The trip back to Europe from Vietnam was long and uncomfortable. The worst travel day we’ve had since we started this adventure last year. It started out Wednesday morning. We used the same van company that got us to Ha Long to take us to the airport in Hanoi, about a 3.5 hour drive. Once we were in Hanoi the van pulled over to the side of the highway for what we though was a driver switch, but instead they were moving us to a smaller van for the rest of the trip to the airport. We were half asleep and not expecting this so I was groggily trying to gather all our things, charging cables, my sweater, half a bag of M&Ms… and hurry into the other vehicle. This is how you loose something I kept thinking to myself, but as far as I know, we got everything.
The international terminal in Hanoi is new and pretty nice. It doesn’t have the bus station vibe like the other terminal, where we arrived. We parked ourselves in a restaurant to have one last bowl of pho and a couple local beers while we waited for the check in counter to open.
On the way to Vietnam from Poland I slept through both flights so didn’t really have a good concept of what 14 hours sitting in an airplane was like. This time I was exhausted but couldn’t sleep. I was too tired to even watch a movie so I just squirmed in my seat trying to find a comfortable position. Eight plus hours later we arrived in Doha, Qatar. The Doha airport is really, really nice. On the way to Vietnam we ran through this airport to catch our connecting flight. At that time I wished we had longer there to look around. This time we did with a 7 hour layover.
The airport was quite impressive. Everything was spotless and looked new. There were large digital screens throughout the terminals and there were many shops and restaurants. There was a stand selling only gold jewelry, a toy store with giant stuffed animals that would have needed their own seat on the plane, designer clothing shops, electronic gifts, etc. We stopped at a caviar and seafood bar for a couple very expensive beers. Then we wandered by some of the shops but were so tired we just wanted to sleep somewhere. So far we have logged almost 12,000 miles or 28 hours of flight time on Qatar Airways. Not quite enough to get into one of their lounges for free, but we are getting close. I read that they can get crowded and smokey, so instead of paying to get into one, we looked for someplace quiet to rest and maybe nap.
According to sleepinginairports.net there is plenty of seating through out the airport but the arm rests make it impossible to lay down. They also mentioned there were some quiet rooms with lounge chairs. The first one we found had a separate area for men & women. Not ideal for us. Later we found the family one, but every chair was full. We sat in the seats with armrests for a while, but it wasn’t very comfortable. They finally announced the gate we would be leaving from so we went there to wait. The floor here was carpeted, something else that was mentioned on sleepinginairports.net, so I laid down of the floor and got a little sleep. I wasn’t the only one. One woman had made an encampment with her luggage and a blanket, right by an outlet where she was charging her phone. It looked like she had an even longer layover that we did.
We had a great view of Doha as we took off on our second flight (see the header image above). We had booked the window and aisle seat, in hopes no one booked the seat between us. Our trick worked, but they moved us to the back row. The last time I sat in the back row of a plane, the seats couldn’t recline, but not this time. In fact they seemed to recline even more than usual and there was no worry about bothering the people behind us. It was still an uncomfortable flight though. Not by any fault of Qatar Airways, they are a wonderful airline to fly. The staff is always nice and helpful, they server pretty good food, and they are constantly coming by with beverages. The flight was uncomfortable because I couldn’t fall asleep again but I was again too tired to watch a movie or TV. I even tried to lay down across 2 seats, but it didn’t work. We were so happy to arrive in Sofia the following Thursday afternoon.
Bulgaria is part of the EU, but not part of Schengen. As US citizens we automatically have 90 days we can stay. Our Schengen visa status has reset by now so we also have another 90 days we can spend in the Schengen countries of Europe too. Once again we had no problem at customs and were told to enjoy our stay in Sofia.
Despite being a 6th floor walk up, our Airbnb is fantastic. It’s very cozy and feels like home. There are even a few touches that are exactly like home. Back in the US we’d been living in an RV. It’s a great little travel trailer that’s supper lightweight, has lots of extra amenities, and we have done a lot of our own customizations too. The toilet paper holder in our Airbnb is the same as the one we installed in our RV. The funny thing about that is it’s not really a tp holder, it’s a towel rack, from Ikea. It works great as either though, except it falls off one of it’s screws when ever I change the roll. Just like at home. It’s a strange coincidence that must have subconsciously made me think I’m back in the RV because I catch myself trying to flush the toilet with my foot (the RV toilet handle is on the floor). I haven’t had to do that in over a year.
We are in a great location in downtown Sofia too. There are a ton of fantastic restaurants around. There is even a sushi restaurant right across the street from us but we haven’t tried it yet. I never thought I would say this, but I’m kind of tired of Asian food right now. I’ve been more in the mood for the hearty Bulgarian food, mixed with Greek, Mediterranean, and Turkish influences. It’s cold here, we’ve even had some snow, so a nice warm meal in a cozy restaurant can’t be beat.
When you’re in one place for a period of time, you get used to certain things with out realizing it. The second day we were here in Sofia we were out walking around and needed to cross the street, so we just walked out into traffic, weaving between the oncoming cars. I noticed something was wrong when the cars going by on either side of us started to slow down. All of a sudden I realized what we had done. I said to Howard, we’re not in Vietnam anymore! We should be at the crosswalk over there, with the other people waiting to cross the street at the light!! Oops…
One thing we really wanted to see was the Monument of the Soviet Army at Knyazheska Garden, which was not too far from our apartment. We wandered over there one afternoon, crossing the streets crosswalks this time. We were disappointed to see that the graffiti had been removed though. Now we are not proponents of graffiti or defacing monuments, but something interesting was done here. Not too long ago the soldiers had been painted to look like American super heroes and icons. Click here if you want to see what I’m talking about. There was still a lot of graffiti all over this park. Kind of sad and weird at the same time. We didn’t stay too long though as it was bitterly cold and windy.
There are a lot more things we want to do here in Sofia, we may have to stay longer than just one month. It’s cold though, and we sent home all our winter clothing last spring. Luckily we each got a great deal on a North Face jacket where they’re made, in Vietnam. And as always, if we don’t see everything this time, we’ll just have to come back.