France | Day Trip to Versailles

By Jason Vu

Along with the regular 3-day weekends of our program, our last week included a 5-day long break for us to travel and explore all on our own. On the first day of this break from class, a group of friends and I decided to go on a day trip outside of Paris to the famous Palace of Versailles. Although Versailles is one of the most well-known places in all of France, I didn’t realize how far it was from Paris until we got on the hour-long train ride! Nonetheless, we eventually made it to the small town named after the grand palace.


Arriving at the entrance courtyard to Versailles, we were met with a long line of at least two hundred people. While this seemed quite daunting especially with the French heat wave upon us, my friends and I braved the long line to enter into the former seat of the French monarchy. Luckily for us, the line moved quite quickly and within an hour, we were at the security checkpoint to enter in. 

My friend, Allyson, trying to avoid the sun in line for the entrance


Upon entering Versailles, we were introduced to the estate’s spectacular history. Originally an old hunting lodge constructed by King Louis XIII, his successor Louis XIV decided to expand the lodge into a palace fit for a king. Versailles would not just be any palace though; Under Louis XIV and his successors, the palace would serve as the central seat of government from the mid-17th to late-18th century. As such, it would house not only the King but much of the French nobility who were eventually ousted during the French Revolution.

Statue of the “Sun King” Louis XVI, first king to reign from Versailles


Our tour of Versailles began at the royal chambers on the palace’s right side. These included the rooms of King Louis XIV, Queen Maria Theresa of Spain, and the rest of the royal family. In addition, we also got to see the chambers of some of the King’s mistresses. Each room was more ornate and gaudy than the last, with great portraits and grand sculptures decorating the entire area of the room. Once my friends and I finished going through the main rooms, we headed out to the courtyard in front of the palace’s frontside. 

Front of the Palais de Versailles

After taking some time to admire the palace’s architecture, we stepped back inside to see one of the main attractions at Versailles—the Hall of Mirrors. Known as “La Grande Galerie” in French,  the hall was filled with grand frescoes lining the ceiling and glass mirrors meant to reflect light from the windows into the hallway. The room was filled with tourists when I got there, but I managed to grab a picture that captured most of the halls extravagant beauty. Given that it was designed to show off the glory of France, I would say that the Hall of Mirrors, along with the rest of Versailles in fact, does quite well in fulfilling its role.

“La Grande Galerie” or the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles

Jason studied abroad in France in Summer 2019.

France | Quai Branly

By Jason Vu

Only a few meters from the Eiffel Tower lies a small park with trees and plants not native to anywhere in Europe. With windy dirt paths and flowing creeks, I forgot for a moment that I was in the middle of one of the most bustling districts in all of Paris. Even stranger, this jungle-like environment was the entrance to my class’s final excursion together—La Musée du Quai Branly.


Opened in 2006, Quai Branly was designated as a museum featuring the indigenous arts and cultures of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. While a good number of visitors come to see the many unique items showcased in its exhibits, this museum was definitely no d’Orsay or Louvre. Given that it’s not as well-known, I appreciated the fact that Prof. Behdad set up this group visit to expose us to this museum that most of us would otherwise have missed.

Introduction to La Musee du Quai Branly by Prof. Behdad

Starting promptly at 2pm, our class met at the outdoor auditorium of the museum where Prof. Behdad shared a little about the history of Quai Branly and how objects that originated outside of Europe ended up in one of its most famous cities. This history was on that involved trade, colonization, and the construction of the French nation-state. After an interesting discussion on these issues, our TA Mariam returned with our entrance tickets and we soon went on our way.

Ritual Objects from Southeast Asia


The museum’s exhibits were divided based on their specific region of origin. Since there was no particular order in visiting the museum, I decided the first thing I would see would be the Southeast Asian art section. I was impressed by the array of items featured in the exhibit and particularly the ones that originated from the many indigenous tribes of Vietnam. Beyond pots and traditional clothes, what stood out to me the most was the elaborately designed ritual objects used in all kinds of sacred activities such as ritual sacrifices and incense burning. Given my own Southeast Asian ancestry, I saw a lot of parallels between these objects and the ones my family has used before as well.

Fresco of the Virgin Mary and Jesus painted by Ethiopian Christians


Following my visit to the Southeast Asian wing, I made my way to the cultural objects of Africa. Of the many intriguing items featured here, what surprised me the most were some ancient Ethiopian Christian paintings sectioned off in their own little space. These artworks surprised me because they dated back far before Europeans sent missionaries to their colonized territories to convert them to Christianity. That meant that Ethiopia had Christians far before Europe began spreading Christianity around the world, a fact that I did not know beforehand.

