Welcome to this report on Bangkok Airways service from Hanoi to Chiang Mai.
There's no shortage of options when it comes to flying from Vietnam's capital to Thailand, as 3 airports (BKK, DMK, CNX) are served by a combined total of six carriers; Vietnam Airlines, Thai Airways, VietJet, Thai Air Asia, Thai Lion Air and finally, Bangkok Airways. Having already enjoyed Thai's A330 and 777 service to BKK on a number of occasions, this time I was looking to try something new for a trip to Thailand.
Bangkok Airways have established themselves as strong players in the regional SE Asian market, being crowned Skytrax Best Regional Airline in the process (for what it's worth). They serve Hanoi once daily from Chiang Mai, using ATR 72-600 aircraft on the route and competing with Air Asia in doing so. I was very keen to try them out, however I was shocked at the fares they charge on this route - over $160 one-way, whilst their red and white competitors regularly price the route at $40-50. Fortunately, they soon had a sale which dropped fares down to "only" $90 one-way, which I could just about justify considering the earlier departure time, checked luggage allowance, full service and earlier departure time. Still very steep compared to what I'd usually expect to pay on a sub-500 mile flight in this part of the world.
I took the number 90 airport bus from Kim Ma Street - an often overlooked service which runs very frequently and costs just 9,000 VND. The cheapest airport taxi in the city would charge at least 20x that! It was a pleasant ride and took exactly an hour from opposite the Lotte tower to reach Noi Bai T2.
Noi Bai is one of those airports that's heaven when it's quiet and hell when it's anything else. Luckily, today was neither a national holiday or rush hour therefore I entered a very calm and civilised departures hall. The layout is spacious and has lots of natural light.
The FIDS directed me to check-in counters E11 & E12, where I found a single counter open for the CNX flight with no one else around. This was the first sign of things to come. I was efficiently checked in and used just 7 of my allotted 23kg of checked luggage, opting to navigate the airport with just my light backpack. My boarding pass was printed on nicely branded stock, with my seat re-allocated to 16A despite choosing 10D at the time of booking. I wasn't bothered as this meant I was closer to the exit on an ATR.
With an hour before boarding and some very quiet-looking immigration entrances, I headed to the mezzanine level of the departures hall (also referred to as the food court). This area is always quieter than whatever pandemonium below, and the eateries further towards the back have excellent views over the tarmac and runway. Knowing the daylight robbery that awaited me the other side of security, I ordered myself a Vietnamese coffee for 40k and got a sofa next to the window at Exo Café.
It was approaching the midday flurry of flights to other East Asian destinations, which made for some excellent spotting on this not-too-smoggy day. Flights departed for Moscow, Taipei, Seoul and Bangkok as well as arrivals from Malaysia, Singapore and Japan, in addition to the usual flow of VN and VJ movements.
European airlines should take notes from VN on how to successfully turn an outdated livery into something truly elegant without resorting to a bucket of white paint:
I made my way back downstairs and through immigration/security in under 5 minutes - a record for Noi Bai and quote possibly anywhere in the world. I've always found the immigration hall at the far right of the terminal to be much quieter than the larger one at the left end, perhaps to do with that one being opposite the VietJet check-in zone.
Airside, I turned right and swiftly made my way to gate 25 as per the boarding pass. With just 10 minutes until boarding, the complete lack of anyone at or around the gate was the second hint that today's flight may not be operating at full capacity.
At exactly 12:05, a solitary airport employee reached the gate and didn't so much announce boarding as timidly ask for it whilst looking around at the near-empty seating area. Myself and five others, equally confused, emerged and made our way to the agent, presented our boarding passes and continued down the ramp to the lower-level bus gate.
Just as Loas Airways do, Bangkok Airways also use remote stands at HAN and conduct all boarding via buses. Our small group were told to wait a few minutes by some amused gate agents, but were shortly asked to proceed to the bus. Some wry smiles and comments were shared amongst us, mostly along the lines of "Is that it!?"
As it turned out, we were in fact waiting for more passengers to join us and in a few minutes they did just that. The bus doors closed and the final pax count could be conducted - a whopping 13!
A shockingly low load factor, taking me back to my days of island-hopping the Canaries in Binter ATRs (at least those flights were subsidised). We shortly arrived at today's ride: HS-PZB, a 4.4-year old ATR 72-600, in service with PG for its whole life so far. All PG's ATRs are configured in a 70-seat all-economy layout.
No rushing, shoving or senses of entitlement as the bus doors opened, as is typically so normal when flying regionally in SE Asia. All the passengers seemed to be in a good mood and appreciative of the low load. There'd be 5 seats per passenger after all! A friendly FA greeted us at the doorway and confirmed seat numbers on boarding passes. Interestingly, all pax had been allocated seats in the rear 1/3 of the plane. I'm sure this was due to the low LF, but I'm not exactly sure how.
