Sunday, 22 June 2014

Vietnam Airlines VN931 Hanoi to Siem Reap on a Fokker 70

Vietnam Airlines VN931 Hanoi (HAN) to Siem Reap (REP) via Luang Prabang (LPQ)

Hanoi (HAN) to Luang Prabang (LPQ)

Date: 17 May 2014, Saturday
Aircraft: Fokker 70 VN-A502
Seat: 15A
Departure Gate: 3
Parking Stand: 31

Scheduled Departure Time: 1245 LT
Boarding Time: 1218 LT
Taxi Out: 1235 LT
Take Off: 1239 LT Runway 11L

Scheduled Arrival Time: 1345 LT
Touchdown: 1328 LT Runway 23
Actual Arrival Time at Stand: 1330 LT Stand 5

Vietnam Airlines Fokker 70

Vietnam Airlines operated a pair of Fokker 70 on their domestic & regional routes and are registered as VN-A502 (MSN 11580) & VN-A504 (MSN 11585). These 2 aircraft were used to serve thinner routes to Kunming & Chengdu in China, as well as Luang Prabang in Laos and Siem Reap in Cambodia. They were also used on domestic rotations to Tuy Hoa, Buon Ma Thuot, Chu Lai, Pleiku & Quy Nhon.

With the Siem Reap-Luang Prabang route being the only scheduled Fokker 70 route left, it was relatively easy to book the flight on the airline's website. Vietnam Airlines operate thrice daily between Hanoi & Siem Reap and the 2 direct flights in the afternoon are operated by an A321. There was a premium tagged to the non direct Fokker 70 flight and despite the seat map showing single digit occupancy, the promotional fares were not available for this flight. However, the higher fare band allowed passengers to reserve their seats in advance and I was able to reserve the coveted seat 14A which gave a view of both the rear mounted engines and the wing.

Hanoi Noi-Bai Airport

Situated 45km north of the city centre, Noi Bai airport was converted for shared civilian / military use in 1978 and the current Terminal 1 was completed in 2001. Apart from the new domestic terminal extension which was opened in early 2014, a new International Terminal 2 is currently undergoing construction to the west of the current site and is slated to be completed by end-2014. 

A bank of glass elevators which link the upper floors of the terminal greet arriving passengers as they step out of the arrival hall into the central atrium. The central atrium links the 2 check-in lobbies on the departure level.


Kerbside drop-off at Noi Bai Airport Terminal 1. Check-in Lobby A is shared between the national carrier & other airlines that serve the airport. 


Check-in Lobby B is used to process the check-in for passengers travelling on international routes operated by Vietnam Airlines. With 2 flights being scheduled to depart nearly together to Shanghai & Moscow, the dimly lit check-in area quickly become a swirling mess of humanity and the barely existent air-conditioning could not counter the sweltering 36 degree Celsius heat outside the terminal.


A pair of spiral staircases flanks the central atrium and leads from the check-in rows to an overhead catwalk over the check-in hall and the airline offices on the upper floors. 


The new domestic terminal extension was fully functional with domestic flights confusingly split between the main terminal building & the new extension. The bright and clean check-in hall is a far cry from the old terminal building.


The self-service check-in kiosks for VietJet Air are located along the bridge linking the new terminal with the main terminal building.


Despite the new extension being operational for only a few months, there was a certain odour in the air-conditioning that made an extended stay in the cool confines of the building an unpleasant experience - it was a peculiar mix of mould, perspiration & cigarette smell that I had typically associated with restaurants & dank public buildings in China. 

With time to spare, I decided to explore the airport compound and soon located the airport public bus terminal. It was not a proper bus terminal but a reserved parking area next to the coach park situated opposite the new domestic terminal extension and is served by Hanoi Bus route 7 & 17. Both routes connect the airport with the city centre.

Route 07 is operated by Transerco / Hanoi Bus to Cau Giay using a fleet of single step 3 door Daewoo BC212MA. The multi-colour electronic destination sign alternates between the route number, route number & details and the bus operator's logo.


Route 17 to Long Bien offer passengers a more rustic public bus experience and is operated by a Thaco Hyundai with wooden bench seats. Both routes have relatively good service levels with an observed frequency of below 15 minutes during the day.


