Eastern Europe Trip – Day 11 – Budapest, Hungary

Today was my last full day in Budapest. I had a quick breakfast and took the bus to All Saints Roman Catholic Church. This church was built in 1975, was designed in a brutalism architecture style, and was the first church in Budapest that the Communist regime allowed to be built. The previous one was built in 1948. The state provided no money, so the congregation had to rely on social workers for labor and very cheap building materials. Architect István Szabó, a man of faith himself, also working for free, designed all of the interior decorations and the furnishings himself.

Next door to the church is the Imre Makovecz Mortuary Chapel, which was originally built in the early 1930’s. The chapel was destroyed during World War II, and was eventually rebuilt. The building underwent full refurbishment in 1991 and resembles the inside of a human chest. The ribs are made of hardwood and coffins are placed where the heart would be. There was a funeral occurring when I was here, and I wanted to be respectful of the family, so I didn’t take any photos.

I took the bus back into the city and walked by the Turkish Bank House, an Art Nouveau style building, which was designed by Henrik Böhm and Ármin Hegedűs in 1906, The facade is almost entirely glass-covered, and in the upper gable it sports a Secessionist mosaic by Miksa Róth called Patrona Hungariae, which depicts Hungary surrounded by great Hungarians of the past.

Close by was Gresham Palace. The Four Seasons Hotel (Gresham Palace) is a beautiful example of Art Nouveau architecture style. It was constructed in 1906 as an office and apartment building, but is now used today by the Four Seasons Hotel chain. It is located right along the River Danube and looks absolutely stunning. During World War 2 it was used as a barrack by the Red Army. It became fairly run down and was used as an apartment during the People’s Republic of Hungary. After the fall of communism in 1990 the national government turned the property over to the city. Oberoi Hotels entered into an agreement to manage a hotel in the building in 1991, but due to legal battles it never happened. In 1998 Gresco Investments acquired the building. Together with the Four Seasons the building was renovated in its original Art Nouveau architectural style for about $85 million. Building ownership again changed in 2001 (Quinland Private of Ireland) and 2011 (State General Reserve Fund of Oman), but the Four Seasons continues to operate and manage it. In front of the hotel area few statues, which include Count Istvan Szechenyi, and Ferenc Deak.

It was then time for lunch so I stopped in at the First Strudel House of Pest, which was opened in 2007. It features a really unique Split Flap Display, similar to what you would have seen at an airport decades ago, and you can watch the staff make fresh strudels all day long. I had a savory strudel, and a coffee. If you end up visiting here make sure to checkout the bathroom; it’s pretty neat!

After lunch I walked by the Dohány Street Synagogue and the Holocaust Tree of Life Memorial. The price for the synagogue was more than I would have liked to pay, so I didn’t go inside.

The Holocaust Tree of Life Memorial was designed by Imre Varga in 1991. It was paid for by the late American actor Tony Curtis for his Hungarian-born father Emanuel Schwartz. The memorial stands over the mass graves of those murdered by the Nazis between 1944 and 1945. The names of some of the hundreds of thousands of victims are inscribed on the metal leaves.

The Dohány Street Synagogue is the largest synagogue in Europe, with a capacity for over 3000 people. Designed by architect Ludwig Förster, it was built between 1854 and 1859 in a Moorish Revival architecture style. The building suffered extensive damage during World War 2 bombings and was not repaired until 1998. The restoration took 7 years! I forgot to take a daytime photo, however here’s a night time photo I took on my first night.

The final, and what I think was the best stop of the day, was the Aviation Cultural Center Museum (Aeropark), located near the airport. I took the express bus 100E back to the airport, and walked to the museum. Fortunately there was nobody else at the museum so I received a private tour from a wonderful man named Zainko Geza. He worked with Malev Hungarian Airlines for 47 years as an aircraft mechanic. If you like old soviet era aircraft I highly recommend checking out his website. The museum featured a bunch of old Soviet era aircraft including Lisunov Li-2, Ilyushin Il-14T, a pair of Ilyushin Il-18V’s, Tupolev Tu-134, Tupolev Tu-154B-2 (which resembles a Boeing 727), a pair of Yakovlev Yak-40E’s, Antonov An-2M, Mil Mi-2, Antonov An-2R, and a Let L-410 Turbolet.

My personal favorite was the Tupolev Tu-154, which closely resembles that of a Boeing 727, however looks much beefier. The plane was produced between 1968 and 2013, and 1026 were made. This plane was the workhorse of many Soviet era airlines from the late 1960’s until the mid-2000’s. The aircraft was capable of cruising at 850 kph for 5300 kilometres, and even had the unique capability of operating from unpaved and gravel airfields, hence the 12 main wheels, as opposed to Boeing’s 4 main wheels on their 727.

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Eastern Europe Trip – Day 10 – Budapest, Hungary

Today I continued exploring Budapest. I slept in until 8:00am today, which was nice, as I was quite tired. I had some breakfast and coffee before venturing outside. It was quite chilly this morning, so I brought my jacket with me.

I took a tram to the Anantara New York Palace Budapest Hotel. The building was constructed in 1894 by the New York Life Insurance Company to be used as their local head office. It was designed by Alajos Hauszmann, Flóris Korb and Kálmán Giergl. During the communist era the building was nationalized. After the collapse of communism, the structure was purchased by Italian Boscolo Hotels in February 2001, and was totally renovated and reopened in May 2006 as a 107-room luxury hotel.

I then walked to the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, which was established in 1875 as a live concert hall and music university. It is also home to the Liszt Collection, which feature several valuable books and manuscripts donated by Franz Liszt when he died. The academy is currently located in a beautiful Art Nouveau style building that was built in 1907. It was designed by Flóris Korb and Kálmán Giergl at the request of Baron Gyula Wlassics, who was the Minister of Culture at that time. The façade is dominated by a statue of Liszt, which was sculpted by Alajos Stróbl. The building is fairly beautiful on the outside, however is supposed to be quite beautiful on the inside, however I was unable to get inside as they use a keycard system to enter.

