Vietnam Airlines Airbus A321 - Photo Aero Icarus | Flickr CC

Vietnam Airlines Airbus A321 – Photo: Aero Icarus | Flickr CC

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.

Hyatt Regency Resort & Spa Danang - Photo: John Nguyen

Hyatt Regency Resort & Spa Danang – Photo: John Nguyen

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.

Danang Airport terminal - Photo: John Nguyen

Danang Airport terminal – Photo: John Nguyen

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.

Image: Vietnam Airlines

The airline’s website – Image: Vietnam Airlines

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.

SGN Terminal - Photo: John Nguyen

SGN Terminal – Photo: John Nguyen

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.

Remote stand at SGN - Photo: John Nguyen

Remote stand at SGN – Photo: John Nguyen

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.

Economy cabin - Photo: John Nguyen

Economy cabin – Photo: John Nguyen

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.

Exit row seats - Photo: John Nguyen

Exit row seats – Photo: John Nguyen

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.

Takeoff from SGN - Photo: John Nguyen

Takeoff from SGN – Photo: John Nguyen

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.

A321 parked at gate – Photo: John Nguyen

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.

DAD Terminal – Photo: John Nguyen

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.

Hoi An - Photo: John Nguyen

Hoi An – Photo: John Nguyen

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.

DAD check-in area - Photo: John Nguyen

DAD check-in area – Photo: John Nguyen

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.

DAD terminal - Photo: John Nguyen

Overlooking the passenger waiting area at DAD – Photo: John Nguyen

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.

Escalator

Escalator to lounges at DAD – Photo: John Nguyen

I walked around the waiting area, checking out the souvenir shops and eateries before heading upstairs where the premium lounges are located.

VNA Lounge interior - Photo: John Nguyen

VNA Lounge interior – Photo: John Nguyen

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.

Intercontinental Lounge entry - Photo: John Nguyen

Entrance to the Intercontinental Sun Peninsula Lounge – Photo: John Nguyen

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.

Our A321 waiting for us at DAD - Photo: John Nguyen

Our A321 waiting for us at DAD – Photo: John Nguyen

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.

A321 nacelle at SGN - Photo: John Nguyen

A321 nacelle at SGN – Photo: John Nguyen

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.

SENIOR CORRESPONDENT - LOS ANGELES, CA. With LAX serving as a second home, John enjoys being confined to an aluminum (or now carbon composite) cylinder jetting through the air miles above the terra firma. He has logged millions of miles in such conditions and enjoyed it 99% of the time. Email: [email protected]. You can also read more about John's non-AVGeek musings on his personal blog, VNAFlyer.

http://VNAFlyer.blogspot.com
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13 Comments

Thanks, John. Interesting and well written review. Now I want to visit Da Nang on my next trip to Viet Nam.

glbetrkkr

The 3oz liquid rule doesn’t apply to other country’s domestic flights.

gooks good!
John G Wotzka, San Diego, CA, USA

Thaihoa Huynh

Thanks for the review John. This helps us plan our family’s trip to Da Nang (family wedding). 1) Is it worth it to upgrade to Business Class? 2) Do you think its better to fly domestic in Vietnam? or to take a bus? 3) Let me know of any ‘must-do’ or must eat in Da Nang or Hoi An. We also plan to visit Nha Trang, so three one-way flights (~$45 each way economy). TIA.

Thank you for all of your questions and comments, I appreciate it and apologize for not being able to reply sooner!

@glbetrkkr – The 3oz rule definitely originated with the US’s TSA, which many other countries followed, and many others did not, especially if they did not have direct flights to the US. Vietnam was one of those who did not have direct flights to the US, but still chose to impose the 3oz liquid restriction regardless, confirmed by the big signs warning passengers about the restriction. However, enforcement of the policy definitely seems to be more lax on domestic sectors than international.

@Thaihoa – The value in upgrading to Business Class depends on a few variables, besides just “is it worth it to you?” I think on the short flight itself, it wouldn’t bring much value since there’s no additional meal, just a bigger seat and getting to board first.

The true value would be pre-departure, where you’d get to use skip the lines at check-in, security, and boarding (including a separate bus from coach passengers for remote gates), as well as have access to the lounges, as barebones as they are. Both the time-savings and less-stressful experience may well be worth it to you, especially at a busy airport like SGN (less so at DAD)

In terms of flying vs. busing, I would say flying hands-down. Some would say that you miss the experience of riding through the countryside and seeing the rural areas. Trust me, after the first 2 hours or so, it will start repeating itself, and you’ll start seeing the same thing again and again for the next 7-8 hours. Flying to DAD would save all the time for you to experience your main destination, especially considering the time spent round trip. If you truly want to experience the road trip, I do highly recommend the Saigon-Can Tho bus… just 3 hours each way gives you a taste of the road trip to a city not served by air from Saigon, and Can Tho is a great little city to visit for a day or two.