Pho is regarded as one of Vietnam's national dishes and typically comprises of thin noodles served in a savoury clear broth with a choice of meat. While pho is usually accompanied with beef, a chicken option (Pho Ga) is also widely available and I had to savour it during my short transit at one of the airport restaurants located on the top floor at Hanoi Noi Bai. Unfortunately, the WiFi connection available in the restaurant failed to work.


Check-In

Although the FlDS had earlier reflected counters 52-53 to be allocated for VN931, it was changed to counter 38 nearer to the check-in time. However, a fault with the computer system at counter 38 meant that the check-in agent had to abandon his position and shift to another available counter.


VN931 is a code-share flight with Lao Airlines using the same flight number to Luang Prabang. The final destination, Siem Reap, is noticeably missing from the FIDS in the terminal building.


A single check-in counter was allocated for this flight instead of the original 2 counters but with the anticipated low loads, I only had a couple in front of me in the queue.  Due to existing agreements between the airline & the government on this lucrative route, passengers have to spend a minimum of one night in Siem Reap but this rule seemed to be loosely enforced. I had to show my onward travel itinerary from Siem Reap to Singapore on Jetstar the next day to the check-in agent before I was deemed to have satisfied the requirement and handed my boarding pass for the flight. After confirming with the check-in agent for the aircraft type, I was somewhat relieved that there had not been an equipment change.


Immigration and security clearance was surprisingly swift and efficient despite the large number of passengers who were checked in for the midday wave of flights to Chinese & Taiwanese destinations. With the recent conflict between China & Vietnam which had resulted in isolated riots breaking out at Chinese-owned facilities in the country, Hanoi Noi-Bai was packed with worried Chinese nationals fleeing the country for their safety.


The third floor of the Terminal 1 houses a number of airline lounges, restaurants and souvenir stalls. It is of note that Priority Pass & Veloce cards are not accepted at any of the lounges in Terminal 1.


The Burger King restaurant located on the 3rd floor provides what is probably the only free & usable WiFi at HAN. Menu prices are quoted in USD but VND is accepted as well. 


A selection of wood crafted classic aircraft models on sale at the numerous souvenir stalls in the departure area at Hanoi.


In addition to other cheap die cast aircraft models with varying degree of realism, a plastic 1/160 snap fit model of a Vietnam Airlines B767-300 was also available for sale at one of the shops. However, the illustration on the box curiously shows a rendering closer to that of a B777-200 with B767-300 emergency exits!


Both the seating areas on the western & eastern side of Level 3 have full height windows which look out to the parking apron. However, it is a challenge to get an unobstructed photo of the aircraft due to the overhanging roof struts & other structures. The additional height offered by the vantage point allowed me to finally spot VN-A502 which had been towed to the western end of the apron and was readily identifiable by its white radome. The very last Fokker to be built, VN-A504, was spotted to be parked near the airline's hangars at the eastern apron and did not seem likely to operate my flight.

China Airlines A340-300 B-18802 being tended to at Gate 8A ahead of her departure as CI792 to Taipei.


A Vietnam Airlines A321 at the eastern apron awaits its next load of passengers.


The Flight

After failing to locate a money changer in the departure area to change back my small cache of VND, I headed to Gate 3 which is conveniently located just next to the security checkpoint. Limited views of the apron & runway are available from the gate area at the second floor.


Gate 3 shares an aerobridge with adjacent Gate 3A, and is used as a boarding gate for an apron bus to a remote stand for our flight as the aerobridge was connected to a Korean Air B739ER.


Boarding was called at 1218hrs and passengers were directed to a CIMC Aerobus 6300 apron bus which was waiting for us under the aerobridge. With only slightly over 30 passengers on this flight, all passengers were quickly accounted for and we set off for a tour of the western apron.


Korean Air B737-900ER HL8249 was photographed being pushed back for its departure back to Seoul-Incheon as KE480.


ANA B767-300ER JA613A unloading cargo & passengers after arriving from Tokyo-Haneda as NH857. This flight is now operated by a B787-8 Dreamliner.


Vietnam Airlines ATR72-500 VN-B225 parked in front of the new domestic terminal extension. I was certainly glad that our apron bus continued straight ahead instead of turning towards it!