Close by is Lotz Hall, which was originally a casino in 1884, under the name “Terézvárosi Kaszinó”, and became a department store in the 20th century. The beautiful Art Nouveau style building was designed by Karoly Lotz. When you enter the building it still says “Párisi Nagy Áruház” (“Paris Department Store”) on a sign on the façade, bringing homage to the history of this beautiful building. Abandoned for years, the building was brought back to life by the Alexandra bookstore, which had a café in the Lotz Hall and its stock downstairs. In March 2017, the business suddenly shut down and the Lotz Hall was closed to the public for almost two years until it was transformed into a venue that can be rented out, with a French-style cafe called “Café Párisi” on the top floor. Sadly the café closed during COVID-19, and there is a for rent sign out front.

Café Párisi is located on the famous Andrássy út street, which is one of the main boulevards in Budapest, dating back to 1872. The boulevard is lined with spectacular Neo-renaissance mansions and townhouses featuring fine facades and interiors. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002.

A short walk away is the Hungarian State Opera, which was also closed due to extensive renovations. The Hungarian State Opera House is a beautiful Neo-Renaissance style opera house, with elements of Baroque, that was built between 1875 and 1884. It was designed by Miklós Ybl, a major figure of 19th-century Hungarian architecture. The opera house has capacity for 1300 people. A major renovation occurred between 1980 and 1984. The decoration of the symmetrical façade follows a musical theme. At the main entrance there is a beautiful wide sweeping stone staircase that is illuminated by wrought-iron lamps. The foyers contain marble columns, and the vaulted ceilings are covered in beautiful murals created by Bertalan Székely and Mór Than.

Continuing down Andrássy út street I eventually came to St. Stephen’s Basilica, which is a Roman Catholic basilica that was built between 1851 and 1905. The reason that the basilica took so long to build was the collapse of the dome in 1868 which required complete demolition of the completed works and rebuilding from the ground up. It was named in honour of King Stephen, the first King of Hungary from 975 AD to 1038 AD. The church was built on the site of a former theater, named Hetz-Theater, where animal fights were hosted. After the theatre was knocked down a temporary church was built in its place by a rich Hungarian named János Zitterbarth before the permanent church was built with money that was fundraised. The building is in Neo-Classical architecture style, and is the second tallest building in Budapest at 96 metres (315 feet) tall. The reason for this was that regulations prohibited building any building taller than this for a long time. It’s simply stunning on the inside.

I started walking towards the Hungarian Parliament building with two quick photo stops at the Postal Savings Bank, and the House of Hungarian Art Nouveau, which also was sadly a COVID causality. It recently gone out of business as well.

The Postal Savings Bank building is a beautiful Secessionist style building containing colourful tiles and folk motifs. It was built by Ödön Lechner in 1901. The building is now utilized by the National Bank of Hungary.

House of Hungarian Art Nouveau is dedicated to the Hungarian Art Nouveau Secession style. The museum is located in a house built by Emil Vidor in 1903 for the Bedő family. The contemporary furniture, decorative objects, paintings and instruments displayed in the museum showcase what it would have been like to live in the beginning of the 20th century. The building was restored between 2003 and 2007 by architect Benkovich Attila and the architectural historian János Gerle.

The Hungarian Parliament Building is the largest building in Hungary. It was designed by Hungarian architect Imre Steindl in neo-Gothic style and was completed in 1904. When Budapest was united from the three cities of Buda, Óbuda, and Pest it was decided to establish a new parliament building that would express sovereignty of the nation. The design was chosen from an international competition, with Imre Steindl emerging as the victor. The plans of the other two competitors were later also realized in the form of the Néprajzi Múzeum (Ethnographic Museum) and Vajdahunyad Castle (the Hungarian Ministry of Agriculture), both facing the Parliament Building. The building took over 100000 people the build, 40 million bricks, 500000 precious stones, and nearly 100 pounds of gold.

Close to the parliament building is the The Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial, which was opened on April 16th 2005 to honour the Jews were killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen during World War 2. They were ordered to take off their shoes and were shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies would fall into the river when they died. It represents their shoes that were left behind. The memorial was designed by Gyula Pauer.

By this point in time my feet were in absolute agony. These new Nike’s were just not working for me, so I decided to go to a shoe store in the suburbs to pick up a pair of ASICS. It was about a 40 minute ride, but completely worth it. My feet were instantly happy.

Near the shoe store was a neat hotel called Hotel Budapest. It’s a cylindrical shaped brutalism style hotel that was opened in 1967. It was designed by György Szrogh and built using slipform construction and fair-faced concrete, which was quite cutting-edge technology at the time. During it’s prime days it had a dance club on the top floor, which was then turned into a sauna and roof terrace, however in 1994 it was converted into rooms.

I then went back to my hotel quickly to drop off my bag with my Nike’s in there, and went to Mazel Tov for some food, which my friend Pat recommended to me. I had a Shawarma platter and an IPA beer. Both were extremely delicious!

The final stop for today was The House of Terror museum, which features exhibits related to the fascist and communist regimes in the 20th century Hungary. It also serves as a memorial to the victims of these regimes. The museum was opened on February 24th 2002. Unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to take any interior photos, but it was an excellent exhibit, and I highly recommend visiting it.

I then tried to book a bus to Bratislava for Saturday, however it seemed that the bus company wasn’t operating, so I’ll just head straight to Vienna on Saturday (in two days), and then do a day trip to Bratislava on another day. I was still hungry so I walked across the street from my hotel to Sali Salad Library and had a Greek salad.

Be sure to check back tomorrow, as it is my last day in Budapest.

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Eastern Europe Trip – Day 4 – Belgrade, Serbia

Today was my first day in Belgrade, Serbia. Before I dive into this exploring Belgrade let’s talk about Serbia’s history.

Serbia’s History

In the 7th Century Slavs, ancestors of modern Serbs arrived in Serbia. Upon initial settlement they were divided into clans, but in the 8th century the first Serbian state, called Rašica, was formed. The Serbians became Christian in the 9th century. Over the next few centuries Serbia expanded its territories and had a growing population.

Everything was going well until the 14th century when the Turks invaded Serbia in a battle at the Marica River in 1371, and another battle in Kosovo in 1389. The Turks continued their invasion of the country over the next few hundred years. In 1459 the Turks captured the city of Smederevo, which ended up in the demise of Serbian independence. The Turks were relentless and didn’t stop there; in 1521 they captured the city of Belgrade.

