Back in January 2017, me and a friend decided to leave Korea and go on a week long holiday. We first looked at Japan and China however wanting a slightly more relaxing beach holiday experience in the tropics and with flights not too expensive we opted to head to South East Asia. After doing some research we decided to book flights to Malaysia where we spend the majority of our time on the island of Penang. Despite their being a Korean Air Cargo service from Incheon to Penang, there are no direct passenger services and so we decided to fly via Kuala Lumpur taking Malindo Air from SZB-PEN-KUL which would allow for some variety in the form of an ATR-72 and a Boeing 737-800.
Despite low cost airline AirAsiaX offering services between ICN and KUL at relatively low prices, cheaper flights were found with Vietnam Airlines on a ICN-HAN-KUL-SGN-ICN routing with the legs between Korea and Vietnam operated by their A350s and the legs between Vietnam and Malaysia by their A321s. This was a great deal not only as we were to fly on a full-service carrier at a low cost but also as we were both able to collect miles from these flights on our Korean Air Skypass accounts (although only on the legs between Vietnam and Malaysia). This would be my fifth flight with Vietnam Airlines having taken them between Korea and the UK via Hanoi in 2016, during which I received a good experience and thus I was looking forward to taking them again. After making the booking, our booking could be checked through the airline’s website although due to our ticket class seats could not be selected prior to the opening of online check-in. As we booked through a travel agent we were not bombarded with the usual emails regarding Option Town upgrades that passengers who book directly through the airline receive. We checked in 23 hours before our flight encountering no problems and opted to have our boarding passes emailed to us.
These days Vietnam is a popular holiday destination amongst Koreans making use of their ability to enter the country for fifteen days without a visa. Also, a significant number of Vietnamese people come to Korea to work and study. Thus there is certainly no shortage of flights between the two nations with every single Korean airline (bar Air Seoul) and Vietnam Airlines and Vietjet connecting Korea to Da Nang, Hai Phong, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Nha Trang.
The night prior to the trip I had packed, gone for a couple of drinks with some old friends and packed my hand luggage. Intending on an early night I settled down to sleep at 2300 however forty minutes later and I was still tossing and turning. Realising that I was missing a valuable studying opportunity I headed to my desk, turned on my light and studying subjects boring enough to put anyone (although apparently not me) to sleep. Four hours later and I decided to head for breakfast paying a trip to my local McDonalds for a breakfast tomato chicken and cheese sandwich, which, being from the UK seems to be a strange concept to me although it is rather delicious. Here I had to wait a while whilst the staff dealed with some drunk students who seemed utterly bamboozled and a little annoyed that they could no longer order a Big Mac as it was after 0400.
After going back home to eat, have a shower and shave and make the final preparations for my trip I left my house and walked out into the cold morning air just after 0500. At this time the all-night Thursday evening drinkers were still taking shots of soju whilst grilling meat, the more fair weather drinkers were stumbling home and the cafes were packed with hard working university students on all night study sessions. Armed with a can of Vita 500, a drink so heavily loaded with Vitamin C it glows a near fluorescent tone of yellow and with the cold air to wake me up I made my way to Digital Media City station. I could have taken the subway from a stop closer to my house however I needed some nice fresh air to start the day after spending the night in my stuffy and cramped room. Several times during the walk I was hooted at by taxis whose drivers must have been a little puzzled as to the destination of this presumably drunk man.
Considering our flight was departing at 1005, departing from Seoul by train at 0700 or even 0800 (lacking checked in luggage) would have not resulted in any major problems however being a little over cautious we departed from Digital Media City station just after 0600 on the all stop airport train. Despite the early hour the train was reasonably busy however many passengers piled off a few minutes later after pulling into Gimpo Airport station. The rest of the journey can seem to drag on a little bit making five more stops before arriving at Incheon Airport however fortunately there is free wifi onboard which always seems to work well. The catch is however that as this wifi is provided by Korean network providers KT and Olleh, one must have a sim card from these providers to access this wifi something which may not be the case for tourists in Korea. That said, likely owing to the promotion regarding the all-stop express train and the bus services between Seoul and ICN as well as the fact that many hotels advice their guests to catch one of the airport buses into Seoul, I rarely seem to see non-Korean tourists onboard the all-stop train. Anyway, 40 minutes or so after leaving DMC (not the DMZ) our train of sleepy early morning travellers and worn out workers pulled into Incheon Airport station.
