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 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.

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Vietnam – Day 10 – Ha Long Bay

Today I woke up at 6:00am. Breakfast was a rather mediocre buffet, and a few hot dishes. I had an omelet. The tour bus for Ha Long Bay picked me up at 8:30am. I choose a semi luxury 2 day option operated by A Class Cruises for about $160 USD ($210 CDN). About half way through the 4 hour drive we stopped for a bathroom break at a very overpriced tourist stop. They put a chain around your neck with a number and record how much you spend and then the workers get a kickback. I found that really annoying. The bus finally arrived in Ha Long Bay at around noon. Throughout the bus ride I was talking with a really nice couple named Danny and Sara, who are both photographers that live part time in Australia and part time in Canada. They’re absolutely adorable together.

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We immediately boarded our boat; Stellar and were greeted with a welcome drink before heading upstairs to the dining room to be briefed on the next two days, discuss safety items, and to get room keys. After obtaining my room key I went to my room to drop off my bags and clean up a bit. The room was small and smelled a bit musty, but the bed was comfortable. The bathroom even had a nice rainfall shower.

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First activity for the day was Kayaking through Luon Tunnel and spending an hour chilling out in the Kayak. This was very peaceful and relaxing. I even saw some monkeys!

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Then the tour guide took us over to an island where we all went to an outlook that you could gaze into Ha Long Bay, and then we went swimming in the ocean and hung out on the beach for an hour or so.

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It was now dinner time so we were taken back to our boat and had dinner. I called it family dinner because it was Sara and Danny, myself, and a French couple that hit it off together and hung out for the rest of the trip.

After dinner many people went upstairs to the sundeck to watch the sunset, myself included. After sunset people Sara and Danny decided to go squid fishing, but didn’t have much luck. I had a drink and talked with them while watching them for a bit before heading to bed, as I was exhausted from waking up early the entire trip.

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Check back tomorrow when I continue on my Ha Long Bay boat tour and explore a massive cave that can hold over 1000 people inside of it at the same time!

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Vietnam – Day 4 – Ba Na Hills

I was woken up by a noise at 4:15am and couldn’t get back to bed. I edited some photos and wrote some of my blog while waiting for the restaurant to open for breakfast. I went for breakfast at 7:00am and  had Mi Quang, which is a noodle dish that has quail eggs. It was absolutely delicious. After breakfast I waited for the tour bus to pick me up for a tour that I had booked to Ba Na Hills, which is a French resort located in the Truong Son Mountains west of the city of Da Nang. The tour cost roughly 1,345,000 Dong ($85 CND).

Ba Na Hills was built in 1919 by French colonists and is located 1500 metres above sea level. The resort has a view of the East Sea and nearby mountains. Being so high up the resort offers substantially cooler temperatures than the cities below, with the average temperatures hovering in the high teens or low twenties.

The 120km trip from my villa to Ba Na Hills took roughly 1.75 hours. On the bus I was sitting next to a girl from Germany named Yasemin. She was really sweet. She was travelling with a friend but they were fighting so they were sitting in different parts of the bus. She also had a very touching private story that she told me, but it melted my heart. She’s such a kind gentle person.

On arrival we boarded the Ba Na Cable Car to the top of the hill. The Ba Na Cable Car, opened on 29 March 2013, holds the world record for the longest non-stop single track cable car at 5801 metres (19032 feet)  long.

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After arriving at the top we first visited the newest attraction to the resort; The Golden Bridge. The Golden Bridge is a 150 metre (490 foot) long pedestrian bridge that was built in 2018. The bridge is designed to connect the cable car station with the gardens above, thus avoiding a steep incline, and to provide a scenic overlook and tourist attraction. The bridge is designed to appear to have two giant stone hands supporting the structure and loops back around to itself.

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After walking along The Golden Bridge we then took another cable car up to the gardens above. The gardens were absolutely beautiful and kind of gave the vibe of Alice In Wonderland. After viewing the gardens we then visited the Ling Ung Pagoda and large Buddha statue, which stands fairly tall at roughly 27 metres (89 feet).

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After that we sat down for a rather disappointing lunch buffet. Everything was cold and chewy. During lunch it started to rain very heavily, and then the power went out for roughly 15 minutes before the power generators kicked in. Since it was raining out we decided to explore the indoor Fantasy Park. I rode on the Bumper Cars, Alpine Coaster, and a shooting game.