In 1594 the Serbians rebelled against the Turks in the Uprising in Banat, but lost. The Serbians rebelled again between 1683-1690 during a war between Austria, Poland, Venice and Turkey, but the Austrian’s withdrew, which caused the rebellion to collapse. Many Serbians went back with the retreating Austrian army.

The fighting was far from over; in 1804 the First National Uprising, led by Dorde Petrovic, had begun. With some help from Russia the rebellion was successful at first, but in 1812 the Russian’s made peace with the Turks, and as a result the Serbian rebellion collapsed. In 1815 the Second National Uprising began, but this time the Turks allowed Serbia some autonomy. In 1878 Serbia finally became independent, and in 1882 Serbia became a Kingdom.

After World War 1 Serbia became part of a large Slav nation, and in 1929 King Aleksander suspended parliament and introduced a royal dictatorship, and named the state Yugoslavia.

There were two extremist parties in Croatia during the 1930’s; the Communists and the Fascist Ustase. In 1939 the Yugoslavian government gave into the demands for Croatian autonomy and created an autonomous region called the Banovina.

During the beginning of World War 2 Yugoslavia had a neutral stance, but in March 1941 a coup was held by pro-British officers, and as a result the Germans invaded Yugoslavia on April 6 1941. The Germans set up shop in Croatia with the fascist Ustase in charge, but the Croatians were able to liberate them by 1945.

During the 1960’s nationalism re-emerged and more people were demanding autonomy. In 1971 Tito, the Communist leader put a stop to it, but he ended up dying in 1980. Communism collapsed in most of Eastern Europe in 1989, during the same time frame that many non-Communist organizations were being setup. Finally, in 1991-1992 Yugoslavia started to break up. Serbia became independent in 2006, Montenegro became independent in 2006, and Kosovo became independent in 2008.

Exploring Belgrade, Serbia

I started the day off by talking to the receptionist at the hotel for about an hour. She was quite excited that I was a photographer, so she gave me a lot of great ideas to explore while I’m in Belgrade, as well as some places close by worth exploring.

After chatting with the receptionist and gathering all the great info, it was time to start my adventures. I started off by having a goat cheese and prosciutto omelette and coffee for breakfast at a delightful little place called Red Bread. It cost me about $8 CDN for my meal, which I thought was a great price.

First stop was Republic Square, which sits in front of the National Museum. Republic Square is considered Belgrade’s most important central square. Surrounding republic square is the National Theatre, National Museum, the Army House, and the monument of Prince Knez Mihailo. There are four fountains location on the square as well. In historic times this place was home to the Stambol Gate, which was Belgrade’s’ further outer gate of the 19th century. The Turks used the gate to execute convicts by hanging them. Once the Turks left the city, Prince Mihailo ordered the demolition of the gate. The first building to be built in its place was the National Theatre, built in 1869. 19 Years later the Prince Mihailo statue was built. Over the years the square became the modern hub of Belgrade. It was suggested to rename the square to Freedom Square after some pro-democracy demonstrations that occurred at the square to oust Slobodan Milosević on 9 March 1991, during the 1991 protests in Belgrade. The National Museum of Belgrade is the largest and oldest museum in Belgrade. It is located next to Republic Square. The museum was established in May 1944 and moved into the current building (formerly a Stock Exchange) in 1950. The museum has a collection of over 400000 objects. I also passed by later on in the evening on my way back to the hotel, so I snapped a night time shot.

Next up, also close by is the National Theatre building, across the road. The National Theatre of Belgrade is located in Republic Square. The Renaissance style building, designed by architect Aleksander Bugarski, was opened in 1869. Prince Michael was impressed by theatre so he ordered that the National Theatre of Belgrade be built. Sadly, the prince didn’t get to live to see any performances in the theatre because he was assassinated. He was assassinated in Košutnjak on 10 June 1868 and the foundation stone was laid by his successor, prince Milan, on 31 August 1868. In 1911 a decision to do a reconstruction of the building was ordered because of some issues with the stage and utilities rooms. The reconstruction took a long time due to World War I and wasn’t finished until 1922. The auditorium was enlarged to be able to seat 944 people, and the stage was also enlarged. After the reconstruction the building lost its outer beauty from the original Vienna Secession and Baroque architecture blends. The theatre was damage during the German bombings in World War 2 and was again rebuilt, and enlarged once more. Two more reconstructions and expansions followed in 1965 and 1989, and the theatre was once again returned to its original Vienna Secession and Baroque architecture blends.

A short walk away and I arrived at Kombank Dvorana Movie Theatre. Kombank Dvorana (Dom Sindikata) Movie Theatre is a vision of Branko Petričić, and was constructed between 1947 and 1957. It is one of Belgrade’s most popular entertainment venues. It was built during the Tito-Stalin split in 1948, hence why it took an entire decade to build. The Great Hall has 1600 seats and has hosted a number of very famous guests such as B.B. King, Robert de Niro, Elizabeth Taylor, Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, and Ella Fitzgerald to name a few. A large pipe organ was installed in 1957 and was operational until 1998. The building underwent some renovations and was reopened in April 2018, with a building name change to Kombank Dvorana.

Down the street you can see the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia. The National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia building is a Neo-Baroque style building that was designed by Jovan Ilkić in 1901. Construction started in 1907, but was placed on pause numerous times before its completion in 1936. The interior of the building was designed by architect Nikolai Krasnov in academic traditional style. A fun fact about this building is that 91 pieces of art were stolen during the October 5th 2000 riots, with only 35 being found and the rest remaining missing.

On the way to walking to the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia I spotted The Old Palace off to my left. The Old Palace was the royal residence of the Obrenović dynasty. Today it houses the City Assembly of Belgrade. The square building was built between 1882 and 1884 in an Academism style by architects Aleksander Bugarski and Jovan Ilkić.

Across the street from The National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia is the Central Post Office of Serbia, which was constructed between 1935 and 1938. The building was constructed because there was a need to house the Post Office and Post Office Savings Bank under one roof, since the original buildings of both institutions were considered too small. There was some considerable controversy with the selection of the architect for the design of the building. Originally, first prize was awarded to the joint project of Zagreb architects Јosip Pičman and Аndrija Baranji, while the second prize was awarded Slovenian architect Аco Lovrenčić, both with modern architecture designs. The competition finished in the 1930’s, during an economic recession, which meant that the designs were a bit too elaborate. Immediately after the competition, at the end of 1930, it was decided that the Ministry of Construction amend the winning project. The amendment was completed by architect Dimitrije Leko, and within the ministry, a narrower internal competition was organized to create new plans for the façades of the building, where the project of the architect Vasilije Androsov was evaluated as being the best option.

