March 25, 2015

Cruising: Ship Life

I didn't know what to expect on my first cruise, and yet I knew what I was getting myself into, going with my mom and older sister. I had no experience of ship life, but I knew what traveling with these two people would be like. I knew it would be aggravating at times, and I anticipated getting into a fight with my sister. (We did.) It's hard to be stuck on a boat with people you don't always mesh with, but if you're going to do it, let it be a big boat.

With a capacity of 1,350 passengers, Holland America's ms Veendam is a smaller cruise ship, but it was big enough for us to have a good time. For starters, our stateroom felt pretty spacious, and the beds were comfortable. We had a large oceanview window and a full bathroom with a bathtub - my mom was impressed because she'd only had a small shower on her previous two cruises.

Comfy twin beds!
Sometimes we're messy.
San Diego from our window!

The facilities around the ship were fair - we enjoy swimming, but there was only one pool, and it wasn't big enough to do proper laps. Kind of a bummer, but not extremely disappointing because we went swimming at the beaches in port. Also available for use: six hot tubs, a tennis court, and my favorite, a basketball court.

The pool and two hot tubs...obstructed by the stage cover, sorry.

The first time I went to shoot, I checked out a basketball from the front office and hit the court. Apparently, I had the only ball on the whole ship and ended up sharing with a 14-year-old and a 20-year-old. I thought it was so crazy that the ship advertised a basketball court but had only one ball. Should I have brought my own? I mentioned it to the front office, and I was basically told that's how it is, because the average age of Holland America's passengers is 70. They don't play basketball, so the cruise only needs one.

I hated hearing that, because walking around the ship, there were people of all ages. Young couples, families with children of all ages, teenagers, older people, and most importantly, me. I think it's obvious that the staff should have prepared for such a wide age range of passengers. But we ran into a few problems like that. There was a recurring issue with our security photos, and one of the girls at the shore excursions desk was quite rude to us. I was increasingly concerned, because I'd heard so much about how Holland America had the best service, but it wasn't showing.

I talked to another girl at the front office about the issues we had, and she was much more helpful than the meanie shore excursions girl. She gave us the information we were seeking, and told me that while they normally have 3 basketballs, two were lost in some sort of incidents (one was thrown overboard by a kid). When we returned to the room that night, this was waiting for us:

Chocolate covered strawberries! and an apology card.

After that, I felt better about the service. In fact, being on a ship could be pretty fun! I looked forward to fine dining almost every night. Waiter service and a three-course meal in the dining room was always enjoyable, though slow-paced. We often made it a four (or more!) course meal by ordering two appetizers...or entrees or desserts. Remember, all the food on a cruise is already paid for, and we like to eat. Here are some of the meals I enjoyed in the dining room:

Rotterdam Dining Room
Top: shrimp cocktail, melon gazpacho
Bottom: prime rib, lemon sorbet

We got our lobster! Finding filet mignon and lobster tail on the menu was exciting - surf and turf for life, y'all. And every time there was a soufflé on the dessert menu, I ordered it. I love soufflés.

Top: jumbo shrimp cocktail, salad
Bottom: surf and turf, Grand Marnier soufflé

The last dinner of the cruise was probably the greatest one. I loved everything I ate that night:

Top: brie in phyllo dough, mediterranean tapas
Bottom: Roasted duck, baked Alaska

Another fun aspect of cruising is formal nights, when we would dress up for dinner. Since graduating high school, it seems like I don't get to dress up all that often. Maybe at a wedding every now and then, but that's it. This cruise had two formal nights, so we got to dress up like we were going to prom - which is cool, because I never went to prom.

At least the carpet matches...

After dinner, it was nice to come back to a turned-down room, with chocolates on the bed and a new towel animal each night.

This was a vacation, so we treated ourselves to passes for the thermal suite at the Greenhouse Spa. It featured a steam room, mineral bath, and heated ceramic loungers. We paid about $250 for the three of us to access the suite for the entirety of the cruise, and I think we got our money's worth, going once or twice each day. It was very relaxing, and I loved those heated loungers. I went into spa withdrawal when I got back!

Steam room
Mineral bath
Heated ceramic loungers

I think I went to every show on the cruise. The ship had a decent size showroom, and they'd have singing and dancing or something of the sort every night. Despite the small stage, they were quite good quality, entertaining shows, and I was impressed. The second full day of the cruise, I was stressed out and went to Kevin Jordan's comedy show with a bottle of wine. Things were a little better after that. What can I say? Alcohol is my lifetime companion.