From the station it is a short journey up a moving walkway, over the bus and taxi stands and up an escalator to the spacious and airy main terminal. At 0700 the check in area was quite busy with a mix of young Korean tourists, honeymooners and older groups of travellers heading on the morning rush of departures to destinations across South East Asia. It is fair to say that the morning atmosphere at Incheon with all departures to tourist destinations across SE Asia is very different from the afternoon atmosphere which can be quite sombre at times with more flights to business related destinations. Upon our arrival at the check in desks we discovered that these were not yet open however with not too long to wait, we took a seat near the desks and waited for ten minutes. Having checked in online, when the check in desks opened we were able to head straight to the web check in counter which unlike the main check in desks (and the business class desks for that matter) were largely empty. The check in agent was pleasant enough and within a couple of minutes we had said goodbye to our suitcase and had our boarding passes printed out.
Check in area at Incheon
Air Bishkek, Business Air and Vladivostok Air – I don’t think you’ll find them at ICN anymore!
One thing that was different in the morning compared to the afternoon were the queues at security which looked frightfully long for someone who has never had to wait for more than five minutes at security at Incheon. Unsure of how long this would take to clear we headed straight to security. Despite the long queues, these seemed to be well managed and with all checkpoints open it only took just over ten minutes to clear security. Considering that most passengers were Korean, the wait time at immigration was minimal and within fifteen minutes of joining the security queue we were through to the airside area of the main terminal. However with little business to do there we headed straight for the basement to take the train to the satellite terminal. After a short train journey we headed straight for Paris Baguette for a light breakfast before plonking ourselves down at gate 107 where no aircraft could be seen despite the fact that the inbound aircraft had arrived sometime after 0500 that morning. Fortunately however, two Vietnam Airlines Airbus A350s bound for Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City as well as an Airbus A321 bound for Danang could be seen resting at a remote stand along with a bunch of Korean aircraft and a Thai Airways Boeing 777-300. At the satellite terminal plenty of aircraft were readying for their flights to SE Asia including Airbus A320 family aircraft provided by Cebu Pacific, Laos Airways and Philippine Airlines. Two Airbus A330s provided by Garuda bound for Jakarta and Bali, an AirAsiaX Airbus A330 bound for KUL doing our journey in a quicker but perhaps less comfortable fashion and a mighty Boeing 747-400 from Thai Airways bound for Bangkok. OneWorld friends British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Finnair with a 788, A330 and A350 respectively, an Air France 77W bound for CDG and an Uzbekistan Airways Boeing 767 bound for Tashkent. The undoubted winner of the most interesting aircraft award goes to Yakutia’s Sukhoi Superjet bound for Ulan-Ude (sadly I couldn’t get a photo as it parked at a remote stand near the main terminal).
Some of the traffic at ICN’s satellite terminal that morning
At 0830 the crew began to filter through to the gate one by one, now this didn’t bother me but considering how most other crews I saw that morning made their way to their aircraft as a team it appeared as if the crew had had a big row during their layover and refused to talk to each other. The crew for this flight appeared to be quite international with a non-Vietnamese captain and a couple of Korean cabin crew members. It was not until 0905 that our aircraft was pulled into gate 107, shortly afterwards the SGN bound A350 was pulled into the neighbouring gate. At this time the gate area seemed rather quiet, there were certainly not enough passengers milling about to fill two A350s.
Our aircraft that morning was Airbus A350 VN-A889 which I had flown less than a year prior to the trip from Incheon to Hanoi! The fact that I had flown it previously was a little disappointing although slightly anticipated seeing as I had already flown of two of the airlines seven A350s prior to the trip. Coincidentally, the aircraft that I returned to Seoul on at the end of the trip was the other A350 I had previously taken. The aircraft was the 17th Airbus A350 to be built and made its maiden flight from Toulouse on the 30th of October 2015. The aircraft was then delivered to Vietnam Airlines on the 2nd of December that year in a 29 business, 45 economy plus and 231 economy configuration. In the week prior to my flight the aircraft had travelled over 40300 miles on 19 flights connecting Hanoi with Ho Chi Minh City, Paris CDG, Seoul Incheon and Tokyo Haneda.
At 0930 an announcement was made in Korean and English informing passengers that boarding would be delayed due to aircraft preparation however this delay didn’t last too long and by 0935 passengers had started to make their way down the jetway to the awaiting aircraft. After some queuing I did likewise and was greeted at door 2L by a single Vietnamese cabin crew member who advised me which aisle to take to reach my seat. I received another greeting as I made my way down the aircraft to seat 30A, located near the front of the rear cabin of the aircraft. Opting to visit the lavatory before departure I headed to the rear of the aircraft where a cabin crew member could be seen hurriedly eating ramen at the bar area of the rear galley. Personally, I understand everyone has to eat and so I wouldn’t complain about it although it did look a little unprofessional and made me wonder why he couldn’t eat something before the flight. Before departure I found the toilet to be in a bit of a worn looking state despite the relative newness of the aircraft although it served its purpose and appeared to be clean.