The fear of an equipment swap turned to joy when I realised that I was indeed going to fly on a Fokker 70 as scheduled after our apron bus continued past a VN A332 to the only other aircraft with a distinctive profile on the ramp.


VN-A502 (MSN 11580) is among the last Fokkers to be rolled off the Woensdrecht production line and was delivered new to VN in January 1997.


The integral foldout airstairs were used for boarding at Hanoi, Luang Prabang & Siem Reap and can be either opened by the crew from the inside or by way of a large handle located aft of the door.


The aircraft type & registration is proudly emblazoned in bold type font across the rear fuselage behind the single overwing emergency exit.


As compared to the previous flight in the morning, I was warmly greeted from the purser and offered a choice of local newspapers in English & Vietnamese which were neatly laid out on top of meal cart in the forward galley. With all passengers onboard and a Vietnamese seat mate next to me in seat 14B, the cabin door was hoisted back up and closed as the twin low bypass Rolls Royce Tay 620 engines were spooled up.

The sole stewardess on this flight, F/A Nguyen, walked down the aisle and offered a pre-packed wet tissue to each passenger from a basket with a smile. The cabin service thus far had left a positive impression and was closer to that expected of a full service Asian carrier as compared to the surly crew on the shuttle service from Ho Chi Minh earlier in the morning. 

Meant for short haul regional & domestic routes, VN's Fokker 70 are not equipped with any form of entertainment system and a manual safety demonstration is carried out by a single cabin crew member at the start of each flight.


With a final wave from the ground crew, we taxied out of stand 31 for the short taxi to the threshold of runway 11L and were held in position for 2 minutes while waiting for traffic to clear from the adjacent arrival runway 11R. I have a soft spot for the distinctive whine of low bypass turbofan engines and the twin Tay 620s certainly did not disappoint as they were spooled up to takeoff power for the very bumpy takeoff roll on the concrete runway. (Apologies for the camera lens knocking against the inner window pane).



After the climbout, the aircraft banked towards the west to bring us across the mountainous Xuan Son National Park & Xuan Nha Nature Reserve that forms a natural border with People's Democratic Republic of Laos. However, there was significant cloud cover and obscured the ragged landscape below. After noting that the row behind me was empty, I decided to move out to 15A such that both of us have ample space to ourselves for this short flight. 

Wide angle view of the aft mounted Rolls Royce Tay 620 turbofan engines with the unique trailing edge profile of the Fokker.


Large, oval windows provide passengers with a good view of the scenery & the engine for aviation enthusiasts. However, it can be a challenge to locate a reasonably unscratched window on the aircraft.


In-flight service only comprised of a drinks service on this sector and the same choices of cold drinks were available. Although canned drinks were not available, I was particularly impressed by how F/A Nguyen took the extra effort to fill each cup near to the brim instead of giving each passenger a half cup of drink. In addition, the colourful Lao PDR (People's Democratic Republic) immigration cards were distributed to each passenger and made a great keepsake for passengers who were continuing on the flight to Siem Reap in Cambodia.


After the drinks were served, the cabin crew retreated to the empty seats in rows 16 & 17 and took a quick nap or in the case of a steward, caught up with a game of Candy Crush on his tablet (the distinctive tune could be heard as I was seated in front of him). However, this also meant that the crew had no problems with me obtaining photos of the cabin interior. 

Vietnam Airline's Fokker 70 are configured with a very comfortable 5 abreast all-economy class layout with a total of 79 seats. 


There is excellent seat pitch in economy class (~34") and the thick padded seats are upholstered with a patterned blue fabric.


Row 16 showing a typical 2-seater on the left side with extra wide center armrests between the seats. Although row 16 has 2 windows, there is little view from them as they are obstructed by the engine cowling. Row 17 is the last row on the Fokker 70 and is configured 2-2 with no windows on both sides of the cabin.


The seats on the Fokker 70 were manufactured by Italy based Avio Interiors.


The armrests had certainly seen better days, but the ashtray mechanism still worked perfectly fine.


Each seat pocket has a complimentary current issue of Vietnam Airline's in-flight magazine, Heritage, an air sickness bag and the obligatory safety card. However, most of the safety cards are in very bad condition as even the crew use them to fan themselves while the aircraft is on the ground!


