London – Saigon
For the second time this year I’m off to Asia, this time to visit my wife’s home country of Vietnam. I have heard so much about this country and am very excited about the prospect of our nearly four week stay starting in Saigon and working our way up the country via Bienhoa, Da’ nang, Hoi An, Hue and then finally Hanoi. We will also squeeze in a trip to Angkor Wat in Cambodia to view the fabled lost cities.
In March 03 we traveled to China with BA on Club (out to Hong Kong and back via Beijing). This time we have chosen, SIA, although I say chosen, basically they were the cheapest! We will be traveling with them Raffles Class into Saigon and then back home out of Hanoi, both flights obviously transiting through Changi. This will be a good chance to compare two of the leading Business Class products “back-to-back”
19th December arrives. I love being back at LHR T3! As one would expect the Raffles check in area is queue-less, the agent courteous and we are soon on our way to Fast Track Customs with our boarding passes for SQ317, our 11.00 departure. Already we have become aware of one advantage over BA Club; our bags being marked PRIORITY means they will be 1st off the plane in Saigon. After a brief raid of the Duty Free, we relax in the small SIA lounge with views over the ramp. Lounge service is in its lunchtime mode, but given we will be dining on the plane, I limit myself to a cup of tea! In the distance I can see SIA 744 9V-SMR which will be our trusty charge for today. A call for boarding and we waft our way past the Eco-pax!! and take the 1st exit, to be greeted by the Cabin Director and his staff. We are escorted to the stairs and greeted by a steward who helps my wife with her back and coat. We are now also referred to by our names! We had pre-booked seat, 17H&K in the Upper Deck, the seats being in front of the upper exit door, so not only a 6’ flat seat but 4’ of additional leg room!
Immediately we are ensconced in our seats, service begins; hot towels, magazines, papers and Champagne! Bang on time, I feel the brakes released and we push back for our departure. The taxi is relatively painless for LHR, so not much traffic around and we are soon lined up on 27L going East but facing West! Take-off in a 747 still makes me smile, even though I’ve now experienced it many times. The acceleration is as always surprising as several hundred tones of aluminum, fuel and flesh hurtle towards the perimeter fence. After a 45 second run we rotate and commence a gentle climb over the M25 and the Berkshire countryside, before entering a gentle 180 right turn which has us heading East along the Northern stretch of the M25, with presumably the LAM VOR being our waypoint. The only downside with flying in the lump is the poor window position (low down) and all the wing is virtually out of sight so one misses all the “flap action”. Let the service begin! Our pre-ordered cocktails arrive and we begin to slip into that long-haul mode, i.e. forget the watch and just enjoy the moment. Over the next 12½ hours we experience the legendary SIA service. A four course lunch is served from a trolley and is excellent along with the wine choice. One small complaint – although the interactive Video and Audio system is excellent, who’s in charge of picking the programme? The whole of the comedy channel was devoted to US shows. Hello! US comedy just isn’t funny, never has been and never will be. Mr Kris, get some Dads Army, Blackadder, Shooting Stars and The Office on that comedy channel sharpish!! The Audio is quite good. The films are also not exactly eye catching, the only exception being SWAT which I decide I’ll save for the return day flight. After the continuous service and just one more glass of port, I’m starting to feel sleepy, so lower the seat. Unlike the BA Club seat the Raffles version is not flat but is however much wider and much softer and is immediately more comfortable. The SIA pillows are also nice and large. With Dido on the headphones I say good night and drift into sleep! I am not sure if I ever sleep that deeply on a plane… I am very sensitive to changes of pitch and roll and noises! But non-the-less 5 hours disappear and the cabin crew are beginning to circulate with those never ending hot towels! An excellent hot breakfast, again served off the trolley and with 100km to run, the 744 dips its nose towards Singapore, 20 minutes later making a very sweet landing in the already warm morning air.
We are in transit so make our way straight to the Raffles Lounge, which comes as a huge disappointment. Given this is Changi, home of the mighty SIA, the Lounge is poor. No windows, showering facilities, which could do with an upgrade, no bag store and amazingly not really enough seating. SIA should take a look at the BA lounges at LHR & JFK. We do eventually grab a shower, which is a life saver. A cup of tea and we are soon on our way to the gate for our onward flight to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh).
