Exploring Vietnam: Beautiful Views of Ha Long Bay & Gross Cruise Food

"Exploring Vietnam" is part of my vacation series recap. If you're just tuning in, you can catch up here: Vietnam Trip Recap.

After spending a week in big cities and having to mentally prepare myself to cross roads full of crazy motorcyclists, I was excited to escape to Ha Long Bay, a popular tourist destination and UNESCO World Heritage Site that is approximately a 4-hour drive away from Hanoi. Ha Long Bay translates to "descending dragon bay" and is comprised of over 1,600 islets, mostly made of limestone that went through 500 years of formations.

I did a lot of research on Ha Long Bay before booking our tour and everything I read recommended spending at least two days on an overnight ship. Luckily I strayed away from that recommendation and opted in for only one day.

Yes. Ha Long Bay was filled with magical views, but if I had to look at these limestone pillars for one more day I would go bonkers. No way would I ever recommend spending more than a day trip, unless you're looking to see the different parts of Ha Long Bay, spend your time examining rocks or participate in water sports. 

I checked out every single company offering day trip tours and decided to go with Alova Cruises based on itinerary and user reviews. If you ever decide to explore Ha Long Bay, I have three important tips:

  1. Figure out the best season to visit. We went during a time when it was slightly foggy, which was still full of stunning views but in a different kind of way. 
  2. Before booking direct with the tour company, check your hotel to see if they offer the same tour you're looking for. Your hotel can be a good way to get deals. Luckily, the exact same tour I wanted from Alova was also offered at our hotel, Calypso Suites Hotel / La Beaute De Hanoi, for a small discount. 
  3. If the tour company offers to pick you up in a shuttle, you may want to meet them directly at their office/departure point so you can get first choice of seating. If you don't, you are possibly looking at sitting on a tire hump with no leg room for an excruciating long time. They try to cram as many people possible in the shuttles. 

The Food on Alova Cruises

Our boat was nice and spacious for our small group of 30 people. We were all entertained by our personable guide. Overall, the staff was very friendly and knowledgeable. 

The moment we stepped into the boat, we sat down to be served a family style lunch. I've heard many great things about the food served on Ha Long Bay cruises, but the food we ate turned out to be mediocre and a little disappointing. Is it sad to say that my favorite dish was the cucumber salad? 

You can't go wrong with peel-and-eat shrimps.

The vermicelli imperial rolls were okay. 

The stir-fried chicken and stir-fried squid were both bland. 

The steamed fish looked better than it tasted. It was very bland and you can still taste the muddiness of the fish. 

In short, the food was bland and boring, but the views made up for it. 

Hello, Ha Long Bay!

The views - stunning! The thin layer of fog gives Ha Long Bay an eerie kind of vibe, almost like a dragon was going to descend from a mountaintop. I remember Patrick saying to me, "I've never seen anything like this in my life." I definitely haven't experienced anything like this either. 

 The life of a fisherman. I'm sure it's very hard work, but it can also be very rewarding. 

A cargo ship. 

I am super thankful and happy to be able to experience this moment with my amazing and loving other-half. 

It gets a little tiring to see, what looks to be, the same limestone pillars over and over again. 

Hang Sung Sot Cave

As a part of the day trip, we also got to explore Hang Sung Sot Cave. It was awesome to check out the cave's unique system of stalactites and stalagmites in different shapes and forms due to over millions of years of water erosion. For a place so unique and beautiful, it's a complete shame to see multi-colored bright lights take away from the natural beauty of the cave. 

VIETNAM TRIP 2014 RECAP: UP NEXT

It's almost coming to an end. You will not want to miss the next post.  I'm walking you through 28 things I ate in Hanoi, along with photos of each. It's going to take me a while to write it, but hang on - I promise that you'll be glad you did. 