Showroom at Sea

Overall, the programming and events aboard the ship were fun. Live music included contemporary, classical, and ballroom, the "Dancing with the Stars at Sea" program was pretty well done, and I finally got to watch Interstellar and The Theory of Everything. We made it to one afternoon tea service, which I loved because it was Indonesian themed.

Indonesian tea time!

Ship life can be very enjoyable, but it definitely helps to have good travel partners. I mean, I think we all had a good enough time even if we were all annoyed with each other at various points. Fortunately, the ship was large enough that we could all spread out and have our own space. Would I go again? Definitely. But it won't be for many months, and I'll skip the "Champagne Art Auction" next time. They promised us champagne and "ran out" before I got any. That was so not cool. I take my alcohol very seriously.

Next, I'll show you what we did in the ports of call!

March 19, 2015

Asian American Engagement

When Pho Across America hit its second anniversary last month, I finally launched a Facebook page to accompany it. In addition to posting blog updates, I've been sharing links on related topics, like Vietnamese food guides, aviation articles, and Asian American issues.

Back in the day.

Asian and Pacific Islander (AAPI) issues have been of interest to me since my UCLA days, when I was actively involved in the Vietnamese Student Union. These days, I haven't dedicated much time to keeping up with current events, but as a proud Asian American, I really should.

Here are three websites I should be browsing more often to stay engaged:

Because they say it so much better than I can: " was founded to promote AAPI civic engagement, influence and movement by leveraging the power of technology and social media. (18MR) is comprised of a network of a AAPI activists, artists, organizations, and digital media influencers, ranging from community based organizations and print magazines to Asian American blogs and YouTube channels."

Angry Asian Man is a blog about Asian American news, media, and politics, founded in 2001 by Phil Yu. "Stay angry" is his motto, always bringing attention to injustices against our Asian American family.

Reappropriate is an Asian American activism, identity, feminism, and pop culture blog written by Jenn. Her posts are always very well-researched, providing a wealth of information from a rational perspective.

What other websites for Asian American engagement would you recommend?

March 14, 2015

Flight Attendant FAQ #1

Over the years, friends have asked me various questions about my job. I've been meaning to write a post answering some of the most commonly asked questions, so here we go!

1. How do I get started as a flight attendant?
The minimum qualifications are pretty simple. Have a high school diploma or GED (though 2 years of college are preferred), and be at least 21 for most airlines. If you're younger than that, there are some smaller airlines that may still hire at 18 or 19, but I suggest you take some college courses instead. Get your associate's degree or start your bachelor's. Or just work and save up some money because your starting wages as a flight attendant will not be very high.

Next, find out who's hiring. The website I used was I didn't buy any interview guides or anything, just looked at their hiring page every day to see who was accepting applications. Apply everywhere you can, because the more interviews you attend, the better prepared you will be. My personal rule: don't go to any interviews that make you buy your own plane ticket. It's an airline, they should fly you for free because you're worth it, damn it!

As you fill out applications, remember to be flexible. Be ready to move, ready to roll with the punches. The airline industry changes fast - mergers on the big scale, weather and delays on the small scale. You should be able to handle all of that. Be patient, as airlines receive thousands of applications. It may take them a while to get to you, but if you meet the qualifications and have a solid resume, you should be invited to an interview.

2. Do you have to get your own hotel room?
No, we certainly do not. That's not part of our job responsibilities. The company books hotel rooms for each trip, which is important because we have mandated rest rules. Each crewmember gets their own room. I can't imagine what sharing a room would be like - having to share a bathroom on a short layover or dealing with a snorer are issues I would definitely not want to handle. We generally have a contract with a hotel (or a few) close to the airport, and one downtown for longer stays.

3. On very long flights, do you have to stay awake the whole flight?
This may be different at other airlines, but at mine, you get a crew rest break on any flight scheduled over 8 hours. For example, on an 11 hour flight from SFO (San Francisco) to NRT (Tokyo-Narita), the crew would be divided into 3 groups that each get about a 2 hour break, scheduled between the main services.