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It was approaching 3:00pm and unfortunately it was time to head back down to the tour bus. I didn’t get to experience about half of Ba Na Hills due to the weather and time constraints unfortunately. I was dropped off back in town at roughly 5:30pm and decided to eat again at Banh Mi Phuong for dinner. After dinner I walked back to the Villa and went to bed early at 9:00pm.

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Vietnam – Day 1 – Ho Chi Minh City

After some much-needed sleep I woke up at around 5:00am. The hotel I was staying at provided a complimentary set breakfast, which started at 7:00am. I hung out in the hotel room until it was time for breakfast. For breakfast I had some Pho. After breakfast I started my adventure around the city.

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The first stop was Ben Thanh Market, a massive market that’s been around since the early 17th century. The market was destroyed by fire in 1870 and was rebuilt to become Saigon’s largest market. The market was moved in 1912 and renamed to it’s current name, and the building was renovated in 1985.

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The second stop was the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, also known as Gia Long Palace. This building has a very rich history dating back to 1885.Construction of Gia Long Palace was constructed between 1885 and 1890. Gia Long Palace was designed by the French architect Alfred Foulhoux. The palace spans two floors and was building using classical Baroque architecture with a blend of European and Oriental influences. The building was essentially symmetrical with a winding staircase in the middle of the building. Interestingly the building was built with three deep underground tunnels which lead from the palace to other parts of the city so that government officials could escape in the event of a coup. The building was intended to house the Museum of Commercial Trade, which showcased products and goods of Southern Vietnam, but it was not used as intended and was instead used as the residence of the Governor of Cochinchina. In 1945, control of the palace changed hands many times. It started on March 9th when French governor Ernest Hoeffel was arrested, and the Japanese took over the palace and used it for the residence of Japanese Governor Yoshio Minoda. On August 14th the Japanese handed over the palace to its puppet Empire of Vietnam government to be used as a residence. A mere 11 days later on August 25th the Viet Minh seized the property. The building then became the headquarters of the Provisional Administrative Committee of Southern Vietnam, which was later renamed the “People’s Committee of Southern Vietnam”. On September 10th the British occupied the palace and made it the Allied Mission headquarters, thus evicting the “People’s Committee”. About a month later on October 5th the building was then again occupied by the French; first as a temporary headquarters of the High Commission for the French Republic in Indochina, then as the official headquarters of the Commissioner of the French Republic in Southern Vietnam.

On June 2nd 1948 the French handed control of the building to the Provisional Government of the State of Vietnam, which established its headquarters there. It was later on used as the Palace of the Premier. On January 9th 1950 a massive protest with over 6000 students and teachers demanding the release of students arrested for advocating Vietnamese independence occurred in front of the building. Over 150 people were arrested, 30 injured, and 1 killed. From 1954 to 1966 the palace was used as a residence for numerous government officials, and was renamed to Gia Long Palace by Bao Dai. The Supreme Court of the Republic of Vietnam utilized the palace from October 31st 1966 to April 30th 1975, when the Fall of Saigon occurred, ending the Vietnam War. On August 12th 1978 the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee ordered that the building be used as the Ho Chi Minh City Revolutionary Museum, a propaganda museum, later being renamed on December 13th 1999 to its current name of Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

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The third stop was the People’s Committee Building, also known as Ho Chi Minh City Hall. The building was built between 1902 and 1908 in a French colonial style. It was renamed in 1975 to Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee. While I was there a group a graduating school children were getting their group photo taken.

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The fourth stop was the City Opera House. I just took a photo of the outside, as the inside was being used for graduating children. The building was opened in 1900 and shaped very similar to the Opera Garnier in Paris, with 800 seats to entertain the French. The Opera House was damaged during World War 2, and because of the criticism of the fascade and high costs of organizing performances the government tried to turn the theatre into a concert hall. Decorations, engravings, and statues were removed, and the building wasn’t restored until 1955. After the Fall of Saigon in 1975, the building was restored again to its original function as a theatre, and the façade wasn’t restored until 1998, on the 300th anniversary of the founding of Saigon.

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I then stopped by the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre to purchase a ticket for the 5:00pm showing; more on that later. The cost of the ticket was 200000 dong ($11.40 CDN).