SQ172 is at a remote gate about 10 mins walk from the central area. Upon arrival at the gate, there is a huge queue for security. Now I don’t mind waiting for security, but there are two wide body flights departing through the same security pinch point and clearly not enough guards. The queues are very un-Singapore like! We are eventually through and see 777-200 9V-SVN waiting for us at the gate. We are in 14A&C, which is the 2nd row (why start at 12?). The 777 has the same new Raffles cabin as the 744 we have just left and again service starts immediately. The 777 is always a pleasure to ride. It’s a big brute of a plane and fantastically stable and those big windows afford an excellent view. A brisk 35 sec run and we’re climbing away to the buzz saw rasp of the two giant engines behind us. Our flight time to Saigon is 75 minutes, which is enough for another cooked breakfast and lovely warm croissants which fill the cabin with a homely smell. I get chatting to one of the Pursers and he says he will ask the Captain if we can visit the cockpit after landing; this is duly honored. Always nice to thank the flight crew for a safe delivery. Our decent begins over the Mekong delta and we descend into the inversion smothering Saigon to another fine landing. Saigon! Such and exotic place! As a young boy I still remember those sad TV images of a terrible war played out in a far off land and here I now am, with my Vietnamese wife. The sense of being in a special place is immediate. Saigon airport has a fabulous air of decay. Mouldy control tower, the old fighter pens, ancient Vietnam Airlines Antonovs and Tupolevs now out to pasture. And behind one particular wall one can see the remains of what look like C-130’s and Caribou from that now distant war. Along side us are Airbuses and big Boeings of Thai, China Airlines, Cathay and EVA Air. We visit the flight deck and chat to the crew before deplaning into the steamy Saigon air. The terminal is however modern, but we get an immediate reminder that this is a Communist country as immigration takes an age, each passport and visa meticulously checked, stamped, re-checked and re-stamped, but we’re finally through. In just 17 hours we are on the other side of the world. Good Morning Vietnam!
Saigon – Siem Reap
Its 28th Dec and we’re off to Cambodia, another destination that as a boy I could hardly have imagined visiting. We’re flying with Vietnam Airlines, which in recent years has shed is fleet of ageing Russian jets and replaced them with 767, 777, A320, A321 and ATR’s. I’m expecting (and indeed looking forward to) our flight being on an ATR, but as the numbers rise in the departure gate I realize it must be something bigger. Our flight, VN 827 is called and we board a bus. The bus takes us to a remote ramp, out of sight of the terminal at which is standing A320, S7-ASJ. S7!? (I subsequently find thanks to an Airliners.net punter it’s the Seychelles prefix). Typical of the VN fleet, the A320 is painted in what looks like a bit of a half-a-job white paint scheme. Inside, the A320 looks well worked. I wonder what its history is? We take our seats in row 11 by the over-wing exits. The flight is full and scheduled to last 45 minutes. The hot humid day results in a noticeably long take-off run and as we climb the 320 shudders its way through the 1st few hundred feet before finally getting its legs and climbing into the inversion. The cabin crew serve a lunch box containing dodgy sandwich and water. Come on VN, crack open the beers instead! Siem Reap is almost directly North of Saigon, but after our climbing turn there is little to see until we begin our descent due to the over cast. The 320 sweeps in over the flat plains of North Cambodia and the Aussie Captain executes a smart landing. At the end of the runway we 360 and backtrack past a couple of Antonovs and surprisingly a Gulftream, parking next to a brightly coloured Siem Reap Air (Bangkok Air) ATR-72. In summary, no more than a bus ride, but we’re safely here. The Cambodian Immigration officials clearly have the same procedure book as their Vietnamese friends as we endure endless form filling, passport stamping and $$ liberation in the arrivals hall!