I mostly fly domestic, so I almost never get crew rest. Those 6-7 hour transcontinental flights can be rough, but you just have to keep yourself busy. Eating, drinking coffee, talking to other crewmembers (or passengers), reading, or even exercising are some of the things I do to keep myself going.

4. How do you deal with having such an inconsistent schedule?
Compared to other jobs, our schedules are weird. Quality of life differs greatly depending if you're a reserve (on call) or a lineholder (senior enough to hold a schedule for the whole month). I've been lucky to be a lineholder for a couple of years now, so my schedules are not too bad. Most of the crazy things I do are self-inflicted, like working for 12 days straight - because I wanted 8 days off to go on vacation. Stuff like that.

I think the general answer to this question is that you have to make the schedule work for you. It's easy enough for me, since I'm single and don't have kids or any other big responsibilities. I try to plan out my life as best I can, and take advantage of being able to change my days off and group days together to go on trips. It's "work hard, play hard" in the truest sense.

5. How can I be a good/better passenger and make your life easier?
There are many ways to be a good passenger, but I'll just mention some of the more basic ones! First of all, say hello when you get on the plane! I can't tell you how many people completely ignore me when I say "good morning" or "welcome aboard." It doesn't make me feel good.

Next, to help our beverage service flow efficiently, please know what you want to drink. "What do you have?" is one of the most annoying questions. Even if you're not sure of what is available, you can at least be a little more specific and ask something like "what kind of sodas do you have?" or "what hot drinks are available?" It also helps when you're specific about what you want, such as "water with ice" or "coffee with cream and sugar."

Finally, please minimize use of the flight attendant call button, and be sure to follow any directions we give you! Please don't argue with us when we're just doing our jobs.

If you have any more questions, feel free to ask in the comments!

March 8, 2015

Ready to Cruise!

Here's some exciting news: this month, I'm going on my first cruise! I had a week off with no plans, and I found a decent deal, so it seemed like a good idea. I'm going with my mom and older sister, and we'll be sailing down the Mexican Riviera from San Diego on Holland America's ms Veendam.

ms Veendam

Leaving from San Diego seemed optimal, since my family members wouldn't have to fly. Attempting non-rev travel before a fixed date can be difficult, especially when spring breaks have started, so being able to drive 20 minutes to the port of departure is a great convenience! The Veendam is a smaller cruise ship though, with a passenger capacity of 1350. It doesn't have all the awesome features of larger ships, like rock climbing walls or ice skating rinks, but I think I'll find enough things to do.

Our ports of call on this 7-night cruise will be Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlán, and Puerto Vallarta. I'm sure I'll be spending a lot of money, but it'll be fun! And it'll be great to spend some more time with my mom and sister.

Have you been on a cruise? Have any cruise tips?

March 4, 2015

200th Post: International Pho in Auckland

For my last meal in Auckland, I wanted phở. While the city is generously dotted with Japanese restaurants, Vietnamese ones are harder to find. After meandering around the city without result, I ducked into a hotel for some guidance, and I was recommended Cafe Hanoi. It's located in the busy Britomart area, but the entrance, a completely unassuming red door in a white warehouse-like building only marked by small stenciled lettering, is nearly hidden. I would never have discovered this place on my own.

This was certainly one of the more interesting Vietnamese restaurants I've ever visited. The atmosphere is not like your usual pho restaurant. It has dim lighting, a full bar, and big paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling. It's not very big, with a lot of tables packed into a small space, but it seems like a really fun venue. It's a little loud for a romantic date, but a perfect choice for family, friends, or anyone you're comfortable with.

I loved the floral design of the menu. There was a page of specialty cocktails, and I ordered "So Fresh, So Clean". Made with Belvedere vodka, lime juice, lemongrass syrup, and fresh lemongrass, it was sweet, light, and easy to drink.

So Fresh, So Clean

Most of the menu consisted of "Modern Vietnamese" seafood and meat dishes, made to share, and a little more expensive. The server told me that some dishes could be broken down into smaller portions for single diners, which is nice. I really wanted to try the squid, but they couldn't do a smaller portion of that. Oh well.

"Old Quarter Favorites" listed more traditional items, including the only type of phở: phở gà, which was $6 NZD. I ordered that as well as a half portion of the "spicy salad of master stock poached chicken with green papaya, garlic, chili, and crushed peanuts," which was a traditional Vietnamese salad, or gỏi.