Blankets and pillows had been placed on each seat and headphones in the seat pocket. The blankets themselves were reasonably thick, indeed better than many you’d find in your typical economy class cabin, likewise the pillow was not your standard flimsy economy pillow but featured a fabric cover often seen as too good for economy class passengers. The only slight negative about these was that, as my friend who works in a hospital remarked, the dark green blanket and light green pillow gave off a very medical feel and one would not be surprised if they received such a blanket and pillow in an ambulance on their way to hospital. The seat pocket contained plenty of literature with the airline’s Heritage Magazine featuring articles in Vietnamese and English, the Korean version of this magazine and the Heritage Fashion magazine as well as the usual duty-free catalogue and sick bag. The seat itself was covered in dark green fabric with a repeating black lotus flower pattern and featured a moveable headrest. These seats were comfortable and legroom was quite reasonable. Of course, a touch screen PTV with a working USB port and headphone jack was located in each seat.
During the boarding process calming music played throughout the cabin to accompany the video slideshow showing scenes from popular sites across Vietnam. By 0952 all passengers were aboard and the cabin doors were shut however it was another ten minutes before pushback was commenced. The flight turned out to be virtually full in economy with around 90% of the passengers being Korean leisure travellers, many of whom were late middle-aged tourists heading to resorts in the north of the country. As we waited to purser performed the welcome speech in Vietnamese and English before a Korean crew member performed the speech in Korean. At 1002 we began to head backwards and the safety video began to play, after this a short advert for Vietin Bank was also shown after which the screens turned to show the welcome screen. After our engines quietly roared into life we had to hold for a few minutes as a T’Way 738 was pulled into a gate in front of us, we again had to hold once more during the taxi to allow the Uzbekistan Airways Boeing 767 to push back ahead of us. Wet wipes were handed out during the early stages of the taxi before the crew took their seats for takeoff.
After a disruptive taxi we made it to runway 34 and at 1018 we made a quiet and not-so-powerful down the runway before Vietnam 417 rotated and made a shallow climb into the sunny Korean sky before turning southwards and making landfall west of Pyeongtaek. We then headed southwards parallel with the Honam KTX line that runs from Seoul to Mokpo in the far SW of Korea flying over Gunsan, home to the USAF’s 8th Fighter Wing’s F16s. A few minutes later we flew over Gwangju and then Mokpo before leaving the Korean peninsula. Thanks to the clear skies, the entirety of Jeju Island could be seen from 38000 feet. After this the clouds came in and blocked our view of the earth for the remainder of the flight.
Korean Air helping Asiana to save fuel
Ready to go!
Looking back towards ICN
After the seat belt signs were turned off which was followed by the usual announcement advising us to keep our seatbelts fastened when seated and also informing us that lunch would be served within a few minutes. After this the PTVs were unlocked and so I decided to browse the content of the IFE. If my counting was correct these featured 36 western films, 17 Vietnamese films, 4 animations, 3 Korean films, 2 Japanese films and a single film from Hong Kong as well as 50 TV programmes/documentaries, an impressive 150 albums and 10 games. Twenty minutes after the meal announcement was made smoked almonds and menus were handed out, the same ones those flying with Korean Air out of ICN usually receive, delicious but rather messy. Ten minutes later the first drinks round was made, this was conducted in quite a rude manner with a crew member angrily asking ‘drink?’ and then ‘and you?’, said crew member also seemed to have a hard time understanding the drink requests from my fellow passengers. I opted for a ginger ale and received a full 200ml can of Japanese Suntory ginger ale which was a pleasant surprise as I was only expecting to receive a cup’s worth.
High above SW Korea
Ten minutes or so later another crew member, a slightly older Korean gentleman came along to conduct the meal service in a polite but rushed manner. I opted for the kimchi pork dish which was served with warm bread, a small salad and a piece of carrot cake which could be eaten with plastic cutlery. A plastic mug and glass tumbler were also placed on the tray. The latter was a nice touch although I was not too sure what this was for. Wine? Tea? The main dish was incredibly delicious and flavoursome, in fact probably beating Korean Air’s non-bibimbap offerings, likewise the cake was also good and not too dry. Overall I was very impressed with the offerings. A while later the slightly rude drinks brigade came around again before tea and coffee was offered. 35 minutes after the meal service began trays were collected away which in my opinion is a little too long. However aside from this the meal service had been a largely positive experience.