Again, right next door, is the Church of Saint Mark is a Serbian Orthodox church that was built in 1940 in the Serbo-Byzantine style and designed by the Krstić brothers. It was built on the site of an old wooden church that dated back to 1835 that was destroyed during World War 1, and again in World War 2. The church is one of the largest churches in Serbia and can accommodate 150 musicians, and 2000 people in one sitting. The church is 62 metres (203 feet) long, 45 metres (148 feet) wide, and 60 metres (200 feet) high, excluding the cross. I wasn’t happy with the photo that I took, so I’ll revisit this another day.

Next up was the beautiful streets of Knez Mihaila, which were about a 20 minute walk away. Knez Mihailova Street is the main pedestrian and shopping zone in Belgrade. It features a number of buildings and mansions built during the late 1870’s. The street was included on the list of Spatial Cultural-Historical Units of Great Importance in 1979, and is now protected by the Republic of Serbia.

Further down Knez Mihaila you can start to see Belgrade Fortress, but before going there I took a detour to checkout the Holy Archangel Michael Orthodox Church, and the Serbian Orthodox Church Museum, which was adjacent next door.

The history of Belgrade Fortress dates back to 279 BC when the Celtic tribe of Scordisci ruled the region. It is the oldest section in the urban area of Belgrade, and for numerous years the city was concentrated only within the walls of the fortress. The fortress was destroyed numerous times over the years, and the current iteration of the fortress was built in the mid-18th century. Numerous wars occurred in 1440, 1456, 1521, 1688, 1690, 1717, 1739, 1789 and 1806.

A ten minute walk away is an extremely weird looking building that is home to the Sports and Recreational Center, also known as Milan Gale Muškatirović. The facility was built in 1973 to fulfill the needs of the first World Championship. In 2011 a rehabilitation project was started.

It was approaching noon and was time to head to the The Aeronautical Museum, about an hours bus ride away. The bus ride costs about $1.85 CDN. The Aeronautical Museum, formerly known as the Yugoslav Aeronautical Museum was founded in 1957, adjacent to Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport. The current building, opened on May 21 1989, was designed by architect Ivan Štraus. The museum contains over 200 aircraft, 130 engines, radars, rockets, 20000 books, and more than 200000 photographs. Sadly this building has fallen into complete disrepair, and I wonder how much longer it’ll stay standing. It was a rainy day today, and despite being indoors it didn’t block the rain much. There’s so many leaks in the structure, and I’m wondering if structural fatigue will eventually lead to the demise of this beautiful and unique place. I was starting to get hungry so I walked across the street into the Belgrade Airport terminal to grab a prosciutto sandwich from one of the stores.

Next up was an area called Block 61. I took a 30 minute bus ride to there, however got off early and walked because traffic was backed up due to a car accident. Block 61 is one of many soviet style blocks that were constructed when the construction of “New Belgrade” began in 1948. Blokovi (The Blocks) was designed as a group of urban neighborhoods that were divided into 72 blocks, including several sub-blocks (i.e. 7a, 7b, 7c, etc.). The blocks in “New Belgrade” are based on the detailed urban plan from 1965 made by Josip Svoboda (Bureau for Urban Planning in Belgrade). The green areas and traffic infrastructure were designed by Milan Miodragović, and housing was designed by architects Darko Marušić and Milenija Marušić. All constructive elements used for the complex were prefabricated in standard dimensions. I honestly had a hard time with this one, as I found it so drab and depressing. This was a “utopian” idea of how developers thought people would like to live, because everything is so close that you don’t need to drive, but in reality it is a horrible way for people to live. The buildings quickly fell into disarray, and in general its just not a nice way to live being so crowded.

The final stop for the day before having dinner was Airport City Belgrade (Stari Hanger), which was another 10 minute bus ride away. I couldn’t find much information on this building unfortunately.

For dinner I decided to go to a restaurant called Manufaktura Restaurant. It was about a 20 minute bus ride away, and was right in the middle of the city. I chose to have a local beer and beef goulash, which was absolutely incredible! I highly recommend this place. One thing to keep in mind is that Serbia still allows smoking indoors, so that may make some people uncomfortable. I chose to sit in the back as far away from people as possible, and it didn’t bother me that much.

It was about 530pm at this point in time, and I had already completed 18 kilometers of walking, which was causing my feet to hurt, so I headed back to the hotel. I did a few hours of work, had a nap, wrote more of my blog, and booked a car for tomorrow to explore Serbia’s countryside. I’m a day behind on my blog already, however I feel I’m just going to keep getting further behind.

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Eastern Europe Trip – Day 2 – Plitvice Lake & Ljubljana, Slovenia

Today I drove from Zagreb, Croatia to Plitvice Lakes, about a two hour drive away. On the way I attempted to stop at The Monument to the Uprising of the People of Kordun and Banija, however the road was closed off for the season to prevent continued degradation of the site by looters during the off-season. The Monument to the Uprising of the People of Kordun and Banija is a World War 2 monument designed by Vojin Bakić, and built by Veliki Petrovac on the highest peak of the Petrova Gora mountain range. The monument celebrates the uprising and resistance movement of the people of Kordun and Banija against Nazi-fascism, as well as commemorates the victims of the Nazi-fascism. The monument took ten years to build and was finished in 1981. At the time the monument was finished it was the largest postmodern sculpture in the world. After 1991, antifascist monuments and memorial complexes were neglected. This continues to this day as local people continue stealing the stainless-steel plates off the monument. I snagged a few photos from Google Maps (credit given to the photographers) so you can see what it looks like.

Photo Credit: Bara Fai – 2021
Photo Credit: Arwen Swan – 2021
Photo Credit: Uldis Strauss – 2019

Next stop was Plitvice Lakes National Park. Plitvice Lakes National Park is one of the oldest and largest national parks in Croatia. It became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. The park was founded in 1949 and is very well known for its beautiful lakes, pathways, and waterfalls. Entrance cost to the park is about $16 CDN, however expect to pay double when its not off season.

