Vietnam Airlines VN224

by - 22:48

Vietnam Airlines VN224 Ho Chi Minh (SGN) to Hanoi (HAN)

Date: 17 May 2014, Saturday
Aircraft: A321 VN-A393
Seat: 33A
Departure Gate: 8
Parking Stand: 40

Scheduled Departure Time: 0630 LT
Boarding Time: 0600 LT
Push Back: 0631 LT
Take Off: 0647 LT Runway 25L
Cruise Altitude: 35,000ft

Scheduled Arrival Time: 0830 LT
Touchdown: 0832 LT Runway 11R
Actual Arrival Time at Stand: 0835 LT


The domestic air route linking Ho Chi Minh City in the south and the northern capital city of Hanoi is the busiest in the country and is well served by the national carrier as well as LCCs such as VietJet Air & Jetstar Pacific. With 17 flights to choose from, Vietnam Airlines also offered the lowest fare among the 3 carriers and I had the pick of flying on the A321, A332 or the B772. Unfortunately, the schedules had again conspired against my best wishes and the widebody flights would arrive too close to comfort for me to connect to the Fokker 70 departure at 1245hrs. Instead, I settled for the second morning departure at 0630hrs which was operated by a A321 and had a promotional fare of 1.65 million dong (~S$98). Booking was fast and smooth using the airline's secured website but advance seat selection was not possible since it is a promotional fare.


A quick 10 minute stroll along the deserted trunk road at 4am in the morning brought me back to the old terminal building of Tan Soon Nhat Airport where domestic flights now operate from. Devoid of motorcycle taxi touts and the constant honk of impatient taxi drivers along Truong Son, the relative serenity was a world apart from the hot and chaotic scene that greeted me on my arrival last evening.

In contrast to the shiny new international terminal, the old domestic terminal seemed to be firmly stuck in a time warp despite a few modern touches in its decor. The terminal is largely split into 2 sections due to the ongoing renovations, with the northern section nearer to the international terminal serving VietJet Air & Jetstar Pacific & the southern section serving Vietnam Airlines & its subsidiary VASCO. 

A view of the northern section of the domestic terminal with people waiting for passengers arriving in on VietJet Air & Jetstar Pacific flights. This series of photos were taken yesterday evening while walking to my hotel from the international terminal.

The adjacent ticketing windows for competing LCCs VietJet Air & Jetstar Pacific attempt to outdo each other with brightly coloured signs & advertisements. 

In comparison to the northern section of the terminal, the southern section which serves domestic flights operated by Vietnam Airlines & VASCO was decidedly more sedate. An antique Citizen wall clock that probably date back to the Vietnam War era sits above the ticketing office which had been upgraded with large LCD screens showing the status of upcoming flights.

A cursory check of the travel documents was performed by the lone security guard at the entrance to the check-in area and I joined the snaking queue which had been formed at the check-in row. In the early hours of the morning, row H handles all domestic departures and will only serve passengers checking in for the Hanoi bound flights as the terminal gets busier later in the day. 

After a 15 minute long wait, I was directed to the next available counter where I was served by a cheerful check-in agent. It was only later that I realised that I could issue all my boarding passes as there was a dedicated counter at the end of the row for passengers with onward international connections..

My request for a window seat was met with a smile and I was handed a boarding pass with seat 31A allocated to me.

Vietnam Airlines / VASCO Standby counter & excess baggage payment counters. 

The Business Class check-in at row F had a large Vietnam Airlines mural which was partially obscured by construction scaffolding.

The common security check hall is located on the second storey of the terminal building and is accessed from a solitary escalator at the rear of the check-in hall. Only 1 line was open at this early hour and resulted in a fifteen minute long wait for passengers to clear security. An additional priority line was available for airport staff & airline crew members.

Plenty of seats were available in the departure hall but no free publicly accessible WiFi is available. Instead, a row of intriguing souvenir & snack shops (which even sold frozen seafood!) kept passengers entertained during their wait.

