Belgium – Bruges

Today I travelled to the wonderful cute city of Bruges. Before we dive into that lets recap my evening from the night before… The power went out at around 11pm last night and I wasn’t sure if it was just my room, or the entire building. I was on the 5th floor, which oddly didn’t have elevator service so I had to walk down a narrow and winding staircase to the 4th floor. Unfortunately there was no emergency light and my phone wasn’t bright enough so I fell down an entire flight of stairs and messed up my shoulder. I made my way down to reception to conclude that the entire block was without power. The power eventually came back on a few hours later.

I woke up at 4:30am in immense pain and ended up talking with some friends until it was time to check out and take the train to Bruges. I ended up checking out at roughly 7:00am and walked about 1km to the nearby Brussels North train station. I purchased a ticket for roughly $20 CDN to Bruges. The train ride took about 1.25 hours and I got to enjoy the beautiful view of the countryside.

Upon arrival in Bruges it was slightly raining, but a very fine misty rain. I started to walk towards the old town center where I was greeted with a ton of amazing architecture. My first stop was St. Salvator’s Cathedral; a beautiful church originally built in the 10th century, but destroyed by a fire in 1116 and rebuilt in 1127. It has undergone numerous renovations since.

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The next stop was Church of Our Lady Bruges, a gothic style church built in 1280 with various additions made since.

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After that I decided it was time for some breakfast so I stopped in at The Old Chocolate House and had a butter and sugar waffle adjourned by a decadent white chocolate mocha with lemongrass, ginger, and various other spices. It tasted like a garden in a cup.

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After fuelling up it was time to continue exploring the city. I visited “Markt” the town square, which houses Bruges City Hall, Basicilia of the Holy Blood, and the famous Belfry Medieval Bell Tower. I ended up coming back to that later on to climb to the top, but more on that later on.

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It was roughly noon at this point in time and I was starting to get sleepy, so I made my way to my hotel; Hotel NH Brugge, which is a superb 5 star hotel which I received for free on an Agoda.com voucher for stays in previous Agoda properties. The cost of this hotel is roughly $300 CDN/night. I decided to nap for a few hours before continuing on my adventures.

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I decided to venture back to the Belfry Medieval Bell Tower to climb the nearly 400 stairs to the top. The cost was €12 ($17.50 CDN). The views at the top were absolutely stunning!

After climbing Belfry I walked across the street and picked up some chocolate bars and some boxed chocolates from Godiva to bring home to my friends.

I then walked across town to look at the old windmills along the banks of the river, with a quick stop at a grocery store to get some food.

On the way back I took a few beautiful pictures of the autumn colours along the banks of the canals.

Belgium – Brussels – Day 2 of 2

Today I woke up at 8:00am and had some coffee in my room before venturing out to explore more of the city.

First stop was Hôtel van Eetvelde, which was sadly under construction so I couldn’t get any good pictures of it. Hôtel van Eetvelde is a town house designed in 1895 by Victor Horta for Edmond van Eetvelde, the administrator of Congo Free State.

Second stop was Maison Saint-Cyr was built in 1903 to serve as a mansion for the painter Georges Saint-Cyr. The façade is about four metres wide, and is rich in finely worked ironwork that forms a set of lines, curves and geometric figures. Each balcony has a railing with different patterns.

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Third stop was Stoclet Palace, after a few quick photos of some various things along the way. Stoclet Palace was built in 1911 in the Viennese Secession style by architect Josef Hoffmann. It was built for Adophe Stoclet, a wealthy industrialist and art collector.

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Fourth stop and fifth stop was Arcades du Cinquantenaire and Autoworld. Arcades du Cinquantenaire is a triple arch in the centre of Brussels and is topped by a bronze quadriga sculpture group with a woman charioteer, representing Brabant raising the national flag. Autoworld is a substantial collection of vintage vehicles in extremely well preserved states.

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The sixth stop was the National Basilica of the Sacred Heart, a beautiful Art Deco church that was completed in 1970. Construction began in 1905 in Neo-Gothic style, but only the foundations had been completed before World War 1 broke out. Construction of the actual basilica began in 1919, with the architectural style changing to Art Deco, and was not completed until 1970.

