The four blissful days I spend at the Six Senses Resort in Con Dao are tremendously relaxing. In essence I spend my time sleeping, swimming, reading and eating. Even so I must say I’m also glad to be leaving again. I think another day of doing absolutely nothing at all and I might slowly start to get bored. Apart from that I am more of a city person, so I’m looking forward to exploring Hanoi.
This trip review covers two sectors: first, the flight from Con Dao to Saigon in Economy Class, followed by the flight form Saigon to Hanoi in Business Class.
Date: 8. September 2012
Airline: Vietnam Airlines, on behalf of VASCO
From: Con Dao
To: Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
GETTING TO THE AIRPORT
There is only one ‘road’ on Con Dao island which runs from the airport to the harbour. The term ‘road’ should be used in the most liberal terms here so as not to insult the sensitivities of the local population. The ‘road’ in in fact a path covered with gravel and littered with heaps of cow shit. The perpetrators are usually not far off and usually to be found standing either on the road itself, seemingly oblivious to the traffic, such as it is, or by the roadside. Towards the airport the cow shit subsides and makes way for the proverbial sleeping dogs, lazily waging their tails in the heat of the midday sun. Trying to shift them is like drawing blood from a stone!
I am driven to the airport by the hotel’s very own shuttle service. The trip from the hotel takes about 15 minutes. On our way there we drive along the cost, which looks beautiful today with the waves breaking against the coral reef.
As soon as we arrive, one of the concierge’s sidekicks ushers me to a seat, takes my passport and heads over to the only one of the five check-in counters that’s open. The place is empty when I arrive, so the check-in process is quickly done.
I’m not usually one for collecting boarding passes, but I think this one I’ll keep, a boarding pass of VASCO printed on an ancient matrix printer.
About 45 minutes before departure my ride arrives on the inbound from Ho Chi Minh City. The line for security does not open until the aircraft has landed and stopped in front of the terminal. There are two departure gates.
The gate is at ground level and there are a few large windows open to let in the breeze and which allow for some good photo opportunities of the admittedly rather quiet airfield.
At exactly 12h00, as stated on my boarding pass, boarding begins. Con Dao airport is a gem in that you get to walk across the apron to your aircraft. What’s more, none of the officials seem to mind the picture taking. At all airports I make a point of asking if I may take pictures. But Con Dao is the only place I’ve been to so far, where the official offers to take a picture of me in front of my plane!
This aircraft carries the full livery of Vietnam Airlines. I step inside to find the cabin is also Vietnam Airlines branded. Unlike the aircraft I flew down to Con Dao with, this one looks very neat and prim and I wonder just how long it’s been in service. Can’t be long by the looks of it. This bird has leather seats in the Vietnam Airlines colours and also the head covers carry their logo.
Originally I’m on 9B, an aisle seat. But fortunately the flight is not entirely full and as the engines power up I quickly move forward to grab a window seat on 3G. We backtrack down the runway and do a 180 degree turn at the end, with some nice views of the beach. We already have clearance, so once we’re lined up with the runway, without stopping the props spool up and we go hurtling down the runway. Immediately after take-off we do a sharp right turn to point us in the direction of the mainland and Ho Chi Minh City.
There are two cabin crew on board this bird, a young woman and a young man. Both of them are very friendly and helpful which, on second thought, I think I can say about all the Vietnamese I met on this trip. Both of them look very serious, but as soon as you interact with them they break out into a beaming smile.
As the seat belt sign goes off, we are given a lovely jasmine scented prepacked refreshing towel. This is followed by a bottle of VASCO branded still water.
The flight is only 40 minutes. About 15 minutes into the flight the lovely shades of azure of the sea beneath turn a muddy brown as we approach the Mekong delta. A short while later we make landfall and immediately start our descent into Ho Chi Minh airport.
Upon arrival we taxi all the way back, past the domestic and international terminals, towards the threshold of the runway we just landed on. Space is scarce at Ho Chi Minh airport, so we park on a kind of mini apron which is capable of holding three aircraft the size of an ATR.
We are then bussed to the domestic terminal. In the arrivals hall I make my way to the Vietnam Airlines counter, where I receive my boarding pass for the onward flight, as well as an invitation to the Business Class lounge.
From there I go landside again, turn right and walk over to departures hall from where I left for Con Dao earlier in the week. From there I head upstairs for security and I am airside again.
Date: 8. September 2012
Airline: Vietnam Airlines
From: Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
Cabin: Business Class
There are two Business Class lounges in the domestic terminal and both are operated by SASCO, which appears to be the airport authority. One lounge is located near gate one. It has great views of the domestic apron but by the looks of it, it’s the smoker’s lounge and I don’t much fancy that. So I head for the other lounge near gate 12, from where my flight will be departing. This lounge has no views but it has wifi instead and there are no smokers in sight. The food options in the lounge are interesting. I help myself to a plate of chips but I only find out once I sit down that they’re stone cold!
Boarding starts on time, incidentally from the same bus gate I boarded to fly to Con Dao. There is a separate lane for Business Class passengers, and when I arrive at the bottom of the stairs I am pleasantly surprised to find there is also a separate bus for Business Class and premium passengers.
In due course we are bussed to our aircraft, an Airbus A321 registered VN-A348. I take my time and let the others board ahead of me, which gives me more time to take pictures of the gorgeous Vietnam Airlines livery.
Vietnam Airlines has a dedicated Business Class cabin on its A321 fleet. Interestingly though, there is only a standard curtain cabin divider between Economy and Business Class. The seat looks positively enormous and wide and is tremendously comfy. I settle into my seat and wait for the service to begin.