Hot pot meal made of paper for “Paradise Palace” Special Exhibit


Finally, to conclude my visit, I checked out the Quai Branly’s temporary exhibit titled “Paradise Palace”. This exhibit featured several pieces of traditional Taiwanese art called “zhizha” or Taiwanese funeral objects. These objects were made of paper and shaped to look like common everyday places and objects such as meals or bedrooms. In Taiwanese tradition, these paper effigies were burned as an offering to deceased relatives and ancestors to grant them these comforts in the afterlife. “Zhizha” are often very intricate and well-designed as evident by the hot pot meal pictured above. While I liked this piece because of how well it was made, I was especially drawn to it because hot pot happens to be one of my favorite meals. Staring at the delicious meal before me, I knew it was time for me to leave the Quai Branly and head to dinner with my classmates.

Jason studied abroad in France in Summer 2019.

France | Sacre Coeur

By Jason Vu

On my last trip to Paris, one of my favorite places to visit was the hill of Montmartre in the 18th arrondissement. At the top of this hill was the beautiful white-domed Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris, known more commonly as the Sacre Coeur. Completed in 1914, the Basilica was built as an act of penance for what was seen as the moral decay of the city following the Franco-Prussian War and the rise of the Paris Commune. Now back in Paris, I was determined to make another visit to this extraordinary shrine.


On an early morning before our regular class meeting, I made my way to Montmartre using the metro. The stop I left at led directly to the base of the tall hill and from there, I made my long trek up the hundreds of stairs leading to Sacre Coeur.

Me at the bottom of Sacre Coeur, getting ready for the hike up


Needless to say, I was sweaty and tired when I reached the top of the hill, but it was more than worth it to arrive at the highest point in Paris. After taking in the view for a little bit, I made my way into the Basilica to take a closer look at the sacred space. Due to the strict rules on taking any pictures at all inside, I was unable to snap any shots but believe me when I say the interior was as magnificent as the exterior!


Upon finishing my tour of the inside, I stumbled upon another to enhance my experience of Sacre Coeur. For just 7 Euros, I could climb 300 stairs to the top of the central white dome of the Basilica. Given that this was most likely the highest point in all of Paris, I decided that I needed to go. Starting at the very bottom of Sacre Coeur, I began to climb up the long stairs that led to the summit of Paris.

Halfway to the top of Sacre Coeur!

View from the top of Sacre Coeur’s main dome


Out of breath and sore, I had lost track of time until reaching the top of the dome. Instantly, my legs felt like jello being so high up and I remember gasping aloud when I looked down to see how far up I was. Nonetheless, the view I was treated to was like nothing I’d ever seen before. In the distance, I could see some of Paris’s most well-known monuments—the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe—dwarfed by the immensely higher Sacre Coeur. After taking a moment to sit in the stone benches provided for visitors to rest in, I began my trek back down to the ground.


With about a thousand stairs climbed all before lunch, I decided that I needed to take a break from climbing stairs for a bit. Luckily, Montmartre provides a small tram that goes up and down the hill for those who don’t want to climb the stairs. Even better, the Navigo Transit Card that our program provided us allowed me to use this service for free! With my morning visit to Montmartre complete, it was time for me to head to class. While this meant I had to say goodbye to Sacre Coeur, this would definitely not be the last time I come back!

The funiculaire going down from Sacre Coeur to Paris

Jason studied abroad in France in Summer 2019.

France | Vive la France! Vive la Republique!

By Jason Vu

On July 14th, France celebrated La Fête Nationale (The National Day). In English, we know it more commonly as “Bastille Day”. In 1789, French revolutionaries stormed the infamous Bastille prison in Paris to free prisoners and acquire weapons. The action marked a significant turning point in the French Revolution, marking the end of the monarchy in France. Given the importance of this occasion, the celebrations in Paris were sure to be magnifique!


Festivities began bright and early in the morning with a grand military parade on the Champs Elysée. Led by French President Emmanuel Macron, the parade showcased France’s military marching from the Arc de Triomphe to Place de la Concorde. Even though I got there pretty early, I still had to jostle my way up to see the parade. In the end, I was able to snag a couple of shots of the passing troops, but none were as spectacular as the cavalry that trotted by.

Bastille Day Military Parade on the Champs Elysée.


After the end of the parade, I wanted to try out another perk of Bastille Day in Paris. In celebration of their cultural heritage, France marks Bastille Day by granting free access to all its museums and monuments that would normally cost around 10 Euros or more. Since Bastille Day also commemorates the troops who defend the French Republic, I decided to stop by Les Invalides, France’s national military museum and monument.