After purchasing my ticket, I went to the War Remnants Museum. On my way to the museum I met a couple that was also from Canada and we chatted on the way to the museum. The girl had just had her phone stolen out of her hands while she was sitting for dinner the previous evening, so she warned me to be a bit vigilant. The War Remnants museum was built in 1975 and contains exhibits related to the Vietnam War and the first Indochina War involving the French. Just a word of warning that some of the following images may be disturbing to some viewers.

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I was starting to get hungry so I searched out some food on Google Maps. I settled for Saigon Sakura Japanese Restaurant. On my way to the restaurant I snapped a few quick photographs of Independence Palace. Independence Palace, also known as Reunification Place, was built between 1962 and 1966. It was built on the site of the former Norodom Palace. It was the site of the end of the Vietnam War during the Fall of Saigon on April 30th 1975, when a North Vietnamese army tank crashed through the gates.

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For lunch I had some sushi rolls, but not too many as they were phenomenally expensive; even more expensive than at home. After enjoying the delicious lunch, I walked to the Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon and the Saigon Central Post Office. Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon was built between 1863 and 1880 by the French in a Romanesque style. The Saigon Central Post Office was built between 1886 and 1891 in Gothic, Renaissance and French style. Inside the Saigon Central Post office there are two painted maps that were created just after the post office was built. One is a map of Southern Vietnam and Cambodia titled “Lignes telegraphiques du Sud Vietnam et Cambodge 1892”, which roughly translates to “Telegraphic lines of Southern Vietnam and Cambodia 1892”. The second map of greater Saigon is titled “Saigon et ses environs 1892”, which roughly translates to “Saigon and its surroundings 1892”.

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It was getting quite hot out at this point in time and I was still a bit jet lagged, so I walked back to the hotel to rest for a few hours. On the way back to the hotel I stopped at a Circle K convenience store to get a few beers to enjoy in the hotel room later on. By the time I got back to the hotel it was about 2:30pm. I relaxed until roughly 4:30pm and then walked to the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre. The show was extremely well done and in Vietnamese, but I didn’t need to understand Vietnamese to understand what was going on.

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After the show I walked to Nha Hang Dong Pho, and had a Hue style clear both with pork knuckle. It was honestly not very good, despite the good reviews online. I was getting tired so I walked back to the hotel. On the way back it started raining, but not too hard.

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Check back tomorrow when I explore more of Ho Chi Minh City, and explore the Cu Chi Tunnels, before jet setting off to Hoi An / Da Nang.

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A Tribute to Notre-Dame

I had the wonderful opportunity to visit Paris, France in March 2018. One of Paris’s most iconic landmarks is Notre-Dame. Sadly yesterday, on April 15th 2019 Notre Dame caught on fire, presumably from the construction activity that was taking place. I wanted to take this time to showcase the beauty of this wonderful building in its former glory and dive into the history of the cathedral.

The construction of Notre-Dame started in 1163 and wasn’t completed until 1345, a whole 182 years later! The cathedral is sacred to the Virgin Mary and was considered to be one of the first examples of French Gothic architecture style. The construction of the cathedral utilized an innovated technique of rib vault and flying buttresses to support the roof. This would later on lead to the quick spreading of the fire as the majority of the roof was constructed of wood. The cathedral featured beautiful rose windows and a beautifully sculpted interior.

Construction was started under guidance of Bishop Maurice de Sully and was completed in its first iteration in 1345. In the 1790’s Notre-Dame suffered from vandalism and neglect during the French Revolution, with much of its religious imagery being damaged or destroyed.

In the 1800’s several events occurred; the cathedral was the site of the Coronation of Napoleon I as Emperor of France, the baptism of Henri, Count of Chambord, and the funerals of several presidents of the Third French Republic. The cathedral became famous in 1831 when Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame was published. A major restoration project occurred between 1844 and 1864. In 1963 the façade of the cathedral was cleaned, returning it to its former glory. Another cleaning and restoration project was carried out between 1991 and 2000.

After the fire occurred the French president Emmanuel Macron stated that Notre-Dame would be rebuild. The billionaires behind luxury giants LVMH Group, Kering and L’Oreal have pledged a combined total of over $550 million towards the resurrection of the beautiful Notre-Dame, and the Pinault family has pledged over $110 million as well.

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