After returning from Banteay Srei, I spend the rest of my time by the pool enjoying my last day in Cambodia. Eventually, at 15h00 I make my way to reception to settle the bill and then it is time for me to move on.
Getting to the Airport
Transport: The gorgeous old Mercedes Benz again. Journey time: 20 minutes.
I leave the hotel just after three o’clock in the afternoon. It is hot outside. Even so, the streets of Siem Reap leading to the temple at Angkor Wat are bustling with vendors and tourists. I think that is what strikes me most about Cambodia: even now, economically the country is still struggling to get back on its feet after years of civil war. But even so, there is something very optimistic about the country and wherever you go, you will likely have some snotty nosed but enterprising kid running after you, badgering you to buy a set of postcards for one dollar. But what you do not see, are people begging.
Location: Ground floor, the entire airport is on one level only. Facilities: Only airport check-in. Counters: There are two counters checking in the Vietnam Airlines flight to Luang Prabang. Apparently, the flight continues to Hanoi.
The airport at Siem Reap is managed by a French company and is currently undergoing refurbishment and expansion. From the bits that have already been completed, I think the facility is going to look rather nice upon completion.
I admit that I am just a tad surprised to find a Vietnam Airlines SkyPriority sign at the airport. Quite frankly, the place is so small I would not have thought they would bother. But they did. The agent hands me my passport and boarding pass and gives me instructions for passport control and the lounge. Yes, apparently they have one…
Location: After security, once you have passed through the duty free area turn right. The lounge is where gate 6 would be. Type of Lounge: Contractor lounge operated by Cambodia Airport Authorities. Facilities: Small selection of warm and cold dishes, cold drinks, tea and coffee making facilities, workstations with computers. There are no toilets in the lounge. Internet: Not available.
Okay, I confess that I am surprised and just a tad impressed that a) there actually is a Business Class lounge here and b) that my Platinum status with Air France/KLM gives me access to the lounge even though I am flying on an Economy Class ticket.
The flight begins boarding at 16h30. I would say there are about fifty passengers on board. Once again, I take advantage of the fact that you have to walk across the apron to reach your aircraft and that the Cambodians see no problem in me happily taking pictures on the apron. Unfortunately, it is only once I board the plane that I notice I have been assigned an aisle seat next to some woman. So no pictures of our take-off. I wait until we are airborne and the fasten seatbelt sign is turned off before I move forward.
Configuration: 2 + 2. Seat: Originally on 16C, an aisle seat. After take-off moved to 7A, a window seat. Both on the port side of the aircraft. Pitch: I have no information about the pitch in inches or centimetres. But in any case, it is perfectly adequate and comfortable, even for a flight of two hours. Facilities: Air vent and reading lamp.
The aircraft is operated in an Economy Class only seating configuration. Some of these aircraft are operated by VASCO – the Vietnam Air Service Company – on behalf of Vietnam Airlines. Or the other way round. In any case, this aircraft is fully Vietnam Airlines branded.
There are definitely two cabin crew on this flight, one male and one female. Possibly there is also a third, but I am not quite sure about that. Interaction with the crew is zero. They seem okay, but that is all I can say about them.
Delivery: Box. Type of meal: Snack.
A sweet lime.
A tuna fish sandwich with vegetables.
A small bag of peanuts.
A glass of still water.
This is rather cool. I was kind of hoping there would be something to eat because I am hungry, but I was not sure what to expect on this flight. So I am pleasantly surprised to find that they are going to feed us. The meal is just right, I think. A small snack to tie me over until dinner. The tuna sandwich is tasty and certainly of a better quality than for example the sandwich I received on Air France on my flight from Zürich to Paris.
Just after 18h the captain comes on the loudspeaker to inform us about the flight’s progress. We will be starting our initial descent at about 18h15 for an expected arrival in Luang Prabgang at18h45, fifteen minutes ahead of schedule.
The approach into Luang Prabang is spectacular. The landscape is mountainous and we meander our way around quite a few high peaks before eventually we are lined up for the final approach.
The airport is more or less deserted when we arrive. There is just one A320 of Lao Airlines standing around, which does not look as though it recently arrived from anywhere. But perhaps that is not such a bad thing, because the new terminal is experiencing a power cut as we enter the immigration hall…
Citizens from Thailand and Switzerland do not require a visa to enter Laos. Most countries, including Malta, can obtain a visa on arrival. What you will need if you are eligible for a visa on arrival, is a passport size photo, a completed visa application form, which you can either get upon entering the terminal or which you can download from the internet, and an imbarcation card which should be distributed on the plane. You will also need USD31. I know the website tells you that you only need USD30 for the visa. However, what the website does not tell you, is that you also need to pay an extra USD1 to have your visa processed. Once the visa has been plastered in your passport, you move on to the next counter, where you pay the fees. Once that is done, you may queue to enter the country.
Getting into Town
Transport: Hotel shuttle. Journey time: 15 minutes.
In Luang Prabang I shall be staying at the Amantaka. Without me even requesting them to do so, they have sent somebody to come and pick me up right after immigration and drive me to the hotel.
The four blissful days I spend at the Six Senses Resort in Con Dao are just so 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 from Saigon to Hanoi in Business Class.
Date: 8 September 2012 Airline: Vietnam Airlines, on behalf of VASCO Aircraft: ATR-72 From: Con Dao To: Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) Cabin: Economy Seat: 3G
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 sense 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 to be found standing either on the road itself, seemingly oblivious to the traffic (such as it were), 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.
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 also 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 our clearance, so once we’re lined up with the runway, the props immediately spool up and we go hurtling down the runway. Right 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.