After visiting Plitvice Lakes National Park I drove about 3.5 hours towards Ljubljana, Slovenia. The border crossing took about an hour because they were checking everyone’s COVID vaccine passports. Before I dive into the rest of my day in Slovenia let’s talk about Slovenia’s history, which has a lot of overlap with Croatia.

Slovenia’s History

Slovenia is a relatively young country; being formed on June 25 1991. The history of Slovenia is very similar to that of Croatia; having been its neighboring country. Historically, Slovenia was part of many different states dating back to the Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, Carolingian Empire, Holy Roman Empire, Habsburg Monarchy, the Republic of Venice, the Illyrian Provinces of the First French Empire of Napoleon I, the Austrian Empire, and finally the Austrian-Hungarian Empire until it broke up in October 1918.

As mentioned back in my brief history of Croatia; in December 1918 the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was formed. In 1929 this kingdom was renamed to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

During the beginning of World War 2 Yugoslavia had a neutral stance, but in March 1941 a coup was held by pro-British officers, and as a result the Germans invaded Yugoslavia on April 6 1941. The Germans set up shop in Croatia with the fascist Ustase in charge, but the Croatians were able to liberate them by 1945.

During the 1960’s nationalism re-emerged and more people were demanding autonomy. In 1971 Tito, the Communist leader put a stop to it, but he ended up dying in 1980. Communism collapsed in most of Eastern Europe in 1989, during the same time frame that many non-Communist organizations were being setup. In April 1990 elections were held and in December 1990 a referendum was held, with the majority of people in favor. On June 25 1991 the Slovene parliament declared Slovenia independent. This irritated the Yugoslavian army, so they tried to invade Slovenia a few days later on June 27 1991. They were held back by the Slovenian Territorial Defense forces and the police, and on July 7 1991 the Yugoslavians agreed to a ceasefire brokered by the European Union.

In December 1991 a new constitution was written, and on January 15 1992 Slovenian independence was recognized by the European Union. As was the case for many of the eastern European countries, Slovenia faced a long painful transition from Communism to Capitalism during the 1990’s. In 2004 Slovenia became a member of the European Union.

Exploring Ljubljana, Slovenia

When I arrived in Ljubljana, Slovakia my first stop was exploring Ljubljana Castle, a castle complex standing on Castle Hill, which overlooks the entire city. It was originally a medieval fortress constructed in the 11th century, rebuilt again in the 12th and 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. The castle is depicted on the city’s coat of arms, along with a dragon on the top. The castle just finished a major restoration project that lasted from 2000 to 2019. There was also a puppet museum inside the castle, which was pretty neat.

After visiting the castle I drove to my hotel; BIT Center Hotel, to check-in, and do a few hours of work, which included a few meetings. After working I drove back to the castle to haver dinner at the renowned Strelec Restaurant. A reservation is a requirement here, however being off-season I just booked it in the morning and they were able to accommodate me. This is a michelin star quality restaurant, however it is not a michelin star restaurant. I was served a 5 course dinner, however it was more like 8 courses… I wish I had taken better notes as to what I ate, however I had a few favorites. My first favorite was the ravioli with truffles, cheese, and home made sour cream. My second favorite was venison with beet-root. Third runner up was beef tartar. The meal was finished off with chocolate ganache, ice cream, a sweet puree of some sort, hazelnuts, and gold foil. The meal cost me a total of $115 CDN, however it was absolutely worth it. It was one of the most enjoyable dinners that I’ve ever had.

Be sure to check back tomorrow while I explore more of Ljubljana, before driving back to Zagreb, Croatia to catch a flight to Belgrade, Serbia late in the evening.

If you like the content that I produce and want to donate money towards the upkeep of my site, or buy me a cup of coffee please feel free to contribute towards it. I really appreciate it.

Eastern Europe Trip – Day 1 – Travel Day & Zagreb, Croatia

Today I embarked on a 3-week trip to Eastern Europe to complete an Eastern European journey across 8 countries. The countries that I will be visiting are Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Hungary, Slovakia, Vienna, Estonia, and Finland. During my trip I’ll go into a brief history of each country I visit, as well as go into more detail about specific places in each country that I visit.

My journey started in Calgary with a 9 hour flight on an Air Canada Boeing 787-9 to Frankfurt, with a quick layover before flying on a Lufthansa Airbus A320NEO to Zagreb, Croatia. I booked the outgoing flights in Premium Economy, however was upgraded to business class, which was nice. On the Air Canada flight I had Smoked Duck Breast as an appetizer, Chicken thighs with lemon mustard sauce and sautéed gnocchi for the main course, and cheese and crackers with Port for dinner. Breakfast was fruit, oatmeal, and cheese, however I skipped eating the oatmeal.

Upon arrival in Zagreb I picked up my rental car from Budget; a Skoda Kamiq, a mini SUV, which I only paid $65 CDN for two days.

After picking up the rental car I drove to downtown Zagreb. Before we dive into my adventure out let’s talk about Croatia’s history.

Croatia’s History

Croatia’s history dates back to roughly 5000 BC. After 390 BC the Greeks settled in colonies along the coast line. After 229 BC the Romans gradually took control of Croatia, and ended up ruling the entire country by 12 AD. The Romans divided up the area into provinces of Dalmatia (the coast), Noricum (which included part of Austria), and Pannonia (which included part of Hungary). The Roman control of Croatia came to an end in the 5th Century when the Roman Empire collapsed.

In the early 7th Century Slavic people, known as Croats, migrated to the area. They first settled in Dalmatia, expanding further northwards and inland in the 8th Century. During the Middle Ages trade flourished in Croatia, which allowed many towns to grow significantly. In 1202 of Venetian Crusaders took the town of Zadar to repay a debt that the Croatians owed them. In 1205 the Venetians also captured Dubrovnik and Istria.

In 1358 the Hungarian-Croatian king defeated the Venetians and took back control of Dalmatia, however this didn’t last long because in 1409 after a war the king of Hungary-Croatia sold Dalmatia (except Dubrovnik) to the Venetians. The reason why Dubrovnik wasn’t included was in 1382 Dubrovnik became independent and remained so until 1808.