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The seventh and eighth stops were Mini-Europe and Atomium. Mini-Europe is a miniature park that was started in 1989 and represents over 80 countries and 350 buildings. Atomium was designed and constructed for the 1958 Brussels World Expo by architect Andre and Jean Polak. It is 102 metres (335 feet) tall and has nine 18 metre (60 foot) diameter stainless steel clad spheres which are connected by escalators and stairs. 3 metre (10 foot) diameter tubes connect the spheres. The central tube had the world’s fastest elevator at the time; allowing people to reach the summit in only 23 seconds at 5 metres/second. The Atomium, was designed to last a mere six months and was slated for destruction after the 1958 World Expo, but due to its popularity it made it a major element of Brussels landscape. A weird piece of history about Atomium is that SABAM, Belgium’s society for collecting copyrights, claimed worldwide intellectual property rights on all reproduction of the image via the United States Artists Rights Society (ARS). There are numerous censored images circulating the internet, but finally in 2016 there was a bill enacted to allow pictures to be legally distributed.

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I then stopped for dinner at the same restaurant I stopped at for lunch yesterday; Tonton Garby, before heading to get a new power adapted, because I somehow forgot mine at home. After getting a power adapter I visited the Brussels Comic Strip Museum, and then went to Beer Planet and picked up a few authentic trappist monk beers that were recommended to me.

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I went back to my hotel room to edit photos and write my blog before heading out to take some night time photos of Atomium.

Belgium – Brussels – Day 1 of 2

Today was the start of another travel adventure. This adventure involves Belgium, Luxembourg and Czech Republic.

My first stop was Brussels, Belgium via Amsterdam. I boarded my KLM Airbus A330-200 flight to Amsterdam at 2:20pm. The flight departed on time at 3:10pm. Flight time was roughly 9 hours gate to gate and went quite smoothly. There was free WiFi in the flight so I ended up chatting with a few friends. The flight arrived at 7:30am the following day.

I was supposed to have a quick 50 minute layover before boarding my next flight, but it ended up being almost 2 hours due to a technical fault. The original plane (an Embraer ERJ-190) was swapped for a Boeing 737-800. Flight time was roughly 45 minutes gate to gate.

After landing in Brussels I caught the train to the inner city for €8.90 ($11.70 CDN). After arriving at Brussels Central Station I visited St. Michael and St Gudula Cathedral, a Roman Catholic church in Gothic architecture style. The Cathedral was started sometime in the 9th Century but wasn’t completed until 1519.

The next stop was the Royal Gallery of Saint Hubert, a spectacular covered alleyway built by architect Jean-Pierre Cluysenaer completed in 1847. The gallery includes shops auditoriums, cafes, restaurants and apartments. I decided to visit Maison Danboy, a renowned bakery chain, where I ordered some delicious lemon and ginger cookies.

Next up was the Grand Place and surrounding Grand Square. The history of the Grand Palace started in the 11th and 12th Century, when a building was built on Coudenberg hill to house the Dukes of Brabant. Over the next few centuries the building was rebuilt, extended and improved to align with the increased prestige of the Dukes of Braband and their successors. The complex was destroyed in 1731 by a large fire and was eventually rebuilt in 1775. During this time excavations of the site unearthed various remains of different parts of the original palace as well as surrounding town. The monumental vaults still remain under the square and can be visited.

Next stop was a quick stop at the Brussels Stock Exchange, a beautiful building designed by architect Léon-Pierre Suys. The building was completed on the site of a former butter market in 1873 and housed the Brussels Stock Exchange until 1996. The building has since been transformed to a museum.

I then stumbled upon the Brussels Les Halles Saint-Géry, a former covered market that was completed in 1881. The market now houses Brussels Vintage Market, which is a collection of 40 vintage and second-hand merchants and more than 20 designers.

At this point in time I was starting to get hungry so I started to seek out some food at the well renowned Tonton Garby, but more on that in a minute. On my way to Tonton Garby I stopped at a famous fountain of a young boy peeing called “Manneken Pis”. Okay now onto Tonton Garby; the best way to describe this place is it has the most delicious sandwiches being served up by one of the funniest people I’ve ever met in my entire life. I was recommended this place by numerous blogs and YouTube videos, so I figured it had to be good; I was not disappointed. While I was eating my sandwich I met a wonderful couple from the Rochester area in the US. They had just recently gotten married and are travelling the world together. We chatted for a bit before going our separate ways.