Amuse bouche

First to arrive was an amuse bouche, a gift from the chef to every diner. It was a steak tartare, a simple bite presented in a spoon. It had a nice, smooth texture, with a little spiciness and a light crunch from the garnish.

Phở gà

The phở gà was tiny! It was the smallest portion of phở I've ever had, served in a little rice bowl. With the first sip of broth, the taste of fish sauce was very prevalent, which surprised me. As I had a little more, I enjoyed it. I could also taste the spices that make phở what it is, and a hint of spiciness. Onions, basil, and cilantro topped it off, with lime as the only side garnish. The chicken was moist but not juicy, chewy with just a hint of dryness. The weak part of this dish was the noodles, with that slightly stiff, packaged taste. I would have enjoyed fresher, more tender noodles, but I definitely could have eaten a bigger bowl.

Spicy salad

Next, the gỏi was as expected. It was fresh, and the level of spiciness was nice, a good punch of heat. It seemed like a popular dish, since I could see a lot of it coming out of the kitchen.

Lime curd with soft meringue & meringue ice cream

I was still hungry, so I ordered dessert - lime curd with soft meringue, with cinnamon tuille and meringue ice cream. It was one of the best desserts I've ever had! The meringue was perfectly light, and the tartness of the lime curd was a perfect match. The meringue ice cream might have changed my life, because it was like eating a cloud from heaven.

All in all, it was an excellent meal. The atmosphere, service, and food are all top-notch, and Cafe Hanoi is definitely a place I want to visit again. I'll be dreaming about that dessert for years to come.

Rating Breakdown:

Taste (11/14)
  • Broth flavor- 4/5
  • Noodle & meat quality- 4/5
  • Garnish selection- N/A (automatic 2 pts)
  • Portion size- 1/2
Restaurant (16/16)
  • Service- 5/5
  • Cleanliness- 5/5
  • Atmosphere- 4/4
  • Speed of arrival- 2/2
Total: 27/30

Cafe Hanoi, Corner of Galway and Commerce Streets, Auckland 1010, New Zealand | Yelp

100th Post: What Pho Means to Me

March 2, 2015

Auckland, Part 3: Waiheke Island

If you are in Auckland and like beaches or wine, Waiheke Island is a must-visit destination. A 45-minute ferry ride from downtown, this quiet island features beautiful beaches and eighteen vineyards. It was a wonderful place to spend my last day in New Zealand!

Little Palm Beach!

I purchased a ticket for the Waiheke Explorer Tour with Fullers. $55 NZD includes the round trip ferry ride, 1.5 hour bus tour around the island, and an all-day bus pass to use afterward. I'd just missed the 10am ferry, so I fueled up with breakfast at Valentino's in the Ferry Building before catching the next one at 11. Eggs, bacon and toast with a flat white hit the spot.

The vineyards on the island looked beautiful, so it was unsurprising that they've become popular wedding venues. Wine tasting tours are a great way to sample local wines, and several of the vineyards have award-winning restaurants on their properties as well.

When we reached Onetangi Beach, I hopped off the tour a little early. It was a magnificent looking beach, with sparkling blue water and a long stretch of almost golden sand, nestled in island foliage. There weren't many people, so it was quiet and peaceful.

I tanned, I swam, I lived. And then I got hungry, so I had lunch at the beachfront 4th Avenue Eatery while admiring the stunning view. You know, I'd forgotten to pack my razor and didn't want to buy a new one, so I hadn't shaved my legs for four days. Who cares? I have friends who can't bear to show their legs if they're a little hairy, but here's what I think: you should never let something stupid like body hair stop you from doing what you want.

I wanted to check out another beach, so I took the bus over to Oneroa Beach. It was smaller than Onetangi Beach but very pretty, with more trees surrounding the white sand. It was closer to the "downtown" area and there were houses across the street, but it was nearly deserted. It was cooler at the time, so the few people there were taking walks, rather than swimming or laying out. I put on my cardigan, spread out my towel again, and chilled.

This little buddy came to say hi!

I had an absolutely perfect beach day. I got to see beautiful sights all around the island, get a bit of a tan, enjoy a refreshing swim, drink a delicious beer, pet a cute dog, get some cool pictures, and just relax. That is how you vacation. What more could a girl possibly want?

Next, I'll share an international pho experience!