Passenger Service Unit (PSU) on the Fokker 70 with individually controlled air-conditioning nozzles and reading lights.


The seatbelt signs on the PSU stayed illuminated throughout the flight and merely blinked when it was pinged on or off.


The sole lavatory is located at the rear of the aircraft on the left side and opposite the rear galley installed on the opposite side of the aisle. The lavatory featured a suitably 'old-school' chemical flush toilet and was well stocked with stacks of paper napkins and a bottle of liquid soap. The lavatory lights flickered on & off with the slightest vibration or bump of the door.


Formica counter of the lavatory. Note the press button for the flush on the right (in both English & Vietnamese), as well as the orange attendant call button. A placard instructs passengers on the use of the faucet.


After a short cruise, we commenced our descent into Luang Prabang Airport (LPQ). Dipping below the cloud layer, the mountainous terrain of northern Laos soon came into view.


Designed for steep approach angles and short field performance, the Fokker 70 handled the approach into LPQ with ease.


Final approach over the Mekong River. As the main waterway through the alluvial plains of Indochina, the Mekong River carries one of the highest amounts of sediment in the world and accounts for its perpetually muddy look.


Video of the approach into Luang Prabang Rwy 24 and taxi to the remote stand.



Vietnam Airlines Fokker 70 VN-A502 - Photographed with the mountains surrounding Luang Prabang Airport in the background. Prior to the modernisation of the airport, the approach into LPQ was one of the most dangerous in the region due to the terrain but well suited to the unique flying capabilities of the Fokker 70. I would certainly wish to plan a proper visit to Luang Prabang in the future and perhaps make my way up one of the several hills for a better view of the airport.


All passengers have to disembark at Luang Prabang and those continuing on to Siem Reap were handed a transit pass which was in essence 2 boarding passes stapled together with a bright pink transit sticker on either side.


Luang Prabang (LPQ) to Siem Reap (REP)

Date: 17 May 2014, Saturday
Aircraft: Fokker 70 VN-A502
Seat: 14A
Departure Gate: 2
Parking Stand: 5

Scheduled Departure Time: 1445 LT
Boarding Time: 1358 LT
Taxi Out: 1407 LT
Take Off: 1412 LT Runway 23

Scheduled Arrival Time: 1610 LT
Touchdown: 1521 LT Runway 05
Actual Arrival Time at Stand: 1524 LT Stand 8

Luang Prabang Airport

Opened in June 2013 together with the completion of the runway extension, the shiny new Luang Prabang Airport looked distinctively out of place in the middle of a tropical mountain valley littered with rustic wats and villages. 

The terminal building is divided into 2 sections, with a section of the departure hall accessed through a pair of escalators to the second storey for boarding flights through aerobridges. An adjacent section of the departure hall was situated at ground level for flights boarded on the ramp. The spotlessly clean waiting area was sparsely populated at this time of the day with our flight being the only movement for the next 3 hours.


The upper section of the departure hall was deserted after a Lao Airlines A320 was pushed back for her departure. The new terminal boasts a selection of souvenir & handicraft shops for visitors to indulge in last minute shopping before their flight. Most shops accept both kip & USD for payment though prices are often not labelled or shown only in kip.


The single layered clear glass fronting the upper section of the terminal provides an excellent view of the terminal apron and the single runway. Lao Airlines A320 RDPL-34223 was photographed departing runway 23 as QV102 bound for the capital city of Vientiane.


Luang Prabang FIDS showing departures scheduled for the afternoon. Luang Prabang (LPQ) is well served by multiple departures to Vientiane, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City & Bangkok. China Eastern is poised to launch a new scheduled flight to Kunming in July 2014.


The Flight

Gate 2 was allocated for the onward sector to Siem Reap from Luang Prabang. The gate is also used for Bangkok Airways ATR72-500 flights to BKK. Although the flight was scheduled to depart at 1445hrs, boarding was called after a short 20 minute long turnaround.


With the flight being very much ahead of schedule and coupled with the laid back atmosphere in Laos, many passengers took their time to obtain photos of themselves & travelling companions before boarding the aircraft. Lao Airlines seemed to have retired their fleet of Chinese built MA-60 from active service in recent months with domestic & regional flights carried out by their fleet of ATR72-500. One such example, RDPL-34176, was parked resplendent in the early afternoon sun beside our Fokker 70.