Next up was a few other sights before visiting the Place Royale and Royal Palace. Place Royale, also known as the King’s Square, is a historic neoclassical square in the Royal Quarter that was completed in 1782 as part of an urban project.

The Royal Palace is situated in front of Brussles Park and was designed by multiple architects including Chislain-Joseph Henry, Charles Vander Straeten, Tilman-François Suys, Alphonse Balat, Henri Maquet, and Octave Flanneau. Construction started in 1783, but wasn’t completed until 1934 when the new facade was finally completed. The impressive facade is 50% longer thatn that of Buckingham Palace in Great Britain, but it has less than half of the square footage of Buckingham Palace.

My energy levels were starting to dwindle so I walked towards my Hotel; Hotel Retro, a cozy mid-range boutique hotel. Before checking into the hotel I checked out the beautiful Le Botanique conservatory.

Check-in was very seamless. I was placed in Room 501, a penthouse room at the top with wonderful skylights overlooking the city. I decided to take a 3 hour nap before continuing on my grand adventure.

After waking up from my nap I was feeling much refreshed and ready to do more exploring. I walked to the nearby Metro station and boarded a train to the University area where I took a bunch of pictures of some beautiful buildings; one in particular caught my eye; Villa Empain. Villa Empain was built in 1934 by swiss architect Michel Polak in the Art Deco style. As many of you may know from reading previous blog posts of mine; I’m a huge sucker for Art Deco.

It was time to get some dinner so I walked towards Flagey square, where there was a beautiful building and somewhere I wanted to eat called Frit Flagey. Unfortunately at this time is when a group of men tried to rob me, but I managed to escape through some alleyways. Never in my 38 countries of travel have I had an attempted robbery. I’m a fairly careful person but they surrounded me so quickly as I was trying to take a photo of the Art Deco style Flagey building.

I walked around for a bit and came back to Flagey square about 45 minutes lated to eat at Frit Flagey; I was not disanointed. I then obtained some beers from a local beer store called Melting Pot. The gentleman recommended me a few beers to try.

I then took a bus back to my hotel where I enjoyed my beers, edited photos, and typed up my blog.

Be sure to check back tomorrow when I explore Brussels in further detail!

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Chicago!!!

Two weekends ago I had the wonderful opportunity to visit my friend Chelsea in the beautiful city of Chicago, Illinois. I spent three glorious days in the Windy City eating and drinking my way through the amazing city, while soaking up the amazing architecture in this metropolis that 9.5 million people call home (2.7 million in the greater Chicago area).

Chicago, the third most populous area in the USA, was founded in 1780 and officially was recognized as a city in 1837. Chicago had a spectacular fire in 1871 which destroyed many homes and left over 100,000 people homeless. This didn’t stop the city from rebuilding and by 1900 the construction boom and population influx left the city as being the fifth most populous city in the world at the turn of the 20th century.

Chicago is now an international hub for finance, culture, commerce, industry, technology, communications, and transportation. It also is a massive destination for tourism, with over 58 million visitors annually!

Below is a handful of the photographs that I took on my weekends adventures with Chelsea. I also had the wonderful opportunity to meet many of her friends while I was there.

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Vietnam – Day 11 – Ha Long Bay

Today I woke up at 6:00am. I showered and got ready to start the day. Breakfast was at 6:45am and was a delicious buffet with a large variety of food, including hot cooked eggs, omelets, etc. After breakfast we took a smaller boat to Sung Sot cave, which can hold over 1000 people in it at the same time. It was absolutely breathtaking, even bigger than the caves that I’ve seen in New Zealand, and the United States.

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After visiting the caves everyone gathered around for some cooking lessons, but I found them mediocre compared to the cooking class that I took a few days ago in Ha Noi. I was given a few hours to relax before the ship docked at noon.

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Checkout was noon and the tour bus took everyone back the same way we came, again stopping at a similar expensive touristy spot half way back to Hanoi. I was dropped off at my hotel at around 4:30pm. I was again staying in a different hotel in Hanoi, this one was called La Belle Vie Hotel, a rather luxurious hotel which I received for free from hotels.com. Every 10 hotels I stay at I end up getting one free for the blended average price of the last 10. You can also get sponsored by hotels to review them and leave a good opinion if you are crafty enough with your social media skills on Instagram.

