Hello and welcome to this website's first report on Vietnam's latest addition to its ultra-competitive domestic air travel market - Bamboo Airways.
Some heavy persuasion meant a recent work trip to Vinh from Hanoi was now to be flown instead of driven, replacing 7 hours of road time with under 40 minutes of flight. Up until this month (March 2019), the only air connection between the cities have been two daily Vietnam Airlines flights, with one operated by regional subsidiary VASCO and their ATR 72. After an uneventful outbound flight with VN, I awaited my company's choice of return flight - with both direct options arriving too late in the afternoon, I expected to a backtracking VII-DAD-HAN routing which would negate much of the time benefit of flying between the two.
However, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a single ticket confirmation on Bamboo Airways - Vietnam's newcomer to its burgeoning aviation sector. An oddball route amongst its primarily leisure-focused routemap, the "boutique" LCC operates a single daily flight to Hanoi from Vinh in the early afternoon, making it the earliest flight option to passengers heading to the capital. A quick check of their flashy yet flawed website showed fares of 570,000 VND one-way, making it fairly competitive vs the alternative coaches, train and driving options. My company had booked a "Bamboo Plus" ticket fare, which entitled me to 20kg of checked luggage on top of the standard 7kg carry-on. I was very interested to try out this newbie Airline with mammoth ambitions.
Vinh Airport is located just a 10 minute drive from downtown Vinh. The terminal building is small but very modern-looking, having been rebuilt and opened in 2015. Currently there are 4 airlines serving the airport - Vietnam Airlines, JetStar Pacific, Vietjet, and most recently Bamboo Airways. In addition to the short hop to Hanoi, a reasonable number of central/southern domestic destinations are served between these airlines, including Da Nang, HCMC, Can Tho and Nha Trang, amongst others.
Pulling up to the airport gates
Pulling up to the terminal it appeared that my flight coincided with an early afternoon "rush hour" of flights down to SGN. A delayed Vietjet flight coincided with two more flights heading south from Vietjet and JetStar, making the small terminal feel very full and claustrophobic from the off. It's a bit concerning that such a new terminal only needs 3+ departures at once to feel bursting at the seams. Nevertheless, I located Bamboo's two check-in counters and quickly received a boarding pass, confirming my selection of seat 3A which I'd made on the website for an additional 44,000 VND.
Vinh airport's check-in hall bottlenecks into a security checkpoint and back out into the departures lounge all in the space of a few hundred feet, but the lack of walls in the building gives it an airy feel despite the small size. Landside consisted of nothing more than the check-in desks and two airport "cafes" that closer resembled school tuck shops, so I cleared security in the hope of finding more on the other side.
Airside once the crowds had departed
However, I was disappointed. On top of the 3 flights' worth of passengers milling around, there was nothing on offer here beyond a further four tuck shops and two smoking lounges (unsealed glass boxes placed right next to two of the afforementioned shops' seating areas). Dreadful design for such a new airport. I was eventually able to find a seat away from the smoke and lack of passenger etiquette only to be greeted with news that my flight's boarding had been pushed back to 14:00. At least the airport food and drink markups weren't too bad.
The first Vietjet flight to SGN makes its delayed departure
Beyind the limited airport announcements, it was impossible to track the progress of my inbound flight. FR24 didn't even list it on the Vinh arrivals/departures, and nothing showed up whilst trying to track Bamboo Airways flight in the area. I was curious to know what I'd be flying on, as the current fleet is comprised of a few brand-new A321neo aircraft supplementing a core fleet of wet-leased Freebird Airlines A320s and single A319. Eventually my questions were answered, as A320 TC-FHY touched down outside. I'm still unsure where it had come from. As it taxis in, the crowds inside the terminal slowly continue to dissipate as they board their respective flights.
The apron as three SGN-bound flights depart and our A320 awaits boarding
Thankfully, at 13:40 boarding for QH1650 was called. At this point the terminal building had completely cleared out bar my flight's passengers and a few overly keen arrivals for the 16:00 VN flight to SGN. All boarding at VII is done by buses to remote stands, and that was exactly the case with this flight. Boarding passes were scanned and passengers proceeded down an escalator to the awaiting buses - one for business class and another economy.
