After spending the previous couple of cold winter months in Seattle, New York, and Boston, as well as visiting Tokyo (cold), Kyoto (cold and breezy), Taipei (rainy), and Hong Kong (windy and rainy) on this trip, I was glad to have planned a “vacation within a vacation” to spend some time in the sun and sand in the middle of my Asian trip.
Danang (sometimes spelled Da Nang), the third-largest economic center in Vietnam behind Saigon and Hanoi, is famous for its stretches of beaches along the South China Sea. The area known as “China Beach” to American soldiers during the Vietnam War is currently earmarked for luxury resort development.
Danang International Airport (DAD) is also the country’s third-busiest airport and treated as Vietnam Airlines‘ (VNA) central domestic hub, though it has quite a few direct international flights on foreign carriers as well.
I was fortunate enough to book a mid-April stay (one of the best times to be in Danang, weather-wise) at the Hyatt Regency Resort & Spa Danang, selected because of its location right on the water and a private beach.
Reservations and Ticketing with Vietnam Airlines
I was traveling with my wife, our two friends, and their infant, so I monitored fares from Tan Son Nhat International Airport (SGN) to DAD for a few months, and saw some wild fluctuations in fares.
All airlines based in Vietnam are subject to a decree from the socialist government that inexpensive fares must be available so that domestic air travel is accessible to the masses. Just a couple of months ago, the government issued a follow-up directive to drop prices even lower.
Armed with this knowledge, I checked prices on VNA’s website in January. The cheapest fares available were “Economy Standard” for 1.6 million VND (about $76) each way, inclusive of all taxes and fees. No proof of residency or citizenship is required for the lowest fares.
Business class was available for about $105, and would include priority check-in, security, and boarding, as well as lounge access.
On a lark, I checked up-and-coming low-cost competitor Vietjet Air (VJ), and their famously cheap fares were available from about $20 after all their booking fees. However, their reputation of being delay-prone preceded them, and I wanted to minimize any risk of delays with such a short amount of time on our trip. I chose the better reliability of VNA over VJ’s rock-bottom pricing.
With April not being a heavy tourist season, I had waited to purchase and trusted my instincts. While already on my Asian trip, and just four days before when we were supposed to arrive in Danang, “Special Deal” fares appeared for $40, and I jumped on buying them. I normally advise against waiting so close to departure, and I will admit that I got lucky this time.
Checking-In at SGN for the outbound flight to DAD
With a 9:00am departure, we were sure to leave for the airport by 7:00am to account for heavy morning traffic, something the city is notorious for. We managed to get to SGN’s domestic terminal by 7:45am, leaving enough time to comfortably complete check-in formalities. Or so we thought.
We had decided to travel light with just carry-ons. VNA allows one suitcase and one personal item to be hand-carried, restricting the size of roll-aboards to 22″ and a maximum 7 kg (15.4 lbs). The first 20kg of checked baggage is free of charge.
Our big “mistake”: we had stacked all of our rollaboards (and the infant’s bag) onto one pushcart, catching the eye of the check-in agent, who was convinced that there was no way that mountain of luggage was all for carrying on.
Much discussion ensued, and we were shifted to another counter on the expectation that we would be checking our bags. More discussion ensued, with a supervisor coming over, chastising us, and claiming that our rollaboards (which were all 21″) were too big. After I balk, she demands that I weigh one of the suitcases. I randomly selected one… 9 kg. I offered to pull things out to reach the 7kg limit, but she was more interested in proving her point, and we had a flight to catch.
I agree to check that one bag in, and that satisfied the supervisor’s power trip authority enough to let the rest of the bags go, so we moved on to seats.
Assuming that we all wanted to sit together, we were all placed in the last row of an Airbus A321-200 (A321) since that was the only full row still available. I asked about seats farther forward, which seemed to confuse the poor agent, and he said that there were plenty of seat pairs if we were willing to split up.
And so we have our seat assignments: my wife and I are in row 23, and my friend and his wife (plus their infant) are in… row 28, the emergency exit row!
As you may know, on most airlines, children under a certain age (around 15) are prohibited in the exit rows, much less a lap child, for safety reasons. I ask about this, and the agent said the system didn’t allow him to place the infant closer to Row 23 because either a) there is no extra oxygen mask for a lap child in the row, or b) there is already lap child in the row. However, the system allowed the lap child to be in the exit row.
Not wanting to waste anymore time, my friends and I all agree to switch seat pairs onboard (as my friend was not keen on the idea of his infant being in the exit row either). With boarding passes finally in hand, off we went with the rest of our luggage to security.
Security was, shall we say, not comprehensive. They missed a bottle of water that was inadvertently left in the diaper bag. We figured perhaps they thought it was for the baby (it was, for mixing formula) and just let it go. In any case, we were through in about 10 minutes.