Finally in regards to must-do places in Da Nang and Hoi An, let be get back to you in the next day or two!

Thanks for reading!

Give this vietnam airline a clear miss unless u dont mind having URINE all over your luggage and inside!!! The person who did this purposely urinated along the luggage seams. Yucks!

No amts of complaints to the airline can help. They are forever a bunch of helpless fools…

Sounds like a bad experience! Are there more details you’d like to share?

I have just had a bad experience with Vietnam Airlines and as a frequent traveller, will never fly with them again. Without being too detailed, they have extremely poor customer service from the ground staff to flight attendants and the worrying condition of the planes – lack of cleanliness and age. Flight time was changed from Nha Trang to HCM and we missed our flight. With no assistance from their office who stated there were no seats available, but possibly there would be at 10.30 – they did not get back to us. We booked with another airline as we had to get to HCM airport and on arrival they said as we had not completed the other leg, we were not booked on the flights to Australia. And so it goes on…it cost us for a family of 7, an extra $2,500! They have been totally unapologetic and will not refund any money.

Sorry to hear of your troubles. Ground handling at Vietnam Airlines (VN), especially when it comes to changes and cancellations, can be downright frustrating a lot of times.

You say you’re a frequent traveler. Do you have status with VN or one of their partners? Usually status helps as leverage in these types of situations.

However, it’s common airline practice (not just at VN, but around the world) that if a passenger skips any flight of their itinerary, that the rest of the flights are also canceled, and this is what it sounds like here. Did you inform VN in Nha Trang that you were going to take a separate flight at your own expense?

Also, did they tell you when the change to your flight time was made? It’s always good practice to check your itinerary regularly.

Also, an entire party of 7 would be tough to accommodate on a single later flight. Were you willing to split up into smaller parties to get onto different flights? With VN’s frequent schedule between NHA and SGN, that could have been an option.

I hope you are able to get satisfaction, but I fear that the airline may not be so accommodating since you flew separately and skipped your NHA-SGN leg. Best of luck.

John | AirlineReporter

Hi John

Thanks for your reply. I was venting and after 3 months off unsatisfactory progress with the airlines and comments such as “we hope we can do better next time” just makes me more annoyed. The whole point of issue is that the Nha Trang office were totally inefficient and never got back to us – they stated they were unsure they could get us on flights – and yes we were very prepared to split up and this had been indicated. We gave them until lunch time but did not receive a call and then they were unavailable!! but as you would understand we had to get back to HCM so we had no alternative but to book with another airline. Even when we did speak to their employee in Nha Trang he said there would be a cost to go on a new flight, but did not mention at the time if we made alternative arrangements we would be cancelled from the second leg. Yes, read the small print – but there has to be some duty of care by the airlines in extenuating situation such as ours. We are FF and Oneworld Alliance is not aligned with Vietnam Airlines – how smart are they not to be tied in with such a poor airline.

Independencer

Hi, John! I linked from VNAflyer to here.
Will fly on VN for the first time, to Tokyo, from Bangkok with one stop at Hanoi.
Booking months prior, they assigned our seats on row 28 (and 29), which (28) seems to be the emergency exit row, isn’t it?
According to your seat map on VNAflyer, you stated that though it is the good seats with extra leg room, there were no windows. Is this true?
Even it is just barely 2-hour leg, we love to see the view outside.
Do you think it is worth having extra leg room than the view? (and we can switch from time to time with our friends on row 29 if we like). Or we should ask to move 1 row backwards (29 & 30)?

Thank you in advance.

Hello Independencer, thanks for finding me over here on AR!

Just for clarification, you are talking about the HAN-BKK sector (based on your 2-hour leg comment) and not Tokyo-HAN? Indeed, Row 28 on an A321 is an exit row with a missing window (and I have to apologize for leaving the missing window indicator on Row 28 off of my graphic: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-hDreugoGC4s/VMtWFy-tQpI/AAAAAAAAAGM/iWhaA3KdwRw/s1600/img_seatmap_321.jpg)

It’s pretty tight that far back. You should be ok on a 2-hour flight if you are an average height, so if you want a view then I would recommend changing. There definitely will be some good scenery to look at, and probably more interesting than whatever is showing on the overhead screens.

If you are taller than 5’9″ though, I would stay in the exit row (or see if you can grab Row 15, making the argument that you’re simply changing from an exit row to an exit row). Or, at least get something between Rows 15-19 or 22-26 for just a touch more leg room. Good luck, and let us know how the trip went!

John | AirlineReporter

Oh, I have to say that you have the completely right decision when not flying with Vietjet Air. Although it always launched the very cheap price flight ticket, the service as well as the frequently delayed situation make me feel undesired to fly with this company. Additionally, this airlines has the way of promoting the brand poorly. In Vietnam, we talk about Vietjet Air as the bikini airlines.

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