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I relaxed by the pool for the rest of the afternoon before taking a 30000 Dong (1.85 CDN) GRAB back to the to the very famous Bun Cha Huong Lien Obama, where former US President Obama and Anthony Bourdain ate on May 23rd 2016, where I ate a few nights ago when I was in Hanoi.

After eating I decided to walk back to my hotel which took about 45 minutes or so. I stayed up and edited photos before heading to bed at 10:00pm.

Check back tomorrow when I relax and spend time in Hanoi before taking a flight to Siam Reap, Cambodia.

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Vietnam – Day 8 – Ninh Binh

Today I woke up at 5:30am. I’m still struggling with this persistent jet lag, a whole 8 days later. I packed my bags and got ready, before heading down for breakfast at the buffet. After breakfast I walked about 10 minutes to the Hanoi central train station.

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There’s a few ways of obtaining train tickets; you can buy right at the station, or you can buy online from a third party which charges a small booking fee on top. Unfortuneately foreigners can’t book online through the REAL Vietnam Rail website unless you happen to have a Vietnam bank card, which I presume almost everyone won’t. Also one thing to note is that there are a lot of fake websites in Vietnam, and other parts of SE Asia for things like trains, airlines, museums, etc. You need to be extra diligent and do your research as they mostly all look the same. I read multiple travel blogs to ensure that I was picking the appropriate websites. Anyways, I chose to use the third party website called Balou, as it came the highest recommended. I only paid about $2 CDN more to book it online through them than just showing up, but it was a nice piece of mind knowing everything was taken care of beforehand.

The train departed Hanoi station at 7:30am and slowly crawled its way through the city before picking up speed. About 15 minutes into the train ride I realized that I had made a bad mistake… I forgot my passport and US cash in the safe back at the hotel. I called the hotel and explained the situation, gave them the passcode for my safe, and told them that I’ll be back tomorrow evening to pick it up. Phew, disaster averted.

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The train arrived at Ninh Binh station at around 10:00am. While exiting the station I booked a GRAB, which happened to be waiting right out front. It took about 15 minutes to drive from Ninh Binh train station to my accommodation in Tam Coc, called Tuan Ngoc Hotel. The fare was 76000 Dong ($4.35 CDN). After arriving at the hotel I dropped off my bags I decided to rent a motorcycle from the hotel for two days for a cost of 110000 Dong/day ($6.25/day). The motorcycle didn’t include gasoline so I had to find a gas station before I ran out of gas, as they had drained all the fuel out minus a few drops.

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First stop was Hang Mua viewpoint, about a 6km ride away. Something to note here is that you don’t take the first parking spot that people try to flag you down to because you’ll end up paying way more, and have to walk a fair distance. If you can drive past all the people standing in the middle of the road you’ll find yourself with parking right at the entrance for only 10000 Dong ($0.55 CDN). Unfortuneately despite reading this there was an extremely persistent group of very angry sounding Vietnamese women that wouldn’t get out of the road and pretty much forced me to park in their parking spot for 25000 Dong ($1.35 CDN). Obviously we’re not talking about much money here, but the fact they were so pushy left a sour taste in my mouth. Picture down below of where NOT to park.

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After a 15 minute walk from the very end of the road I came to the entrance of the Hang Mua Viewpoint, which had a nominal entry fee of 100000 Dong ($5.50 CDN). There is a small cave at the start of the steps up to the viewpoint with a tiger statue and some offerings from the locals.

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After viewing inside the cave it was time to start the hot and strenuous journey up to the vietpoint. 500 steps and about 20 minutes later I was dripping in sweat, but looking at an absolutely fantastic view of the karst sceneries of Tam Coc, as well as the Lying Dragon ontop of the mountain. I spent some considerable time up here getting the photos that I wanted to get, before heading back down so that I could get some lunch.

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After walking back to the bike I rode back into town to get some lunch from a restaurant, which I unfortunately forget the name of. I had some beef pho soup, but it wasn’t very good and the service was quite slow.

After having some lunch I rode a short distance away to Bich Dong Pagoda. The parking attendent wanted to charge me 30000 Dong ($1.65 CDN) but I ended up negotiating down to 20000 Dong ($1.10 CDN). I crossed over a bridge through some temple gates, walked a short while to the Lower Pagoda, before ascending 100 steps to the Middle Pagoda, which is built half inside of a cave. There are roughly 20-25 steep steps to the Upper Pagoda, which is fully inside the cave, which is also filled with bats. Bich Dong Pagoda was built by the two monks Tri Kien and Tri The in the early 18th century.