Siem Reap - Saigon
We’ve spent three days exploring the fabulous Angkor cities and are now returning to Saigon on New Years Eve. Security is surprisingly tight and I am reprimanded for leaving my deodorant in my carry-on bag. A bag of Vietnamese cabbage seed also arouses suspicion and then laughs from the guards when they realize what it is! Our flight is VN826, the aircraft landing inbound some 50 minutes before our departure. As when we arrived the ramp is occupied by a brightly coloured Siem Reap Air (Bangkok Air) ATR-72 which departs before us. Our plane is again another Seychelles registered A320, S7-ASC which again wears are slightly scruffy VN colour scheme. Paint finish notwithstanding, we board on time and our Aussie Captain soon has the Airbus hurtling eastwards into the hot afternoon air. As with her sister ship “SJ” SC has a well worn interior. The crew serve the familiar box lunch which this time I decline. The weather is good over Cambodia, but the inversion and smog appear as we approach Saigon. Flaps whirl and the gear bangs down below us and 45 minutes after take-off we grease home soil. We are lucky, the airport is quiet which means a main stand gate and by Vietnamese standards a rapid transit through immigration.
Saigon – Da’nang
Its 2nd Jan and our stay in the South is over and we begin our trek north. We are departing on the last daily VN flight to Da’nang, VN326. We check in at the smaller Domestic terminal. The number of bags one carries does not phase the VN staff and we are allowed to take on board two large bags each. The airport is busy. An Eva Boeing 767 and China Airlines A300 are gated whilst an Air France 744 is being towed to a remote stand for its departure to Paris the following day. Soon after another East bound jet arrives in the shape of a LH 744. There are also four VN 767 and a VN777 as well as the usual gaggle of VN Airbuses and ATR’s and Airbuses of Air Pacific. I notice one VN 767 in very familiar colours, white top, dark blue bottom 3rd and blue engines, surely Ex- BA?? On a far ramp stands a lovely old CV-580 belonging to Vietnam Air Services giving a nice echo of former times. Our flight is called and we are again bused to a remote stand where 767 VN-A762 awaits us, resplendent in the proper blue/green VN colour scheme. Again the flight is full, but we push back on time and taxi out in the dark. We are in seats 22K & L, at the back edge of the wing. As we pass under the glow of sodium lighting I can just make out the words ALITALIA on the wings giving away our planes history. This is only my 2nd 767 flight, the first being a DL Atlanta-Boston flight many years ago so I am not really familiar with what to expect. Despite our load (but light on fuel) acceleration is brisk and the engine pair let out a healthy whine. A 180 to the right reveals why Saigon airport is to be re-located, the dark mass of the airport being totally ringed by the bright lights of the City. Our flight time will be an hour. The familiar sandwich boxes appear (no thank you) and the poor girl in the row in front get dripped on by leaky aircon plumbing, expertly resolved by the crew with a bunch of rags (must happen every flight!). I guess this jet must be 20 years old and despite its bright external skin, is telling of its age internally, particularly those boxy overhead bins and panels. The air is smooth tonight and our South African captain talks us through the flight. Descent commences with the give away thundering of air against the spoilers and we are soon on finals at the new Da’nang Int’l Airport. Another nice landing (that’s five in a row!) and we taxi to the empty ramp and new terminal building, claiming bags fairly rapidly and grabbing a cab to our home for the next few days Hoi An.
Hue - Hanoi
Following five fantastic days in the beautiful cities of Hoi An and Hue, we’re off again. Its 7th Jan and we have a mid-day VN departure to Hanoi. Hue airport can perhaps best be described as a building that happens to have a runway next to it, or compact if I were being kinder. However our wait is not long and flight VN244 is called. Despite our A321 VN-A342 being only 50 yds from the terminal building, we non-the-less board a bus (jobs for the boys!) and we take or seats 7A and 7B. Unlike the Saigon Airbuses, this one is smart both outside and in and inspires confidence! We are seated in 7A & B, well ahead of the engines. We are the only plane there and actually depart the ramp ahead of schedule. We taxi back down the runway and line up. This is our last VN flight but our 1st with a full Vietnamese cockpit crew. The A321 is very sprightly and we disappear into the choppy hot afternoon air, turning left out over the South China Sea for a direct track to Hanoi. We soon rise above the “chop” and settle into a nice cruise above the scattered cumulous. Bang on time the VN box lunch appears, but all I really want is a cold beer! Having flown the 737NG and A320 jets many times this year, I have to say I prefer the Airbuses. They are slightly bigger and seem to offer a quieter more purposeful ride. I will qualify this for pure Boeing fans by saying that I experienced a fantastic take-off in a very lightly loaded Shanghai Airlines 737NG(BW) earlier this year. Our flight is around an hour and soon we descend into the familiar smog that surrounds so many cities, again making a nice touch down as we pass the hardened shelters containing Vietnamese AF MIG fighters. Wow! Unlike Saigon, Hanoi airport is very modern, although a distant ramp is graced with one Yak-40, two Tu-134 and a lovely Il-18, all ex-Vietnam Airlines. Bags arrive efficiently and we’re off to the Metropole Hotel for our final few days in this fabulous country.