There are 2 restaurants operated by the ground handler, SASCO (Southern Air Services Company) in the departure hall and both serve a similar menu with hot noodles and a choice of baguette sandwiches. The restaurants operate from 5am and are the only source of food in the airside departure hall. Although the restaurants are not self-service, it gave the impression of being so as passengers are generally left alone at the table until a deliberate attempt is made to attract the attention of the disinterested staff and without receiving so much as a grunt after placing the order.

However, the delivery of food is quick and a bowl of Hu tiu thit ga  (translated as "tough white noodle soup with chicken" in the laminated menu) (45,000VND, ~S$2.67, RM 6.85) with a tray of condiments were unceremoniously placed on my table less than 5 minutes after ordering. Canned drinks cost between 15,000-20,000 VND (~S$0.90-1.20). The same routine was then performed again to settle the cost for the meal, though it seemed that an elderly Caucasian seated near me had significantly more luck in attracting the attention of the staff for his orders.

As the first flights of the day leave for their destinations, the apron was soon bathed in the warm glow of the morning sun. Unfortunately, there are no clear views of the apron to be had from the waiting area as a corridor separated the 2 layer of glass windows. In addition, the reflection from the brightly lit waiting area and the closely spaced window supports frustrate any attempt to get a clear photograph of the ramp movements.

The Flight

Boarding was called at exactly 6am and to my delight, we were directed to head down to the first floor to board an apron bus to our aircraft at a remote stand. Both economy class and business class / Sky Priority passengers were boarded together as premium passengers are directed to board a separate minibus instead for the ride across the apron.

SASCO operates both the newer & older variants of the popular CoBus 3000 apron shuttle buses.

As we waited for more passengers to join us on the shuttle bus, the windows of the bus offered an excellent view of the busy ramp.

Vietnam Airlines A321 VN-A335 being pushed back from her gate for an early morning departure to the coffee capital of the country, Buon Ma Thuot.

VietJet Air A320 VN-A680 has additional stickers at the front of the fuselage to promote the Disney aircraft themed animation movie Planes.

Vietnam Airlines ATR72-500 VN-B210 still retains the old livery of Vietnam Airlines with the distinctive blue cheatline.

I had hoped for my flight to be operated by VN-A327 which is painted in Skyteam livery and it seemed that my wish would be granted as the silver profile of the aircraft appeared as the bus drove towards a remote part of the apron. It sadly did not turn out to be the case as she appeared to be parked and the bus eventually pulled up next to VN-A393 at Stand 40. 

Interior of the Chinese made CIMC AeroBus 6300 apron bus with a designed carrying capacity of 134 passengers. The interior of the bus featured a Chinese copy of Vogelsitze bucket seats and had 2 wheelchair bays although no manual or automatic wheelchair ramps were spotted. The interior panels featured the standard off-white tone preferred by many Chinese bus manufacturers along with factory standard plastic air-conditioning outlets. 

The exterior of the CIMC AeroBus 6300 apron bus bore a striking resemblance to the significantly costlier CoBus 3000. Although not visible in this photograph, the rear hatch was left open to improve ventilation to the engine in the stifling summer heat.

Both the front and rear entrances were used to speed up boarding but there were no signs or indications on the boarding pass to guide passengers on the correct exit to board the aircraft. As a result, the bulk of the passengers clustered near the front door before being directed to board from the rear of the aircraft. 

Vietnam Airlines operates an impressive fleet of 49 A321 (excluding A321s transferred to Cambodia Angkor Air) aircraft across its domestic and regional network. VN-A393 (MSN 5340) was roistered to operate VN224 this morning and was delivered new to the airline in November 2012.

View of the fuselage at the top of the rear airstairs. Unlike some other airports in the region, taking photos of the aircraft while boarding or disembarking is generally tolerated at SGN.

Much had been reported of the less than enthusiastic cabin crew on Vietnam Airlines and while I was determined not to let it cloud my impression on my first flight with the airline, the disinterested look and forced greeting offered by the stewardess stationed at the rear door sadly did little to challenge the stereotype. In the cabin, passengers were left to search for their seats and find adequate overhead storage space to stow their carry-ons while the cabin crew chatted among themselves or simply stood rooted to their spot. 