In 1493 the Ottomans defeated the Croatians during the battle of Krovsko Poje. Peace in the area remained short lived with another war occurring in 1526, when the Hungarians were invaded by the Turks during the battle of Mohacs. The king of the Hungary-Croatian empire was killed and the kingdom was based to Austrian, Archduke Ferdinand of Habsburg, however the Turks continued to control most of Croatia until 1716 when they were defeated during the battle of Petervaradino.

In 1797 Venice was forced to return its Croatian territory to Austria. In 1809 Napoleon formed the territory into a new stated called the Illyrian Provinces, but this was short lived because in 1815 Napoleon was defeated. Austria took back the territory, including Dubrovnik.

In 1848 the Hungarians and Croats had a falling out and went to war, but the Austrian monarchy was still able to maintain power until 1867, which the Austrian Empire was split into two halves; Austria and Hungary. The Austrian monarch remained king of both independent halves. Croatia was eventually split; Dalmatia was ruled by Austria, while most of Croatia was ruled by Hungary.

In October 1918 the Austro-Hungarian empire broke up and Croatia declared its independence. On December 1 1918 the Croats agreed to join with the Slovenes and Serbs to form a new state called the kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. The Croats soon became upset, as they wanted the new state to become a unitary state. In 1929 King Alexander suspended parliament and introduced a royal dictatorship, and named the state Yugoslavia.

There were two extremist parties in Croatia during the 1930’s; the Communists and the Fascist Ustase. In 1939 the Yugoslavian government gave into the demands for Croatian autonomy and created an autonomous region called the Banovina.

During the beginning of World War 2 Yugoslavia had a neutral stance, but in March 1941 a coup was held by pro-British officers, and as a result the Germans invaded Yugoslavia on April 6 1941. The Germans set up shop in Croatia with the fascist Ustase in charge, but the Croatians were able to liberate them by 1945.

During the 1960’s nationalism re-emerged and more people were demanding autonomy. In 1971 Tito, the Communist leader put a stop to it, but he ended up dying in 1980. Communism collapsed in most of Eastern Europe in 1989, during the same time frame that many non-Communist organizations were being setup. In May 1990 elections were held, with the Croatians seeking to leave Yugoslavia, but with a substantial number of Serbians living in Croatia this created issues. In May 1991 the Croatians voted for independence, but The Yugoslavian army invaded to protect the Serbians living within the Croatian borders. This was the beginning of a long war, which didn’t end until 1995 with the signing of the Erdut Agreement. Croatian independence was recognized by the European Union on January 15 1992, even before the war was over. Eastern Slavonia was ran by the United Nations until 1998, when it was handed over to Croatia.

Exploring Zagreb

Zagreb’s history dates back to the Roman times, and was founded in 1134. Today Zagreb is home to 1.1 million people, housing about 25% of Croatia’s population. I spent the late afternoon exploring the old city including Lotrščak Tower, Ban Josip Jelačić Square, Zagreb 360°, Museum of Broken Relationships, St. Mark’s Church, and Atelijer Meštrović Museum.

As I drove into Zagreb I saw how beautiful the streets were. They reminded me quite a bit of the Czech Republic.A notable building was the circular Croatian Society of Fine Artists. I parked my car in the downtown area and explored for a bit before having to take my COVID test @ 430pm.

Lotrščak Tower is a fortified tower that was built sometime in the 13th century to guard the southern gate of the Gradec town wall. Gradec is an old part of Zagreb known as Upper Town. The name is derived from the Latin saying “Campana Latrunculorum”, meaning thieves bell, making reference to a bell that was hung in the tower in 1946 to signal the closing of the town gates. The tower had a cannon placed on the fourth floor, and since January 1 1877 the cannon is fired from the tower to mark midday so that bell-ringers of the city churches know when it is noon.

Ban Josip Jelačić Square is Zagreb’s central square. The square has existed since the 17th century, and was first named Harmica. It was renamed to its present name in 1848 after Count Josip Jelačić, who was in office from 1848 to 1859. In 1946 the square was renamed Republic Square and Josip Jelačić’s statue was removed the following year as the new Communist government of Yugoslavia denounced him as a “servant of foreign interests”. After the breakup of Yugoslavia Josip Jelačić’s historic role was again considered positive and the statue was returned to the square, but in a different location on the north side, facing south. Today the square is a common meeting place for the people in Zagreb and is a pedestrian only zone, as well as the main hub for the ZET tram lines. The square is adorned by a variety of architectural styles ranging from classicism, secession, and modernism.

The Museum of Broken Relationships is a museum in a baroque palace displaying personal objects from former lovers along with brief synopses.

St. Mark’s Church was built in the 13th century and was radically reconstructed in the second half of the 14th century to a Gothic architecture style. Massive round columns support heavy ribbed vaults cut in stone and an air of peace and sublimity characterizes the church interior in its simplicity. Outside, on the northwest wall of the church lies the oldest coat of arms of Zagreb with the year 1499 engraved in it. On the roof, tiles are laid so that they represent the coat of arms of Zagreb. There was police tape all around the building so I wasn’t able to enter. I couldn’t figure out why there was police tape all around.

The Atelijer Meštrović Museum is dedicated to the artwork of Ivan Meštrović, a renowned Yugoslavian and Croatian sculptor, architect and writer of the 20th century. He lived from 1883 to 1962, where he died at an age of 78 in South Bend, Indiana, USA.

During my walks I also saw a vineyard in the middle of town.

For dinner I had a Truffle Strukli from La Štruk. Štrukli’s are a popular Croatian dish made of pasty, cottage cheese, eggs, sour cream, and salt. All I can say is WOW this dish is delicious!

I explored the night life walking the streets back to my car before driving back to my hotel called Hotel & Hostel Zagreb; a basic accommodation for about $40 CDN. I finished my blog, had a shower, did some work, and went to bed.

Be sure to check back tomorrow when I travel from Zagreb, Croatia to visit the Uprising Monument, Plitvice Lakes National Park, Postojna Cave, Predjama Castle, and Ljubljana, Slovenia.

If you like the content that I produce and want to donate money towards the upkeep of my site, or buy me a cup of coffee please feel free to contribute towards it. I really appreciate it.

Vietnam & Cambodia – Travelling To Vietnam

I just completed a 2.5 weeks trip to Vietnam to Cambodia. Before I go into the specifics of my trip let’s dive into the history of Vietnam and Cambodia so we have an understanding of how they came to be, where their paths crossed, and where they stand now.