A closer look at the glass
After the meal a duty free service was made although most passengers seemed to be uninterested in making any purchases. As we flew high above Shanghai we reached the first and only bumpy patch of the flight and thus seat belt signs were switched back on for around fifteen minutes. Around half way into the flight the cabin lights were dimmed and the crew came around advising people to close the window shades. I though this to be a little odd on a relatively short daytime flight especially considering that these could only remain closed for just over an hour before we began our descent.
Cruising over China
As we neared Guangzhou we rose up another 2000 feet to 40000 feet and flew at this altitude for just under thirty minutes before sinking back down to 34000 feet. After taking a short nap I decided to make a pre-arrival visit to the bathroom only to find these in a pretty awful state. I hadn’t seen any crew checking the lavatories at the front of the cabin once during the entire flight and it certainly appeared that they hadn’t been cleaned for the entire flight. When I returned to my seat we were over Nanning and the crew had begun to make their descent announcement and immediately after crossing the border into Vietnam we sank down towards earth. Fortunately by this time the clouds had cleared giving us good views of the hilly agricultural landscapes beneath us. These soon changed to industrial and urban scenes as we reached the city of Thai Nguyen and the areas of Song Cong and Vinh Yen.
The cabin as we began the descent
Eventually the flaps were lowered as we floated lower down over green Vietnam. Eventually we made a soft touchdown on Hanoi’s runway 11R as a Jetstar Pacific A320 was about to begin its take off roll on runway 11L. This was followed by heavy braking, as we slowed down a gigantic Antonov Airlines An-124 and a large Volga-Dnepr IL-76 could be seen on the far side of the airfield before a Cathay Pacific Boeing 747F as well as stored VN Boeing 777s came into view as we turned off the runway. At this time the crew performed their speech, when the hot 37 degree temperature was announced there was a collective ‘aaah’ in the cabin! Our taxi to gate 37 was short and took us past the domestic terminal full of Jetstar, Vietjet and Vietnam Airlines A320 family aircraft. At the international terminal two rival Airbus A330s from ICN belonging to Asiana and Korean Air could be seen alongside Boeing 737s Malindo and Thai Lion Air and an old (for SQ) Singaporean Boeing 777-200ER. Disembarkation began shortly after our engines were shut down and was a calm affair with minimal pushing and shoving required to leave the aircraft. After reaching the terminal it was a short walk to the arrivals hall where we had our boarding passes checked before going through security again. Surprisingly there were very few transit passengers coming off our flight.
Moments after touchdown
Interesting aircraft resting in between flights
Passing the domestic terminal
Pulling into our gate
THE OTHER FLIGHTS
Our Hanoi to Kuala Lumpur was delayed by over an hour and we made the three hour journey on a rather old looking but clean Airbus A321 with thin and slightly uncomfortable seats. However the much shorter Kuala Lumpur to Ho Chi Minh City leg was operated by a much more comfortable and newer Airbus A321. On both legs, meat and seafood options were offered and the meal came in the exact same format as on the ICN-HAN flight although no menus were offered. The crew on the HAN-KUL leg seemed to be a little friendlier than on the ICN-HAN leg, although they were not at all friendly on the KUL-SGN leg. As with the ICN-HAN and SGN-ICN flights, the toilets remained unchecked on the HAN-KUL judging by their state as we neared Kuala Lumpur. Boarding for the SGN-ICN flight started a little late with no reason given and likewise our departure was also delayed. Upon entering the cabin a heavy and unpleasant toilet smell could be experienced which seemed to be omnipresent in the cabin and many passengers seemed to be pulling faces and remarking on this as they boarded. In fact my seat mate made me translate her complaint to the cabin crew which was a little embarrassing as I am not usually one to complain too directly. When he replied ‘it’s a fuel smell right?’, not wanting to inform him of what it actually smelt of I agreed and he told me it’s nothing to worry about. On this flight the meal service was conducted once we reached cruising altitude which wasn’t great as by this time most passengers just wanted to sleep, or like myself were put off eating the meal due to the unpleasant odour. Perhaps offering a drink/snack service after take-off and pre-arrival breakfast service as I believe Korean Air do on their overnight SE Asia-Korea flights would be better.
Relatively uncomfortable slim seats on the HAN-KUL sector
Much more comfortable seats on the shorter KUL-SGN sector
Paper menus, real pillows, thick blankets, good and plentiful food, all things one would expect from a world class airline. Plastic cutlery, a slightly rude crew and unexplained delays, things that bring the airline down. In my opinion, Vietnam Airlines does have the potential to grow into a world renowned airline however first it must overcome the small hurdles which prevent them from doing this. Would I fly them again? Yes – I had had a pleasant experience when flying them long haul last year and I wouldn’t hesitate to do so again especially considering their cheap prices.
Anyway, that’s all! Thank you for reading!
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Based in Seoul.