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The 3 Reasons Why You Need to Visit St. George Spirits - Tasting Room Review (Alameda)

There are many great places to have a drink in the East Bay, but none of them come even close to the experience at St. George Spirits in Alameda. Okay, so it's not your typical bar, but come around 5:30pm on a weekday and you'll find the tasting room to be lively, fun and entertaining, full of what seems to be, repeat visitors and newbies. What draws many people to visit are three things - the appeal of tasting 6 excellent and unique distilled spirits, the knowledgeable staff, and the spectacular view of the city skyline and bridges. Plus, it's pretty cool to hang out at a distillery that fills a 65,000-square-foot airplane hangar on the former naval air station.

I recently had the honor of spending time with my friend Christina (East Bay Dish) on her birthday and it just so happens that her birthday fell on the same day as St. George's Day. To celebrate the occasion, the distillery added a special pour to their tasting menu: Lot 14 of St. George Single Malt Whiskey. Bottles of Lot 14 are sold out nationally, so we jumped at the chance to taste the spirit that Whisky Advocate named Craft Whisky of the Year. 

I've tried a few different spirits by St. George before, and even have a bottle of the lovely St. George Terroir Mt. Tam Gin. Shamefully, I've never been to a tasting prior to this and I'm so glad I finally checked it out. It's the kind of experience that will make anyone say "Whoa!". 

For $15 per person, you get six 1/4 oz samples from their current tasting menu. Here's a look at what I tried. 

Lot 14 of St. George Single Malt Whiskey

St. George Single Malt Whiskey is an elegant and expressive American single malt whiskey. The technique is to use various roast levels of two-row barley to elicit rich aromas of hazelnut and cocoa, and smoking a portion of unroasted barley over beech and alder wood to add base notes and additional complexity. After distillation, the whiskey is aged in a number of different types of wood, including used bourbon, French oak, sherry and port barrels. 

The whiskey is drawn from barrels ranging between four and fifteen years old. Lot 14 has a nose of cocoa, roasted nuts and sweet fruits. The palate is complex, offering a taste of grain, honeysuckle and cocoa. The finish is on the dry side, but sweet with notes of spice and fruit. 

St. George All Purpose Vodka

Pear brandy is distilled up to 95.1% ABV and blended with a base spirit to make this all purpose vodka. It tastes clean yet full-bodied enough to be the star ingredient in any vodka cocktail.

St. George Green Chile Vodka

St. George Green Chile Vodka is made with tens of thousands of pounds of crushed green jalapenos in a 1,500-liter still. It's incredibly fresh, sweet, and bright with just enough heat. It's surprisingly really smooth. 

Infused with four other types of peppers (serrano, habanero, red and yellow sweet bell peppers) separately, and then blended with the distillate of jalapenos, lime, and cilantro. 

St. George California Citrus Vodka

The nose and taste of this citrus vodka is really something special - bright and beautifully aromatic of  fresh peeled oranges.

Made from California-grown Valencia oranges, Seville oranges, and bergamot. Each is distilled separately and then blended together.  A wonderful taste of orange vanilla cream.  This vodka is definitely one for sipping. 

St. George Spiced Pear Liqueur

A stunningly well balanced, delicate and sweet spirit that tastes like a pear pie with a warm touch of cinnamon and cloves. It has the complexity of a perfectly ripe Bartlett pear.  

St. George Dry Rye Gin 

It almost smelled like tequila, a very strong and powerful fragrance. The taste is tough with a peppery burn. Of all that I've sampled, this is my least favorite. 

I was glad to share this fun experience with Christina! I wanted to end this post with this photo of her happily groovin' to her brother singing "Happy Birthday" over the phone. You can probably tell that she's definitely in good "spirits". If you ever get a chance to meet her, you'll want to start dancing with her, too. 

St. George Spirits is open to the public Wednesday–Saturday from 12pm–7pm and Sunday 12pm–5pm for distillery tours and spirits tastings by reservation.

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Little Shop Artisan Box: Local Delicacies Handmade by Food Artisans (San Francisco Bay Area)

Mother's Day is only a few days away and even if you don't celebrate, it's likely that there are other occasions where you'll need to get a gift. As I always say, the bests gifts are local gifts -and by that I mean local food. 