Vietnam

Vietnam has a long and rich history dating back to nearly 2900 BC. Vietnam has a history of tribes uniting to form strong dynasties. The very first dynasty that many consider to be the start of the Vietnamese state was the Hong Bang Dynasty which was ruled by the Hung kings. In 111 BC, the Han Dynasty from China absorbed Vietnam into their empire. Vietnam would remain part of the Chinese empire for just over 1000 years. In 938 AD Ngo Quyen battled and defeated the Chinese and gained independence for Vietnam. Vietnam was then ruled by a multitude of dynasties including the Ly, Tran, and Le dynasties. Vietnam reached its peak under the control of the Le dynasty by expanding to the south and conquering a portion of the Khmer Empire. The French came to Vietnam in 1858 and in 1893 the French incorporated Vietnam into French Indochina. France continued to rule until it was defeated by communist forces led by Ho Chi Minh in 1954. The country became divided into Communist North Vietnam and the anti-Communist South. The Vietnam War raged for years between the two countries with the US supporting the South and communist countries supporting the north. In 1975 the North eventually won uniting the country under communist rule. It is estimated roughly 3.6 million people died during the war between 1954 and 1975. That’s an extremely sobering statistic. In 1977 Vietnam was admitted to the United Nations.

Vietnam became involved with Cambodia in 1978 when the Khmer Rouge from Cambodia made attacks on Vietnam. This all came to an end when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in December 1978. Unfortunately, Pol Pot escaped and he did not die until 1998, but it did put an end to this terrible tragedy that occurred in Cambodia, which took the lives of roughly 1.5 million Cambodians.

In 1986 the Vietnamese government introduced market reforms (called Doi Moi), which resulted in the rapid growth of the Vietnamese economy. A new constitution was adopted in 1992 which allowed for even more economic freedom. In 1994 the USA lifted an economic embargo on Vietnam and in 1995 diplomatic relations were restored. Today the Vietnamese economy is booming. Vietnam is becoming more and more prosperous and is one of the fastest growing SE Asian countries, with tourism playing an extremely important role. The Vietnamese stock exchange opened in 2000. A few US presidents have since visited Vietnam since then including Bill Clinton in 2000 and Obama in 2016 when he shared a meal with Anthony Bourdain at Bún chả Hương Liên in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. We ended up visiting this restaurant due to its nostalgic factor. Vietnam’s population recovered since the war and is sitting at roughly 96 million people.

Cambodia

Cambodia’s history is rich and rather fascinating. People first inhabited Cambodia in the Stone Age. Farming was introduced around 2300 BC, and used stone tools until around 1500 BC, when bronze was introduced. Fast forward to 500 BC and they began to use Iron. In 150 AD the first major developed area arose in the Mekong River delta in South Vietnam, also known as Fu-nan to the Chinese. The settlements and kingdoms grew larger once Fu-nan was trading with the Chinese. By the beginning of the 7th century AD all of Cambodia was becoming highly civilized. At first Cambodia was divided into rival states, however at the beginning of the 9th century a king named Jayavarman II founded the Khmer Empire in Cambodia. The Khmer Empire was an agricultural society, with many people becoming farmers. The staple diet of Cambodia was rice. Khmers were a bit strange and believed that spirits inhabited natural phenomena such as the earth and trees. The rich and powerful built temples that were decorated with fine stone carvings. The most famous temple is Angkor Wat which was built in the early 12th century. Cambodia was considered prosperous and powerful. In 1000 AD King Jayavarman V was killed. Civil war followed until Suryavarman I founded another dynasty. By 1011 he was in control of Cambodia, however his dynasty only lasted until 1080 and then was replaced by another dynasty.

In 1177 the Chams from Champa invaded Cambodia, but King Jayavarman VII managed to drive them out. By the mid-13th century the Khmer kingdom was in decline. In 1431 the Thai’s captured the Cambodian capital, Angkor. Afterwards it was abandoned and new capital was founded at Phnom Phen. By the mid-16th century Angkor was overgrown by the jungle and it was accidentally re-discovered by a Cambodian king. During the 16th century Cambodian power continued to decline and at the end of the century Cambodia fell under Thai suzerainty, which stands for loose control. In 1594 the Thai’s captured the capital, and started the dominate the region. From the middle of the 17th century the power of Vietnam grew. In the early 17th century the Cambodians controlled parts of what is now South Vietnam. They held a port called Prey Nokor, later renamed Saigon, and then again to Ho Chi Minh City. In the late 17th century Prey Nokor fell under Vietnamese rule.

During the 18th century Cambodia found itself stuck between its two powerful neighbors of Thailand and Vietnam. The Thai’s invaded Cambodia several times in the 18th century and in 1772 they destroyed Phnom Penh. The Vietnamese also invaded Cambodia in the last few years of the 18th century. The Cambodian king was forced to look to the Thai’s for protection and in return Thailand took over Northwest Cambodia.

Between 1806 and 1834 King Chan turned to the Vietnamese for protection from the Thai’s. In 1833 a rebellion occurred in South Vietnam and they took advantage by invading Cambodia, but the Vietnamese king crushed the rebellion and the Thai army retreated in their footsteps. The Vietnamese emperor strengthened his control over Cambodia. When Cambodian King Chan died in 1834 one of his daughters was installed as Queen and Vietnamese people settled in Cambodia. The Vietnamese viewed the Cambodians as uncivilized barbarians and tried to civilize them by teaching them Vietnamese customs, which led to a rebellion between 1840-1841. The Thai’s once again invaded to re-assert their control of Cambodia, however in the 1850s French missionaries arrived in Cambodia. The Cambodian King Norodom turned to the French to protect him from both the Thai’s and the Vietnamese. In 1863 Cambodia became a French protectorate. Unfortunately King Norodom died in 1904. His two successors, Sisowath and Monivong, continued to allow the French to control the country. Under French rule some significant economic development took place in Cambodia; roads and railways were built and in the 1920s, and a rubber industry grew up, however the Cambodians were forced to pay heavy taxes and from the 1930s Cambodian nationalism grew. In 1940 France was defeated in a brief border war with Thailand, and they forced to surrender the provinces of Battambang and Angkor (although the ancient site of Angkor itself was retained). King Monivong died in April 1941 and the French delegated Prince Sihanouk to be king. The problem with this was they believed that the inexperienced 18-year old would be a better fit than Monivong’s middle-aged son, Prince Monireth, which led to some chaotic times.