Transfer in Saigon
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 Aircraft: A321 From: Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) To: Hanoi Cabin: Business Class Seat: 3G
There are two Business Class lounges in the domestic terminal and both are operated by SASCO, the airport authority. One lounge is located near gate 1. It has great views of the domestic apron but it’s also 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 an opportunity to take pictures of the gorgeous Vietnam Airlines livery.
An old Vietnam Airlines Tu-134 and a Lusinov L-2 next to it. Not very likely every to fly again.
I salute Vietnam Airlines for redefining the term ‘tight squeeze’!
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 very 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 that it’s 33 degrees outside and humid. Behind her, the lead flight attendant has a tray with orange or apple juice. I choose the apple juice.
And then we have a Problem
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.
… or maybe not
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 us north. This departure route brings us round to pass over 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 go with 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 an Australian brand of 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 on offer 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 now 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 macaroons sent as a welcome gift by the hotel’s pâtissier. Something tells me I’m going to enjoy my stay…
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 Vietnam Airlines again. And I am rather curious about what their long-haul product is like…
So 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, busy 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!
VASCO is an acronym for ‘Vietnam Air Services Company’. This trip review covers my journey from Saigon to the to the beautiful island of Con Dao, which belongs to Vietnam and lies due south of the mainland, a short flight of 45 minutes away from the capital.
Date: 4 September 2012 Airline: VASCO on behalf of Vietnam Airlines Aircraft: ATR-72 From: Ho Chin Minh City To: Con Dao Cabin: Economy Class Seat: 1D
Getting to the Airport
Vietnam is a fascinating and beautiful country. Even Saigon has a certain charm about it, although it may not exactly be what you’d call beautiful. The city still retains many traces of its colonial past as part of French Indochine, most noticeably the cathedral of Notre Dame in the centre of town, which was built by French craftsmen using bricks that were brought all the way from Marseille in France.
So far, I was always under the impression that Beijing has the worst traffic I’ve ever seen, mainly due to the fact that most Chinese drivers seem to have a very developed death wish and simply drive like maniacs. That was until I came to Vietnam…
It’s not that there’s a lot of congestion, and you certainly can’t say they drive too fast. They couldn’t even if they tried probably. The thing is, the cities are crawling with Vespas. The Vespa is the most popular mode of transport within the cities and it’s not unusual to see as many as four or five persons on a Vespa, driving through the narrow streets of Saigon just like thousands of other drivers.
From what I gather, the strategy when driving in Vietnam is just to never stop, no matter what’s coming your way. Instead, slow down and start honking like something crazy.
Fortunately, I had the pleasure of being driven to the airport in the hotel shuttle, which I suppose is quite a derrogative term for something with a Mercedes star on the bonnet. The journey to the airport from the hotel takes about 45 minutes, mainly due to the traffic. The airport is very close to the city.
I arrive at the domestic terminal, which looks like it’s quite an old facility from its architecture. Apart from that though, it’s clean and seemingly well equipped. I find my row for check-in and am processed by a friendly young lady. Initially, she places me on 14A. Just as I turn to leave though, she calls me back and asks me if perhaps I would prefer the exit row ‘because you have long leg’. I have two actually and I agree that by Vietnamese standards I probably am rather tall. So she issues me a new boarding pass for 1D, a window seat.
The Vietnam Airlines Business Class Lounge
From check-in I head one floor up to the departure lounge. Security is a very relaxed affair, you don’t have to remove your liquids or your laptop, which makes the whole process much easier. There is a Business Class lounge, but the young lady tells me that my Air France Platinum card is only valid in the international lounges if travelling on an Economy Class ticket. So instead, I have a look around the airside shopping area, which is certainly different from the retail selection at other airports. Anyone for some frozen snake perhaps?
Boarding is called on time. Literally. I don’t know if the PA was kaput or what but the gate agent starts yelling something in Vietnamese – the only bit I understand is Con Dao – at which the other passengers at the gate stand up and go through the gate. So I follow suit. I head down the stairs to the waiting bus.
All in all, I count 40 passengers on this flight. The bus driver demonstrates the same driving style on the apron as his compatriots on the public roads.
The cabin of this bird looks very well used and the headrest covers look as though they’ve been ironed to death.
From what I can observe, the inner one of the two parallel runways is used for departures at Saigon, while the outer one is used for arrivals. Take-off is quite sprightly for this little turboprop. As announced by the pilot, we hit quite a bit of turbulence as soon as we get airborne.
The cabin crew consists of two young Vietnamese ladies, both of which are friendly and welcoming.
Service on this short flight consists of a bottle of VASCO branded still water and a jasmine scented prepacked towel.
By this time we’ve left the mainland behind us, rather abruptly the muddy brown waters of the Mekong Delta give way to the clearer waters of the open sea.
The approach into Con Dao is quite spectacular. Think St. Maarten in miniature. Most of the approach is over water, then we fly over the beach at a very low altitude before eventually touching down.
As the icing on the cake, I disembark and walk across the small apron to the terminal building.
The driver taking me to my hotel is already expecting me. For the next four days I am going to do exactly nothing at all, except sit in or by my own pool. What bliss!
Domestic flying in Vietnam is a lot like taking a bus. And from what I can tell, that’s how VASCO understands its mission. No more, no less. Can’t really argue with that!
My hotel in Con Dao is the Six Senses and I am even fortunate enough to get an upgrade to one of their beach villas. Although in actual fact it’s a bit of an overkill, the villa is spread out across three bungalows and can sleep six! Still, the large pool is certainly cool.