tsoi Street).
Follow the road round, past the ‘town square’ and you will come to Tung Yick Market, much of which is still on the street. If you love the jostle of a Hong Kong market, you’ll enjoy exploring these open-air stalls selling fresh meat, rice and seasonal fruit and vegetables, being scrupulously picked over by elderly ladies.
On Tai Tong Road, you’ll find the charming Old Fung Tea House, a tiny vintage-feel cubby complete with 1950s tiled walls and floors, old-school signage and bare-bulb lighting. Fung’s is known for its steaming-fresh dim sum and free-pour Pu’er tea, served to a revolving clientele of school kids, elderly couples and workmen. Long queues form at peak hours and on holidays, but it’s open all day (until 11pm), so stage your visit to avoid popular meal times and you can cosy on up in a booth. The quirky interiors and people-watching are as good as the food.
For hikers, families, birders and nature lovers
Its white wings flap gracefully, its elegant crested neck extends forward, and its long black beak opens and shuts like tongs. This is the black-faced spoonbill, and it’s one of the 400 or so bird species that visit Mai Po Nature Reserve , part of a site that has been actively conserved under the international Ramsar Convention since 1995, and which sits on the border between the New Territories and the Mainland Chinese city of Shenzhen.
“The black-faced spoonbill is a rare winter visitor,” says Michael Lau, Director of Wetlands Conservation for WWF (formerly the World Wildlife Fund). The bird is considered endangered; global numbers are as low as 3,941 in 2017. Mai Po is one of the main roosting sites for this species, and this 380-hectare wetland is vital to the bird’s survival.
Mai Po is made up mostly of gei wai, or traditional shrimp ponds, which were first established here by local villagers in the 1940s. The villagers transformed the area’s swamps into shallow ponds — unwittingly offering a feeding ground for migratory birds, some stopping at Mai Po in the winter, and others coming in the spring.
The gei wai are still operational, carefully managed by WWF, who use time-honoured techniques to harvest shrimp; techniques that are sustainable, and respectful of the reserve’s winged residents. WWF has been managing Mai Po since 1984, and it has been under Lau’s thoughtful supervision since 2016.
Access to Mai Po is restricted; visitors apply for a permit with the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, or they can get on-site help at the Peter Scott Field Studies Centre. Mai Po does offer guided group tours, and this is the simplest way to gain access to the area. Book these through WWF Hong Kong’s website.
Getting to the area beyond the fence, however — the land between Hong Kong and Mainland China — is harder. You can apply via WWF for a permit from the Hong Kong Police Force, but it’s a lengthy wait. WWF also offers guided tours to visit this lushly beautiful mangrove belt and see Deep Bay’s mudflats, which are populated by thousands of birds, including pied avocets, magpie robins, tufted ducks, grey herons and great egrets.
Mai Po’s neighbour is Hong Kong Wetland Park , in northern Tin Shui Wai. Like Mai Po, this 61-hectare site teems with wildlife, including the black-faced spoonbill. Thanks to the presence of freshwater marshes within its grounds, the park is also a popular haunt for amphibians such as the ornate pygmy frog, and the Asiatic painted frog, which bellows like a bull during mating season.
If you want to keep the kids occupied, head to the park’s 10,000-square-foot visitor centre, where themed exhibition galleries, a theatre and swamp-adventure indoor play area will keep them busy for hours.
Another attraction at Hong Kong Wetland Park is Pui Pui, Hong Kong’s celebrity crocodile. This croc was first discovered in Nam Sang Wai, east of Hong Kong Wetland Park. In Nam Sang Wai’s wetland area, you will find abandoned gei wai amid mangrove and reed swamps, as well as mudskippers, fiddler crabs and plenty of migratory birds.
Like Mai Po and the wetland park, Nam Sang Wai is on former swampland, so it’s flat — perfect for family-friendly walks.
If it’s adventure you’re after, Tai Lam Country Park is the place to go. Here, you’ll find 12 hiking and mountain biking trails of varying difficulty, including Sections 9 and 10 of the MacLehose Trail, the 100-kilometre track named after colonial Hong Kong’s longest-serving governor and avid hiker, Sir Murray MacLehose. We have MacLehose to thank for Hong Kong’s 24 country parks, and the preservation of the city’s extensive wildlife populations.
As Hong Kong’s second largest country park, Tai Lam is a particularly appealing choice for nature lovers. It’s home to peaks and valleys, forested mountains, jade-green reservoirs and multitude of bird and mammal species, including leopard cats and Chinese pangolins.
At each of these sites, birdsong and the chirrup of insects are about the only noises you’ll hear: they’re a world away from the city’s bustling financial centre. It’s no wonder Yuen Long is a firm favourite with Hongkongers.
“People appreciate wildlife and countryside a lot more than they did three decades ago,” says WWF’s Lau. “Increasingly people live in crowded city environments. They want to come out, breathe the fresh air and look at the sky.”
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