In 1949 Cambodia was declared semi-independent by treaty. In 1952, King Sihanouk decidedly dismissed the government and took personal control of the country. In November 1953 the French finally allowed Cambodia to become fully independent, but in 1955 King Sihanouk fulfilled his fathers wishes by holding elections and forming his own political movement. Between 1955-1970 King Sihanouk’s political movement dominated Cambodia; which was often referred to as the “Sihanouk era”. King Sihanouk’s father died in 1960 and he announced himself chief of state. King Sihanouk called his movement the Buddhist Socialism, however it was not socialist at all. Sihanouk’s reign began to fall apart in 1968 when the communists began a civil war, and in 1970 Sihanouk left the country. While King Sihanouk was away the National Assembly voted to remove him as chief of state and Cambodia was renamed the Khmer Republic.

Between 1975 and 1979 the country was devastated by the reign of the Khmer Rouge, a rural communist guerrilla movement led by Pol Pot. During the Khmer Rouge’s period of power, an estimated 1.5 million Cambodians were killed or died. In 1975 Cambodia was mainly an agricultural country. Pol Pot decided it should be completely agricultural, which meant all the people from the towns and cities were forced to move to the countryside. Pol Pot also decided that agricultural output should double in 4 years, which was a completely unrealistic and unobtainable target. Private property was banned and collective farms were formed. The people were supposed to grow 3 tons of rice per hectare, which was unrealistic, which meant that people were made to work extremely long hours to try and grow the extra rice. They were also given insufficient food and many became ill or died. Religion was also banned in Cambodia, and people caught practicing Buddhism were executed. Family relationships were also banned, and even the smallest infringement of any rules resulted in execution. This all came to an end when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in December 1978. Unfortunately, Pol Pot escaped and he did not die until 1998, but it did put an end to this terrible tragedy. Afterwards negotiations began among several different parties, resulting in the Paris Peace Accords of 1991. Communism was eventually abandoned in Cambodia, with a provisional government ruling until 1993 when elections were held and a constitution was framed. Sihanouk was made a constitutional monarch. Khmer Rouge refused to take part in the elections and they continued their guerrilla war, and fortunately in 1996 Pol Pot’s second in command Leng Sary abandoned the party in 1996 with many of Khmer Rouge troops following him. As stated previously; Pol Pot died in 1998 and peace finally returned to Cambodia. In 1999 Cambodia joined Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN is comprised of ten countries in SE Asia and promotes intergovernmental cooperation and facilitates economic, political, security, military, educational, and sociocultural integration among its members and other countries in Asia. Cambodia currently has a population of 16 million people.

Travelling To Ho Chi Minh City

More than likely you’ll be arriving in Vietnam by air. You’ll need to obtain a Visa On Arrival letter before you even venture towards Vietnam. Airlines are instructed to not even let you board the plane to Vietnam unless you have the Visa On Arrival letter. The letter costs $18 USD. I used www.myvietnamvisa.com and had no issues. One thing to note is if you end up pre-booking a tour (i.e. Halong Bay, Cu Chi Tunnels, etc.) most of those companies will actually give you a free Visa On Arrival letter. I wish I had learned about that before obtaining mine, as I would have saved the $18 USD.

When you arrive Vietnam you’ll have to clear customs and pay an additional $25 USD single-entry Visa stamping fee and provide a passport sized photo. They can take a photo for you there for a small charge if you forgot to bring your own photo. The fee is $50 USD for a multi-entry Visa, which is what I chose as I went on to Cambodia later on, and then came back to Vietnam before flying home. This process can take as little as 15 minutes to upwards of two hours depending on the time of day that you arrive. It took us roughly 40 minutes. The Vietnamese government still officially uses the USD for transactions, but the remainder of the country uses the Vietnamese Dong.

Ho Chi Minh was my point of entry for this trip. I arrived at 9:00pm at night after 3 flights spanning 27 hours. The flights took me from Calgary (YYC) through Los Angeles (LAX) and Tokyo (NRT). The flight from YYC to LAX was on an Air Canada Airbus A320 and took roughly 3 hours. The flight rom LAX to NRT was on an All Nippon Airways (ANA) Boeing 777-300ER. ANA arranges their seats in a unique fashion on their Boeing 777’s so that family’s and couples can all have a seat to themselves. Most airlines will arrange the seats in a 3-3-3 or 3-4-3 configuration; where as ANA arranges their seats in a 2-4-3 configuration. I chose the two seats by themselves which made for a more comfortable flight. The flight from NRT to Saigon (SGN) was on an Air Japan Boeing 767-300ER. The food provided on the ANA and Air Japan flights were some of the best economy class food that I’ve had.

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Ho Chi Minh City, also known by its former name of Saigon is the most populous city in Vietnam, and in some cases Prey Nokor when it was under Khmer ruling (see previous post). This bustling city has a population of nearly 13 million people in the metropolitan area. Saigon was the capital of French Indochina from 1887 to 1902 and again from 1945 to 1953. It would again become the capital of South Vietnam during the Vietnam war from 1955 to 1975. On July 2nd 1975 Saigon merged with the surrounding Gia Định Province and was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City after revolutionary leader Ho Chí Minh.

After obtaining my Visa and clearing customs it was time to find some ground transportation. You essentially have three options; a bus, a taxi, and Grab (similar to Uber). The bus can cost as little as 5000 to 20000 Dong depending on the buses taken, but that takes a considerable amount of time since you have to walk away from the airport before getting on the bus. You can also take a Taxi, which can cost roughly 160000 to 180000 Dong ($10-11.25 CDN). A third option is taking a Grab, which can cost as low as 100000 Dong ($6.25). I opted to take a Grab since I don’t speak Vietnamese and it’s easier to just enter your address into the app. Since I arrived at a peak time it cost me 225000 Dong ($14 CDN).

My Hotel; Papaya Saigon Central Hotel, is located in District 1; the central urban district. The drive to District 1 was roughly 40 minutes. After arriving at our hotel, I was ready for bed as I had already been awake over 24 hours.

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Check back tomorrow when I explore the beautiful city of Ho Chi Minh City.

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