The speedy boarding and very empty bus (no queues at a Vietnamese airport gate is a big telltale sign) pointed towards a very low load on this flight. That said, there was a solid 60% LF for the small J cabin who were allowed to board while the rest of us waited in the bus. However, I'd have to hazard a guess that most were bumped for being elderly - age being very highly respected in Vietnam and staff are usually happy to make their elders more comfortable. Eventually we were allowed to board ourselves, and I made my way to 3F.
My extra legroom seat was located in the very first row behind the two rows of business class (composed of recliner chairs in a 2-2 layout). The difference in seat size gave me almost unlimited legroom as well as considerable space for my feet between the seat in front and the cabin wall. This combination proved popular, as soon two seatmates joined me in what was probably the only full row on this flight. Boarding was quickly wrapped up at 13:58 and we were pulled away from the stand at 14:06.
Vinh's rather optimistic international terminal
The Freebird cabin crew found them in quite a rush to finish up the safety demonstration and secure the cabin for takeoff during the very short taxi out to runway 35. The three Turkish crew were accompanied by a Vietnamese colleague who naturally took the brunt of passenger interactions and needed to deal with the usual pool of passengers who can't wait to recline their seats or insist on keeping their 6-year old child on their lap. All this led to us waiting at the end of the runway for the cabin to be fully prepared, something I'd never experienced before.
Interestingly, we lined up on runway 35 for a north-facing takeoff, whereas the preceding SGN flights had all used 17 and taken off towards the south after backtracking along the runway. I suppose that's the kind of thing you can choose to do on a still day at and incredibly quiet airport and surrounding airspace. At 14:12, the engines finally spooled up and made a very short takeoff almost directly northbound.
The flight began to level off very quickly, just breaking the usual sheet of cloud that covers northern Vietnam throughout much of the winter. The J cabin had all its windows lowered almost immediately, putting the whole space into darkness. Not what I'd have wanted on this early afternoon flight at all.
Luckily the Y windows were left untouched and the crew began a very expedited onboard service of a single water bottle per passenger. A nice gesture, and not something I think they could realistically improve on such a short flight. A hot drink maybe?
The rest of the short cruise passed uneventfully, with precious little to see outside. Within 20 minutes of takeoff, we started our descent into Noi Bai.
Again, the typical low cloud prevented any good views on approach. This is such a pity, as the approach into HAN can be stunning with the rice paddies and limestone mountains below. Instead, we didn't break through the cloud cover until around 3,000ft.
A company A321N was awaiting takeoff as we made our final approach and landing on runway 11L, with wheels down at 14:47. Despite the long taxi distance, this is a fairly quiet time of day at Noi Bai. The early afternoon heavies to the likes of SIN, TPE, ICN and Japan had already left, and the afternoon rush hour was yet to get underway. Even Vietnamese air travel seems to formulate around the all-important afternoon nap!
We were lucky enough to get a jetbridge upon our arrival at the domestic terminal, which was nice after successive Vietjet flights and the accompanying bus madness. Sitting so far forward, I was off the plane and through to the taxi rank in well under 10 minutes.
Vinh - VII
Hanoi - HAN
Bamboo provided a solid product without ever being noticably distinguishable from its competition. While a 40 minute flight might not be the most representative experience to base this on, it's by no means a complaint. The extra legroom seat was great value for under $2, and if this pricing is maintained across their domestic network then there might not be a better Y seat in the Vietnamese skies. I hope they can flourish here, and I'm sure their A321N fleet will give them a competitive edge but there's no doubt that it will be a tough ride.
Vinh airport disappointed despite its size and convenient location, namely due to the overcrowding and poor food options, as well as the very central smoking areas.
Noi Bai is a straightforward and easy arrival domestic airport, which is important when you need to factor the onwards journey time to Hanoi city proper.
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