Thursday, September 01, 2005

Flying The Friendly Skies Of Vietnam

The airport in Hue
Originally uploaded by yellojkt.
While traveling in Vietnam, I wanted to see as much of the country as I could. A train trip sounded nice until I did the research. The fastest train between Saigon and Hanoi takes over thirty hours. A direct flight by plane is just over two hours. The train idea was nixed. Airfare within Vietnam is also reasonably priced considering the government run airline has a virtual monopoly. One hundred dollars get you one way from Saigon to Hanoi and sixty bucks is the rate for Hanoi or Saigon to Hue.

Nationalized airlines, especially those run by third world countries, have a lot of national image at stake that gets projected by their air carriers. The domestic jets we flew were new and clean and attractively decorated. All the inflight literature bragged about Vietnam Airlines brand new Boeing 777’s on selected international routes. We had seen one of these ready for delivery on our factory tour of Boeing in Washington state a year earlier.

As part of that nation image, the airlines do not suffer the politically correct employment practices that don’t allow for appearance to be a hiring criteria. Male and female flight attendants on Vietnam Airlines flights (and JAL for that matter) are casting call perfect examples of health, youth, and courteousness.

National pride also immunizes them from the cost cutting rampage that has destroyed service in the domestic United States. Our two-hour morning flight to Hanoi included meal service, something that has become extinct on US domestic flights of that length. A chice of fish porridge or pork sticky rice was offered with choice of juice. The shorter flights between Hanoi and Hue and Hue to Saigon had banh mi sandwiches with full beverage service. We have been on New York to Baltimore hops where 4-ounce water bottles were dispensed sparingly.

From Narita as we progressed to Saigon, Hanoi, and finally Hue, we kept reaching progressively smaller airports reaching the practical limit in Hue. The terminal there was a two story rectangular building that could have been built anytime in the past fifty years. All the check-in and security was downstairs and the upstairs was one large cavernous waiting room with some vending machines and gift shop counters selling the ubiquitous silk blouses, ties, and other knick-knacks. We picked up some cute little silk purses. Two flights worth of departing passengers filled the place to capacity.

In Vietnam we also became accustomed to the forgotten practice of boarding from a ramp on the tarmac. Ramps would be placed at both ends of the plane and boarding would be a free-for-all of shoving up the narrow staircases. Boarding by seat row is not a concept that has caught on yet. It also seemed a little ridiculous to take a shuttle bus for the 100 yards from the plane to the terminal. All in all, air travel in Vietnam is a comfortable and relatively inexpensive way to traverse the long narrow country.

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