Boarding, In-Flight, Arrival
We got to our gate about five minutes before boarding was announced, so not much time to check things out. Unlike in the U.S., where almost every passenger has their own suitcase, many passengers in Vietnam travel light with just a personal item, so lack of overhead space isn’t typically a huge issue. With the flight not being full, we decide to wait it out and be the last group to “board.”
We had ended up at a bus gate, so we are all glad to have sat in the terminal for a few minutes longer, rather than have to stand inside a stuffy bus on a hot and humid day, waiting for everyone else to load up.
Here’s yet another reason to wait towards the end of boarding with VNA: typically, the flight attendants on board will let you sit in Rows 10-12 (normally reserved for elites and full-fare passengers) if the seats are open and almost everyone else is on board. No luck for us on this flight, however, as these rows were already occupied.
No problem, we headed to our seats. My friend managed to squeeze his 6′-5″ frame into the regular economy row (by all rights he should have sat in the exit row, but for his infant), and my wife and I take their seats in the exit row. There was plenty of overhead space, even though we were last to board.
Like most narrowbody aircraft, the economy cabin is configured 3-3, but on a VNA A321, there is a crew jump-seat in each exit row, taking what normally is the D/aisle seat on the starboard side. This leaves seats 28EG as one of the few pairs of coach seats in the plane. My wife and I happily settle in; the crew jump-seat is unoccupied for the whole flight.
With everyone onboard, the crew readied the plane for departure, only five minutes later than scheduled. I would have given credit to VNA for running the auxiliary power unit (APU) at a remote stand to chill the cabin (Vietnam is hot and humid, after all), but then for some inexplicable reason when the cockpit crew fired up the engines, they blasted the heat.
In a sealed cabin. In a hot and humid climate.
You can bet that it got hot real quick. This ordeal lasted a good 10-15 minutes before the coolers kicked in again and evened out the temperature.
The aircraft is one of the newest in the fleet, equipped with Airbus’s new interiors, including flip down LCD monitors which start playing the safety demo video.
A 15-minute taxi later, we’re wheels-up. The weather was clear, making for a smooth flight.
The cabin crew jump into action immediately, probably because of the short duration of the flight. They efficiently passed out individually-wrapped wet wipes for freshening up and a small bottle of water. Once service was complete, they quickly went through the cabin again to collect trash and bottles before descent. While attentive, they were pretty lax on enforcing takeoff and landing requirements, such as putting tray tables and seat backs up.
The approach and landing were uneventful. DAD has a fraction of the traffic that SGN does, so it’s a quick taxi to the terminal, where we alighted via jetbridge. DAD’s modern terminal was opened at the end of 2011.
Because of our checked baggage, we walked a short distance to baggage claim and retrieved our bag after a 10-minute wait. We triumphantly walked into the mild air outside the terminal and hailed a taxi to take us to our beach resort, short $10 taxi ride away. But soon, we would find ourselves back at the airport.
Back to DAD for our Return Flight
After a fantastic time both at the Hyatt and exploring the ancient village of Hoi An, it was time to head back to the big city. We enjoyed afternoon tea in the hotel’s lounge before calling for a taxi about three hours before departure. Being unfamiliar with the airport, we wanted to take our time getting there and dealing with any possible issues at check-in without having to feel rushed.
With little traffic in the streets, we arrived in under 20 minutes to a pretty empty terminal. No one was in line, so we walked right up to the economy counter to check-in.
This time, we played it smart. We each pulled our own bags, and checked in as separate couples rather than one large group. There were no questions regarding the size or weight of our carry-ons, and we were quickly checked in. The flight had a light load, so it was easy for the staff to find us an entire row together.
The DAD terminal actually has quite a few things to keep waiting passengers occupied, possibly having a better setup than SGN. My friends had a snack at a pho kiosk while my wife played with their infant.
I walked around the waiting area, checking out the souvenir shops and eateries before heading upstairs where the premium lounges are located.
Vietnam Airlines maintains a business class lounge for its own passengers and those of SkyTeam. There is another VIP lounge operated by the airport for other airlines such as VJ and Asiana. Both are underwhelming.
Interestingly, there’s a third lounge operated by, and for guests of, the InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort. I inquired about it, and the staff member indicated that the InterContinental provides complimentary lounge access for both departing and arriving guests. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to check it out.
At 20 minutes before our expected departure, priority boarding was announced and the masses again lined up in the narrow gate area, a veritable gauntlet of humanity. Thankfully the flight isn’t even half-full.
Our plane departed a few minutes early and made up a few minutes in the air, resulting in only a 30-minute delay in arriving. The flight experience replicated the outbound segment. Our aircraft was marshaled to a remote stand, where deplaning occurred at both the forward and aft doors, and we took buses to the main terminal. Without any checked bags, we exited the terminal in under a minute, back into the hot, humid chaos that are the streets of Saigon.