After slowly picking my way to my row, I noted that my allocated seat had been occupied by a young child who was travelling with his family. While I could certainly understand the family's situation, I wished that they had the basic courtesy to ask before making themselves comfortable in the row. Instead, I decided to simply go with the flow and took a seat in one of the empty rows in the lightly loaded aft cabin and crossed my fingers that there would be no more passengers on this flight.

Fate had it that a second wave of shuttle buses soon disgorged another batch of passengers at the foot of the airstairs and before long, an elderly Vietnamese couple occupied the two seats next to me. A third member of their family, who probably held a boarding pass with the seat I was occupying seemed confused and stared at this stub. Just as I was about to give up my seat to him and seek some assistance from the cabin crew, the steward gestured to the front cabin and spoke in Vietnamese to him to probably settle in any available seat. After apparently finding three nearby seats in front, the Vietnamese couple seated next to me vacated their seats to join their travelling companion and I had ended up with an entire row to myself at the end of this comedy of errors.

Doors were promptly closed and the aircraft pushed back from the stand a minute after our scheduled departure time. The safety demonstration video in Vietnamese & English was screened from the drop down LCD screens as the cabin crew made a hurried inspection of the cabin before settling into their seats for takeoff.

View of the domestic terminal & ramp with the control tower in the background. The scene is dominated by Vietnam Airlines's fleet of A321.

We taxied past VN-A327 which Skyteam livery looked resplendent in the early morning sun. VN-A327 was allocated to Cambodia Angkor Air after delivery and was painted in the Skyteam livery when she was returned to Vietnam Airlines in November 2013.

Japan Airlines B767-300ER(WL) JA621J parked at the remote stands opposite the international terminal. JL079/JL070 from/to Tokyo-Haneda is operated by the airline's retrofitted B767s with the new Sky Suite product, while the other flight to Tokyo-Narita is operated by B767s fitted with an older product.

Tan Soon Nhat International Terminal in the morning as we held short of runway 25L for departure. An United Airlines B737-800 & China Southern A330-300 along with a Cambodia Angkor Air ATR72-500 provided a visual respite from the row of Vietnam Airlines A321 parked at the terminal. 

Take-off video from Runway 25L.

A row of parked An-24s at the western end of the airport opposite a pair of brand new hangars with a VietJet Air A320 being serviced. Tan Soon Nhat Airport lies only 8km to the north of the city centre and the urban sprawl of Vietnam's largest city is immediately apparent after climbing out of the airport.

Performing a steep bank over the awakening metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City. The radial layout of the city's main thoroughfares is a lasting legacy to French city planning.

The growing city is never far from its agricultural roots as we overflew the flooded fields to the south of the city. These fields are supplied with water from the meandering Saigon River & Nha Be River.

A subsequent left turn allowed passengers seated on the left side of the aircraft to have a clear view of the city. The airport can be seen in the top right hand corner of the photo.

Flightradar24 trace of the departure and climbout from SGN. Copyright, Google,Inc.

Overflying the man-made Tri An Lake which was created by the construction of the Tri An Hydroelectric Dam on the Đồng Nai River in 1986.

Vietnam Airlines offer a breakfast on this 1hr 40mins long flight to Hanoi and the meal carts were rolled out as soon as the seat belt signs were turned off. Passengers were offered a choice of the usual juices, Pepsi or mineral water poured from cartons or 1.5 litre PET bottles to accompany their breakfast tray. It was interesting to note that similar to some other Chinese carriers, Pepsi was only served with ice when requested. There was only a single option for breakfast and the cabin crew seemed marginally more cheerful as they went down the aisle to hand out the meal trays.

Breakfast tray. The corn puree was surprisingly edible despite its unappetizing presentation and was paired with a dry & cold focaccia bun stuffed with ham slices. A packet of roasted mixed nuts completed the meal and while it was the coated kind which I liked, it paled in comparison to the famed peanuts offered on MH flights.