No newspapers were offered by the crew for this sector and I took the opportunity to obtain a photo of the R1 door and the forward galley. Being used as an emergency exit and servicing of the galleys, the R1 door is significantly smaller than the L1 door with its integral airstairs.


After being warmly welcomed by the crew who remembered me from the previous sector, I settled back into my original seat 14A and was pleased that 14B remained empty for this sector. The Heritage in-flight magazines in the seat pockets had also been swapped out for the Heritage Fashion in-flight magazine and the newspaper which I had left in my seat pocket from the previous sector had also been cleaned out. 

Rear galley of the Fokker 70 with the compact galley unit located on the right of the cabin and a pair of cabin attendant seats at the aft end.


A short manual safety demonstration was performed by the same steward and we taxied out for departure 43 minutes ahead of schedule. The newly repaved runway surface produced far fewer rattles than the previous departure from Hanoi and the aircraft smoothly accelerated down the runway after backtracking to the end of runway 23. Following a powerful takeoff, passengers seated on the left side of the aircraft could see the remnants of the old runway and terminal to the south of the current facility.



Departing Luang Prabang Runway 23 with the foothills of the city in the background as the twin Rolls Royce Tay 620 turbofans provided a steep climbout from the airport.


Cambodian immigration & custom declaration forms were distributed by the cabin crew shortly after takeoff from Luang Prabang.


A pre-packed snack box was served with a drink on the second longer sector from Luang Prabang to Siem Reap, along with the now familiar limited choice of drinks.


Unfortunately, the box was sodden from having spent an extended time in a chiller and was probably prepared in a very humid environment.


An apple crumble & a traditional Vietnamese jelly with shredded coconut packed in a small plastic cup with pre-packed wet towels and toothpicks made up the content of the snack box. It had not been the tastiest or freshest desserts but was still edible and retained sufficient taste to identify the dessert.


The rest of the flight passed by uneventfully as I savoured the purring of the Rolls Royce Tay 620 engines and ensconced in the comfortable padded seats. The Fokker 70, however, does not ride turbulence particularly well as the aircraft was violently shaken while passing through a large thunderstorm cell north of Siem Reap.


On downwind for Siem Reap Rwy 05 after exiting the rough ride through the thunderstorm cell. The West Baray & the airport compound can be seen near the top right corner of the photo.


Final approach into Siem Reap runway 05 and rollout.



Wat Phnom Airlines B737-400 XU-886A was photographed at a remote apron of REP and looked seemingly abandoned with its fading titles and rain-streaked fuselage. Little could be found about this airline which had operated its sole B734 on routes between Siem Reap & Taiwanese destinations.


Each Vietnam Airlines Fokker 70 flight is typically accompanied by 4 cabin crew. On this flight, F/A Nguyen was the sole stewardess onboard and posed with the comfortable five abreast full economy class interior of the Fokker 70 after arrival at Siem Reap. Due to the insistence of the chief purser for me to leave the aircraft so they could prepare it for the return leg, I was unable to stick with my original plan of getting the cabin crew to pose on the integral airstairs.


Being the last passenger off the aircraft, I was escorted by the ground handling agent to the international arrivals of the airport terminal. She was exceptionally patient as I stopped to obtain more photos of VN-A502 during the short walk across the apron. VN-A502 was photographed being tended to at Siem Reap Airport Stand 8 before her return flight to Hanoi via Luang Prabang as VN930. 17th May, Saturday was the type second last day of operations in the airline's fleet.


A massive renovation project is currently in progress at Siem Reap Airport, and the results are stunning as I did not expect such a beautiful terminal. The immigration hall resembled that of a cultural art museum rather than the typical sterile tiled halls at many other airports in the region. As the only passenger with a passport from an ASEAN country, I cleared immigration with ease as the bulk of the passengers from the flight were stuck at the visa-on-arrival counter.


As with the immigration hall, the brightly lit baggage reclaim area was also tastefully renovated with traditional Khmer art sprinkled around the hall. I particularly like the sculpture with its own niche in the roof of the hall.


Stepping out of the arrival hall, I found that my pre-arranged hotel pick up was already waiting for me with a placard showing my name.

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