Floating Mountains in Ha Long Bay

The inspiration from Avatar's floating mountains (Hallelujah Mountains) may have come from the Zhangjiajie Stone Forest in China... however, as I toured Ha Long Bay (in Northern Vietnam), I couldn't help but to be reminded by that movie. When the boat first embarked, there was no wind... the sea was perfectly still and looked like glass. As we left the port, we could see stone mountains towering out of the water. It looked as if they were floating above the sea. The experience was unlike anything I've done before. I wish I had more time to explore the region.

Street Scenes - Hanoi

Hanoi is a unique city. These are some photos I took while wandering around the downtown area. Hanoi has the charm and character of an old European City... and if it weren't for the constant roaring of the motorbikes (and humidity), it would feel like you've transported yourself across the world. There are many winding alleyways, open markets, outdoor cafes, friendly people, and fantastic restaurants. It's definitely worth exploring.

Wandering through the Valley

Some random photos I took over the last few years in the Santa Ynez valley. It's amazing to see so much water in the top photo (that lake has almost dried up because of the major drought we've been having).

The Vineyards of Santa Ynez

Right after I moved to Santa Barbara, I went on an afternoon trip over the San Marcos Pass... and to the Santa Ynez Valley. I knew a little bit about the vineyards in the area, but had not ventured out there for several years. At the time, I had a rental car, no map, and my phone had just died. Therefore, I thought I would wander around and see what I could find. During that trip, I stumbled upon three vineyards that are still amongst my favorites in the region: Bridlewood, Brander, and Beckmen (just realized that they all begin with the letter 'B').

Bridlewood: Delicious Syrah wines and beautiful grounds. The property was once home to an Arabian horse farm and an equestrian rehabilitation center. The design of the winery pays homage to California's historic missions, with a Spanish-style bell tower, breezy verandas and a fountain surrounded by a stone courtyard.

Brander: Probably best known for their Sauvignon Blanc, they also have some fantastic reds. My favorites are the Cabernet Reserve, Bouchet (blend), and F-Red (Cabernet Franc). The tasting room is a bit cozier that the vineyards in the area, but the great wine and friendly service keeps me coming back.

Beckmen: Specializes in estate-grown Rhone Varietals. This vineyard is tucked away from the main road (not quite sure how I found it)... and the grapes are grown on a 365 acre ranch called Purisima Mountain Vineyard. It is an incredibly beautiful landscape.

Autumn in Santa Ynez

A few photos taken during the Autumn season in Santa Ynez (Yes... California does have "seasons").

The Master

Taking a peak into the kitchen of a Michelin starred dim sum restaurant in Hong Kong (Tim Ho Wan). 

Eating and Waiting in Hong Kong

One of my favorite things to do in Hong Kong is eat (especially after spending a couple of weeks in China). It has everything from high end fine dining to cheap/delicious street food. On my last trip to Asia, I had one free day in Hong Kong... so I decided to spend it exploring the various eateries that the locals enjoy. One thing to note is that Hong Kong's population is the 4th most dense in the world. Therefore, if you go to a popular restaurant (that doesn't accept reservations), you will need to be prepared to wait.

A trip to Hong Kong would not be complete without stopping at one dim sum restaurant. Therefore, I started off my day at Tim Ho Wan. Tim Ho Wan is the least expensive Michelin starred restaurant in the world. The waiting time at the original location in Mong Kok could take over 3 hours on a weekend. However, they have since expanded... and I only had to wait an hour. When you arrive, you need to check in with a hostess and she will give you a piece of paper with a number. You're free to wander off and shop in the connected mall... but make sure to come back before they call your number (or you will be placed on the bottom of the list). The most famous item on the menu (and my favorite) is the BBQ pork buns. They add a sweet glaze to the buns and then bake them... which gives it a crunchy but light texture. The inside is a mixture of barbecue sauce and tender pork. The rest of the food was also really good... but the hour wait was worth it for this one dish.

I ate so much dim sum for brunch, that I was not hungry again until later in the evening. Since I happened to be on the Hong Kong side, I decided to try a new/famous Ramen restaurant called Ichiran. Ichiran started in Japan and just recently opened up their first location in Hong Kong (in 2014). The restaurant is open 24 hours... and regardless of the time you go, there will always be a long queue. On this particular evening, I had to wait for 2 hours. If you plan to wait, it's not that big of an issue (Hong Kong does not have an "open container law... so I recommend picking up a few beers at the 7-11 around the corner). The menu at Ichiran is very simple... you only have one option: Tonkotsu Ramen noodles. It's a straight forward Japanese classic that Ichiran has perfected. You do have the option to customize the dish... and can specify the strength of broth, less or more garlic/onion, added vegetables, egg, and type of noodle. I would also suggest ordering kae dama, which let's you get a refill of noodles for just a few dollars (in case you have extra broth). Ichiran also has their own branded water that is served ice cold from your own personal tap. It was a very nice dinner.

After dinner, I went to Cong Sao Star Dessert. This is a very popular Hong Kong style dessert place... and I had to wait about 45 minutes to get inside (which gave me a chance to digest some food). This restaurant is famous for its sago soup (variation of tapioca pudding). Sago soup is not my favorite dessert, but it was nice to get a cool/refreshing treat on a warm night. I also recommend the durian pancake.

All in all, it was a very successful day of eating!

Floating Above the Metropolis

One of my favorite things to do when in Hong Kong is to go to the top of tall buildings and look down. A lot of the buildings have rooftop terraces where you can enjoy a drink while floating on top of the city. During my last trip, I packed my high powered zoom lens and focused in on a few interesting scenes. It's nice that many of the rooftops are open air with no glass walls... provides a much clearer view (just have to be careful after having a few drinks).

Sepia Dreams in Hong Kong

During my last trip to Asia (in May 2014), I spent 2 days and 1 night in Hong Kong. I was staying at the Sheraton Hotel in Kowloon and was lucky enough to get a harbor view room. I arrived in Hong Kong a bit later than planned on a Saturday (don't recommend driving across the border from China to Hong Kong on a holiday weekend... ridiculous traffic!!)... and did not get a chance to enjoy the room that day (wanted to get out and do some shopping/eating!). When I finally did get back to my room on Saturday evening, I was too tired to even close the shades and passed out. The next morning I awoke to the sunrise. I had been out late the previous evening and was planning to sleep in... so I got out of my bed to close the shades. However, when I got to the window, I could see that the lighting on the city was spectacular. The sun had just peaked above the horizon and it was hitting the buildings at a nice angle. Therefore, I decided to take a few photos from my room before going back to sleep. As I look closer at these photos, I can't help but be amazed at the apartments and townhouses situated on Victoria Peak (the mountain behind Hong Kong City). If you're lucky enough to have 50+ million dollars lying around, you can put your name in the queue to try purchasing one.