To say that Les Invalides was just like any other French monument would be a great understatement. Instead of being known for one thing or another, Les Invalides is actually made up of several buildings that either serve as museums of French military history or monuments dedicated to fallen French soldiers. Some of these buildings include La Musée de l’Armée, La Musée des Plans-Reliefs, and two churches connected back-to-back. These two churches were my favorite parts to see of the complex mainly because of their rich history and artistic design.


The older of the two was the Cathedral of St. Louis-des-Invalides, which was intended to be a chapel for veterans of France. Constructed under the reign of Louis XIV, the church was built in a Baroque-style and featured the flags of France’s enemies throughout history. On the other side of a glass wall was the Dôme des Invalides, another church that was eventually turned into the resting place of the late Emperor Napoleon I. Surrounded by statues of angels and portraits depicting mythicized scenes of his life, the tomb of Napoleon was made into the center of the Dôme and visitors have flocked to honor le petit caporal ever since.

The Cathedral of St. Louis-des-Invalides

The tomb of Emperor Napoleon I in Le Dôme des Invalides

With afternoon getting nearer, I eventually made my way out of Les Invalides and headed to the Pantheon for another feature of Bastille Day. All over Paris, free public concerts were taking place in historic monuments and churches to celebrate the storming of the Bastille. At every event, you could hear the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, being played proudly for all to hear. The concert I was going to was composed of wind instrumentalists from the French military academy who were playing several famous French pieces of classical music. I don’t remember the names of the songs they played, but being there was something I won’t forget!

Celebrating Bastille Day with a free wind instrument concert in the Pantheon


To conclude my first-ever Bastille Day, I met up with some friends at Trocadéro Park where we would watch the firework show from the Eiffel Tower. The show lasted a whole 30 minutes and every second of it was fantastic! Not only were fireworks being shot through the sky, but the show featured light effects and music to celebrate the end of a national day of celebration. Now I’m a big fan of 4th of July fireworks back in the States, but I have to say, we definitely can’t compare our shows to fireworks of Paris…

Bastille Day Firework Show at the Eiffel Tower

Jason studied abroad in France in Summer 2019.

France | Brussels + Amsterdam Weekend Trip

By Jason Vu

Although our program has plenty of class time for us to learn in, we also get plenty of leisure time to explore on our own! On one of our three-day weekends, my friends and I decided to book a Flixbus to see the cities of Brussels in Belgium and Amsterdam in the Netherlands. It may have been a bit crazy to fit so much into one weekend, but I think we saw plenty!

Our first stop on this weekend was Brussels, which was about a two hour drive from Paris. First thing we did after settling into our AirBnb was head out in search of Belgium’s famous waffles. Using the city’s metro system, we made it to the main square and were surrounded by Belgian waffles. I made my way to a store with reasonable prices and was treated to a thick waffle covered in whipped cream and nutella. Truly, I’ll never eat waffles the same way again…

Me with my life-changing Belgian waffle.

After gulping down my entire waffle (and half of my friend’s), we continued to wander around the square, stopping by the town hall and some art museums on the way. We soon found ourselves at the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula. Serving as the main Catholic church of the city, the cathedral boosted a grand Gothic design with two towers in the front reminiscent of Notre Dame in Paris. We walked in to see great pieces of Baroque art including paintings and sculptures that adorned the church’s walls. Our visit to this cathedral was truly worth the sites, and given that entrance is free, I’d highly recommend!

Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula in Brussels


Our final stop in Brussels before calling it a day was the city’s botanical gardens. Filled with beautiful plants, garden mazes, and statues, the garden was a joy to wander around, especially with the region’s temperate weather. While wandering was fun, my favorite part personally was sitting by the cool ponds scattered around the garden and taking a rest from walking. With the last leg of our Brussels trip out of the way, we went back to our apartment to get a little rest and prepare for Amsterdam.

Botanical Garden of Brussels (ft. friends wandering in front)


Bright and early the next morning, we woke up and got back on Flixbus for a two-hour ride to Amsterdam. The first thing we did when we arrived was looked for somewhere to eat. Fortunately, we stumbled upon Meneer Pannenkoek, a Dutch omelette and pancake restaurant that boasted huge portions for decent prices. I ordered a large omelette stuffed with mushrooms, cheese, and bacon that, for me at least, was worth 2 meals. With our bellies stuffed, my friends and I made our way to Dam Square, the main plaza of Amsterdam.

My first Dutch meal in Amsterdam


Wandering the city through until the night, we got to see much of the city including the Flower Market and the Dutch Royal Palace. The best part of the city for me, however, were the many bridges that offered great views of the city. Even with all the sites we did get to see, only one day in Amsterdam was definitely not enough, so I’ll definitely be back in the future!

Nighttime view from a bridge in Amsterdam

Jason studied abroad in France in Summer 2019.