16A was a window seat on the left-hand side of the aircraft, with a good wing view. Legroom was fine for my 5'7 frame, and considerably more spacious than when flying Cebgo's equivalent ATR a few months prior. Naturally the seat next to me remained open, however I did have fellow pax seated behind and in front of me. I could've moved but they posed no bother to me and remained quiet and respectful the whole flight, as did everyone.
After greeting announcements in Thai and English, the engines soon roared into life and we pulled off stand at 12:37 after a short wait to keep us leaving too early. It was a speedy taxi back past the international terminal and into a short queue for takeoff.
Passing a VJ A321neo, it was then our turn to take the runway. Despite having two runways, parallel takeoffs/landings are not permitted at HAN. As usual, 11L was in use for landings thus we had to wait for an arrival to touch down before proceeding.
At 12:49 and with the brakes still on, the captain set the engines to full throttle before catapulting along the runway. It was a takeoff suited to an aircraft carrier! The rapid acceleration and very light load again took me back to my many flights from La Gomera, straight out off the edge of a cliff and over the sea. You can read about that experience here:
No crashing waves below us here however, just rolling hills and rice fields of the Vietnamese countryside. For the first time departing HAN, I experienced a turn north immediately after takeoff, as opposed to the usual turn south back past the city. We soon levelled out after a very steep climb, and enjoyed a relaxing ascent to 18,000ft where the captain pointed us due southwest.
Just 8 minutes after leaving the ground, the crew got to work with the inflight service. As the ATR isn't equipped with onboard ovens, only a cold meal could be served on this flight. In today's case, this consisted of a curry chicken pastry, two melon slices and jam-filled roll. Not much to look at but it was all I needed after eating a bit in the terminal.
The food was accompanied by a full bar service, from which I chose a Chang beer. They didn't skimp and gave me the whole can, which is always appreciated. There were also wines to choose from as well as the usual selection of sodas, water and fruit juices.
If I could find one fault with the onboard service it'd have to be that coffee and tea were served immediately after handing out the food, meaning I simultaneously had a beer going warm and coffee going cold on my tray.
I'm sure on fuller flights there would be a longer wait between the two, however the crew could've shown a little initiative to avoid that in today's circumstances. They did make up for it by asking if I wanted another beer, so really it was no big issue.
Meals were promptly finished and trays collected, and everyone settled in for the ~2 hour flight. As well as being cheaper, Air Asia's flights on this route are also faster thanks to their use of A320s vs the slower ATR. The flipside of this was the stunning views of remote northern Vietnam and Laos, seen remarkably clearly from the much lower cruising altitude of the ATR.
Landing cards were distributed by the crew, who were kind enough to give me a PG-branded pen when I asked to borrow one.
Mountain and river views aside, the only other form of IFE was the extensive Bangkok Airways magazine. It featured a comprehensive number of articles on PG destinations in both Thai and English, and was good to burn 10-15 minutes before returning to podcasts. PG have extensive codeshare agreements, making for an impressive - if slightly misleading - route map
It appears only their ATR 72-500s come in funky paint jobs…
The remainder of the flight passed smoothly, despite the storm-prone time of year. I visited the tiny ATR lavatory a handful of times, which was obviously clean throughout. The crew were on hand if needed but otherwise spent the flight reading in the rearmost empty seats - and why shouldn't they?
At 14:28, the captain announced preparations for landing into CNX. There was precious little for the crew to do but some passengers did need reminding to put window shades and seatbacks up.
The terrain flattened out to the plains south of Chiang Mai, and we made our turn onto final approach to runway 36 - the only one at CNX.
Touchdown was at 14:46, bringing an end to our 1:56 flight time. Exiting the runway I could see TG's daily afternoon A330 prepping for it's return to BKK - in just 48 hours I'd be boarding that very same flight. It was an otherwise quiet apron, with just a sister ATR, Thai VietJet A320 and eye-catching Nok Air 737 for company.
There must've been no more than 90 seconds between coming to and standstill at our remote stand and doors being opened for disembarkation via the rear stairs. With this I said goodbye to the crew and boarded the waiting bus that would take a somewhat roundabout route to the arrivals immigration hall.
This speedy exit proved valuable as an Air Asia A320 from somewhere in China must've landed right behind us, depositing a horde of tour groups in the immigration hall right behind us. Beating the masses, I was through the deserted (but fully staffed) counters in under 2 minutes to be reunited with my bag by 15:07 - my longest wait of the day!
That concluded my very enjoyable and faux-VIP experience with Bangkok Airways. Below is the full route flown:
Bangkok Airways are no doubt a cut above other regional airlines in SE Asia. It's a bold move to be offering such a premium service in a market dominated by low fares, and personally I'm surprised there's enough demand willing to pay that premium on this route. I'd be very interested to know if the load factor I experienced is typical, and if not then just how well are they doing here? Either way, it was a joy to fly with them (especially in these circumstances) however I wouldn't be able to justify the extra to do so again.