Hot tea or Trung Nguyen coffee (Trung Nguyen Coffee is one of Vietnam's emerging coffee chains and is often regarded as Vietnam's equivalent to Starbucks) were offered by the crew who surprisingly made several trips down the aisle to ensure that passengers had their morning caffeine fix. There was no further service from the cabin crew for the remainder of the flight after the meal trays were collected as they hid away behind the curtains in the galley.

Inflight entertainment on this key domestic route was limited to the inflight magazines in the seat pockets and no headsets were distributed as there was no common programming screened from the drop down LCD monitors. Vietnam Airlines publishes 2 inflight magazines - Heritage & Heritage Fashion, with the latter having minimal airline specific content and featured more lifestyle articles. The safety cards were generally found to be in poor condition.

Fleet information page in the inflight magazine showing the predominantly Airbus fleet operated by the airline. This would probably be the final edition that the Fokker 70 aircraft would be featured on this page.

VN's A321 are configured with 16 standard recliner seats in business class and 168 seats in economy class.

A typical flight between Ho Chi Minh City & Hanoi skirts the border with Cambodia & Laos and remains in Vietnamese airspace throughout the flight. Our flight headed northeast after departing SGN towards Buon Ma Thuot before adjusting the flight course north towards Da Nang & Hanoi. Due to a service interruption on Flightradar24 on the morning of my flight, the middle portion of the flight was not captured between Pleiku & Hanoi. Copyright, Google,Inc.

The clear morning skies soon gave way to heavy overcast clouds as we began our descent to Hanoi-Noi Bai airport, with the central mountain range that divides Laos & Northern Vietnam visible in the distance.

Final approach for Hanoi Noi-Bai runway 11R over rural landscape.

Approach & landing video into Hanoi Noi-Bai Runway 11R. Many passengers were using mobile phones to snap photographs of the passing scenery and it was a treat to hear the once common Nokia chime echoing through the cabin on final approach!

After exiting from runway 11R, the aircraft taxiied to the parallel remote stands at the eastern apron which are often used to park VN's A321s. A fleet of airport service vehicles and shuttle buses had already been lined up near the parking bay for our arrival.

A final look at VN-A393 before boarding the apron shuttle bus. While I attempt to avoid flying on A320s, I do have a soft spot for the stretched A321 with its additional pairs of emergency exits and slotted flaps. This was my second flight on a A321 and it had been 7 years since my first A321 flight with Asiana Airlines.

An old CoBus 3000 & CIMC AeroBus 6300 were deployed to ferry economy class passengers to the terminal, while business class passengers were ferried in a separate Hyundai County minibus. The ground handling agent, NASCO (Northern Airport Services Company) also operates the airport taxi service.

The old Noi Bai control tower had since been decommissioned and replaced by a newer tower located further west of the airport in preparation for the new Terminal 2 which is in the final phases of construction. The structure next to the old control tower is used to host foreign dignitaries arriving on official state visits.

As the apron bus wound its way to the main terminal building, I tried to look out for the Vietnam Airlines Fokker 70 which would bring me to Siem Reap but was only greeted with a row of parked ATR72s. It was not looking exactly promising at this point as the Fokker 70 only operated the daily rotation between Hanoi & Siem Reap and the aircraft should be parked at the apron after arriving back from Siem Reap the previous evening. There was always a risk to leaving it to the very final weekend of operation to fly a particular aircraft type as there were no planned commemorative flights to guarantee the appearance of the type. In addition, the inter-monsoon season is traditionally a lull tourist season for the region and there was a real risk of the flight being downgraded to a smaller ATR72.

AirAsia's first Sharklet equipped A320 9M-AQQ being tended to at the main terminal building for its return flight to Kuala Lumpur.

The apron bus dropped us off at the domestic arrivals near the new extension to the terminal building. An agent was on hand to identify and escort passengers who had a short international connection to the Moscow flight.

The dim and deserted baggage reclaim hall in the main terminal building. Arriving domestic flights are split between the older main terminal building (Lobby A) and the new extension (Lobby E).

With no check-in baggage, I headed out of the restricted area with a 4hr long transit before my next flight.

Next Post: Vietnam Airlines VN931 Hanoi to Siem Reap on a Fokker 70

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