In support of The Oakland Food Policy Council, I won East Bay Dish's auction for $75 worth of treats from Little Shop Artisan Box. Little Shop is owned and operated by Maricela Yee, who handpicks and features small batch food artisans from the San Francisco Bay Area. 

Maricela personally dropped off the gift basket at my office in San Francisco. I probably had the biggest smile on my face when I approached her and said, "Wow!". I mean, who wouldn't be happy seeing a gift basket full of delicious goodies? She added in two additional sets inside my basket to check out, so lucky me - I get the Little Shop Gift Basket with Spring Tea Time and Oaktown Pride.

The Spring Tea Time Gourmet Foodie Box

The Spring Tea Time Gourmet Foodie Box (Large) features the following: 

  1. DragonWell Green Tea from Fox & Moon (San Francisco) - Zo works with tea producers and farmers to source quality single-origin teas from around the world. This tea is meant to be paired with all the sweets in the Spring Tea Time box.
  2. Raw Wildcrafted Honey from Hive 707 (Palo Alto) - Greg and Hive 707's first rooftop hive in Potrero Hill migrated. This small batch came from Palo Alto's wildflowers.
  3. Lemon Almond Poppy Seed Bundt Cake from The Bread Project (Emeryville) - The Bread Project provides job skills training and placement for people with low income. Their staff are graduates of the Bakery Bootcamp and take care of the wholesale and co-packing production. 
  4. Dark Chocolate Covered Marzipan Bar from Nuttyness (Oakland) - Kristian Salvesen missed his hometown favorite sweet, so he made this treat in California with unique flavors and twists like Lemon Ginger.
  5. Coconut Vegan Caramel from Sweetdragon Baking Co. (San Jose) - Hway-Ling Hsu learned to make her batch of sweets from YouTube. She's so good at what she does that she won a Good Foods Award.

The Oaktown Pride Box 

The Oaktown Pride Box features artisans from, of course, Oakland:

  1. Candied Bacon Caramel Corn from Chunky Pig (Oakland) - Gina Conedera brings her favorite sweet savory and porky flavors together. 
  2. Beef Jerky from Oaktown Jerk (Oakland) - Randall Huges uses hormone free and grass fed beef in small batches with unique flavors. 
  3. Hot Almond Hearts from Oakland Chocolate Co. (Oakland) - Nancy Nadel, former city councilwoman turned chocolatier, use natural Jamaican chocolate. 
  4. Karinto Krisps (Oakland) - Lyhn Quan caramelizes sesame crackers to make this addictive snack.

Little Shop Gift Basket

The Little Shop Gift Basket comes with a random local assortment of goodies: 

  1. Greek Yogurt Coated Coconut Chips from Dang Foods (San Francisco) - Vincent Kitirattragarn has a passion for coconut chips. The product line has five flavors: original, caramel sea salt, lightly salted unsweetened, Greek yogurt covered and fair trade dark chocolate covered.
  2. Alfajores Narciso (San Francisco) - Patricia relocated to San Francisco after being born and raised in Peru until the age of 24. Alfajores Narciso has been up and running creating handmade delicious alfajores in San Francisco since 2012. She loves experimenting with unique flavors like mango, ube, coconut, nutella, almonds, peanut butter dipped in chocolate, coconut and dulce de leche and dulce de leche dipped in chocolate. 
  3. Peguero Pistachios (Merced) - The Peguero Family has been farming for over 50 years and has been growing pistachios for over 23 years in the central valley.
  4. Lucky Dog Hot Sauce (Hayward) - Scott Zalkind has been passionately making his hot sauce line for over 8 years and has won distinguishing awards like the Golden Chile Winner, Fiery Food Challenge and The Hot Pepper Award. Scott is adamant about hot sauces having both flavor and heat, so he uses sweet carrot juice and slow roasts his peppers. Lucky Dog Hot Sauces are all natural and are made with high quality ingredients in Sonoma.

It's definitely a gift that will show appreciation to the foodie in your life. You can browse through more options on: Little Shop Artisan Box.

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