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It was starting to get extremely hot as it was mid afternoon, so I rode back to the hotel and hung out in the pool for a few hours.

For dinner I rode to the Bia Minh Beer Garden, which was just down the street. I probably could have walked but I was feeling lazy from my hike up all those stairs earlier today. For dinner I had a Hawaiian pizza, and a pork Banh Mi sandwich, along with a mini keg of fresh beer. I’ve never seen anything like it before; it’s a combination between a growler and a keg. This was some of the freshest beer I’ve had in SE Asia so far. During dinner it started to pour rain. After dinner I rode back to the hotel in the pouring rain and ended up going to bed at around 9:00pm.

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Be sure to check back tomorrow when I explore more of Ninh Binh before heading back to Hanoi.

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Vietnam – Day 2 – Cu Chi Tunnels

Today I woke up at about 3:00am. I’m struggling a bit more than usual with my jet lag. I was starving and was in need of coffee so I walked to McDonald’s, since it was the only restaurant open around me. I had some Vietnamese coffee, Matcha Tea, and a deluxe Egg McMuffin, which was much better than the ones at home. After breakfast I walked back to the hotel and hung out until the hotel restaurant opened for breakfast. I had rice soup for my second breakfast, which was surprisingly delicious.

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After breakfast I waited around for my Cu Chi Tunnel tour bus to pick me up from the hotel. The bus arrived at 8:15am and the drive to the tunnels took about 2 hours, which included a half hour stop at a restroom facility. At the restroom facility there was a touristy-like shop that sold hand made paintings and art work made by disabled people who were injured during the Vietnam war directly, or indirectly from all the chemicals used during the war. You could see the people making the art work right then and there. They used sea shells, bone, paint, etc. to create a variety of art work, which was absolutely beautiful. The amount of time and effort that went into the art work was staggering.

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After arriving at the Cu Chi Tunnels we all donned big spray as we were very close to the river, and the mosquitos were quite prevalent. I didn’t want to get dengue or malaria. Our tour guide showed us around the tunnel complex and described what it would be like to have lived and survive in the tunnels, as well as showcase some of the traps that the Vietnamese used against the Americans and the Viet Cong. Towards the end of the tour we all had the opportunity to crawl through the tunnels, which were very narrow despite being enlarged roughly 40 percent for tourists. It was quite claustrophobic in some areas.

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On the tour I met this wonderful couple living in Malaysia. Their names were Viktor and Sandrine. Viktor was an avid photographer like me so we nerded our quite a bit on the bus ride back to our hotels. I decided to get off with Viktor and Sandrine at their hotel and go for some lunch and egg coffee at the famous tiny restaurant called Little Hanoi Egg Coffee (Góc Hà Nội). I wasn’t allowed to take photos in the kitchen area as to protect their secrete recipe. After climbing two flights of very narrow stairs we arrived at the top of the restaurant with a view of the street below. The room was decorated with plates, artwork, and photos on the wall. I had an avocado grilled cheese and egg sandwich with some deliciously rich egg coffee, which was almost too sweet and too creamy for my liking. Egg coffee is traditionally prepared with egg yolks, sugar, condensed milk and coffee.

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After having lunch with Viktor and Sandrine it was time to head back to my hotel and clean up before heading to the airport to head to the next city of Hoi An (the airport is in Da Nang).

The flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Da Nang was only about an hour and was on one of Vietnam Airlines brand new Airbus A321 NEO’s. The Airbus A321 NEO (New Engine Option) is a re-engined version of the Airbus A321 using CFM LEAP-1A or P&W PW1100G-JM engines and new Sharklet’s to increase fuel economy by 20%. The plane was only a few weeks old and the interior style was completely different than their old fleet with modern teal leather seats, instead of the older beige fabric seats with lotus flowers. The flight arrived at 8:20pm. I was greeted at the airport by a driver sent by my villa. The drive to Green Hill Villa took about 40 minutes or so. Since I had arrived at night I could see the beautiful lanterns of Hoi An lit up.

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I was greeted with a welcome drink in the reception area by the family who ran the villa; a young lady, her husband and their new born.

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I was quite tired and it was starting to get late so I ended up going to bed.

Check back tomorrow when I explore the beautiful city of Hoi An.

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