One of the flights attendant comes through the cabin with scented cold towels, which are very welcome given it’s 33 degrees outside and very humid. Behind her the lead flight attendant has a tray with orange or apple juice. I choose the apple juice.
I barely have the time to finish my drink when captain Costas (surprising name for a Vietnamese…) comes on the blower to inform us that our plane will not be going anywhere because of pressurisation ‘issues’. He informs us that we will all have to deplane, return to the terminal and wait until a replacement aircraft becomes available. For a moment I suspect that this is where my holiday starts to go pear shaped.
The buses are already waiting for us at the bottom of the stairs, the smaller one for the premium passengers and two larger busses for everybody else. Inside the terminal the Vietnam Airlines ground staff are already expecting us and hand out transit passes as we enter the building.
I return to the lounge and wait for further news. Originally my flight should have left at 16h00. When I check the departure screens at around 16h30 to see if there’s any news, I notice that there are two other flights to Hanoi leaving soon. One is at 16h50 and the other at 17h30. So I make my way to the counter and ask the friendly young lady if perhaps it might be possible to rebook to one of those flights. To which she gives me a surprised look and informs me that actually my delayed flights has started boarding again from its original gate and will now also be leaving at 16h50.
So I return to gate 12 where indeed the flight is boarding. So we do the whole process again, I’m actually getting quite good at it in the meantime, only this time the bus heads to another corner of the airfield and indeed to another aircraft, VN-A345.
THE CABIN, continued…
Much to my surprise and pleasure this aircraft looks and feels much newer. Apart from the fact that it has newer, nicer looking and even more comfortable seats up front, I am amazed by how clear the view is through the window. No greasy spots where some uncouth slob decided to lean his greasy bonce against the window and have a nap, no kiddie paw smudges and not a single scratch. Just my luck really, because by the time we reach Hanoi it will already be too dark anyway.
Eventually we depart at 17h15, nearly two hours behind schedule. As we taxi out for take-off we pass VN-A348, which has since been moved to the maintenance apron and is being taken care of by a bunch of engineers.
Once it becomes clear that the new plane is ready to fly, we get another towel and drinks round, although this time it’s only still water. In their announcements the crew welcome us aboard and repeatedly apologise profusely for the delay.
We take off in a southerly direction and subsequently do a wide right turn to point north. This departure route brings us round to pass by the airport.
Once we’re airborne and the seat belt sign is switched off, the service begins. There is a choice of beef in some kind of pastry, dim sum or some Asian beef dish. I choose the dim sum of course and a soda water with that. Vietnam Airlines have this interesting system. Once you make your choice, the cabin crew will put a sticker on your seat which matches the tinfoil on your meal. Like this they can see at a glance what you’ve ordered, which I find rather nifty actually.
First the table is set with a yellow tablecloth at the centre of which is the lotus blossom that is the Vietnam Airlines logo. When the tray arrives, it contains, apart from the dim sum, a salad with Australian dressing, a fruit salad, butter and additional chilli sauce. I’m not sure what this is for because the red stuff in the tinfoil served with the hotmeal is already quite sufficient to blow the top of your head off. There is also warm bread and I choose the lovely garlic bread.
After a coffee round my tray is collected again. Throughout the flight the crew does a number of drink runs. I’m quite impressed.
At some point, captain Costas, who initially I thought sounded Spanish but is sounding increasingly Greek, comes on the blower. I figure this must be the ‘we’re about to start our descent’ speech. But instead he informs us that we still have more than an hour to fly because of thunderstorms en route we’re having to circumnavigate. Rather than flying a straight line, our route takes us from Ho Chi Minh City in a northeasterly direction towards Da Nang and then from there we do a left turn towards Hanoi.
Eventually we land in Hanoi at 19h25, with more than two hours delay. The hotel has sent a car to pick me up. The journey to the centre of Hanoi takes about 50 minutes to complete by car. The pick up is a BMW 7. Once I get in, the driver shows me the drinks menu and asks me what I’m having. There are also refreshing towels and a few filled macaroons sent as a welcome gift by the hotel’s pâtissier. Something tells me I’m going to like this…
Despite the delay, or perhaps I should say precisely because of the delay, I had a very good experience with Vietnam Airlines. I am particularly impressed with the way they handled the irregularity of our aircraft going tech. I think they put a lot of effort into minimising the inconvenience for the passengers as far as possible. Throughout the process they were very apologetic but also very professional. So thumbs up for that! I would certainly have no problem at all flying with Vietnam Airlines again. And in fact I am rather curious about what their long-haul product is like up front…
So what about Hanoi? Personally, I love the place and the people, both of which draw you in with their openness and charm. While Saigon is the economic powerhouse of Vietnam, Hanoi is far more laid back in the way that only a capital city can be that knows it has nothing to prove to anybody because it is, after all, the capital city.
With its horrific traffic, huge crowds and French boulangeries Hanoi leaves you confused, dazed and gagging for more. I am still trying to figure out why. There are certainly prettier and more spectacular cities around Asia. But I think that is precisely it: unlike ambitious Kuala Lumpur, chaotic Bangkok and sterile Singapore, Hanoi and her people are surprisingly untypically Asian. The obvious conclusion to draw from that might be to assume that the city has managed to retain some of its heritage as part of the French colonial territory of Indochine. But that would be to do the city an injustice for it has its very own distinct style. So I think I’ll just leave it at that and simply say that Hanoi is unlike any other Asian city I have visited so far. And I like that!