Hanoi - Singapore
I can’t quite believe it but the 10th Jan has come round and we are on our way home. After a lazy morning in the wonderful city of Hanoi, we set off to the airport for our afternoon SQ flight to Singapore. We are back in Raffles mode, so enjoy a queue less check in and then set off for the modest lounge. My wife disappears off to buy those last few bits (I can’t believe there is anything we have not already bought!). SQ175 is called and we board 777-200 9V-SRN through the front door, taking up the same row 14A&C seats we enjoyed on the way out. “RN” still has the old Business interior, but not to worry as its only a 3hr flight and as expected, although the seats might be different, the SQ Raffles service is 1st class, with an excellent lunch served. Our flight takes us down the length of Vietnam, into Thailand before jetting down the Malay Peninsular to Singapore. The air is smooth and the 777 the business. Soon the familiar ships of Singapore harbour appear below us and we descend parallel to the City making yet another fine landing in Changi. We are overnighting at the Pan Pacific in Singapore and will set off on our final leg tomorrow morning.
Singapore - London
SQ320 departs at 1140 so we have a bit of a lie in and then head straight for Changi, grabbing breakfast in the “gloomy” Raffles lounge, although my wife tells me the noodle was very good. Our flight flashes boarding so we set out on the long trek to gate E8, pass through security and are soon making our way to the Upper Deck, again helped by the kind cabin crew. We have again bagged row 17, but this time A & C. Our flight time is a whopping 13 hours 45 minutes, but our minds are soon taken off this by cold champagne and orders taken for after take-off cocktails (it just had to be a Singapore Sling!). Unfortunately five pax have failed to show so we are delayed 45 mins whilst bags are unloaded. Eventually we push back and head for the holding point. It’s a hot and steamy day already and my expectation of a long take-off run is not disappointed as we rotate at 51 secs and claw our way oh so slowly into the humid skies above the harbour in a straight out climb. Our route is familiar, Bay of Bengal, Indian Sub-continent, Afghanistan, Iran and then into Europe via Turkey, the Balkan states, Germany, Holland and then dear old Blighty. The Raffles service is again excellent as we enjoy first lunch and then dinner and the big seat comes into its own simply winding the hours away without any fuss. The hot towels come thick and fast! Half-way through the flight I wander the length of the 744 and think how lucky I am now to be able to afford flying up front these days after all those years at the back with the cargo and the engines! As I promised myself on the way out, I watch SWAT (not bad) but again not much else. The long flight is occasionally interrupted by bought's of turbulence until we become light enough to truly climb above the weather, our peak FL being 390. The skies darken as the hours finally wind down. London greets us with a cold, wet blustery evening, which the 744 and her crew take in their stride as we make our way down to 27R over London’s West End. We must have a cheeky crosswind as there is a noticeable dip of wing into wind as the might 744 greases the landing before erupting into noise, vibration and spray like only a 744 can.
Our adventure is over. Vietnam is a truly fabulous country and you must all go there at some point in your lives. In terms of our flights, SIA and their Raffles product have demonstrated why it is one of the best, if not the best Business Class product in the business. If they could only improve that Changi lounge! As for Vietnam Airlines, no complaints. They delivered us safely and on time and I am sure as their fleet matures and renews they will emerge as a very good Asian airline.