For me, a big part of the excitement of long-haul travel is the unknown. I’m not talking about where I’m going and what cultures, foods and history I will encounter, that surely is an exciting part, but my experience of getting there. What meals will be served? What movies will I watch? Will there be a spare seat next to me? Will I sit next to someone famous, someone nice or someone, um…not so nice? The part that is not exciting is being on an upgradeable ticket and not knowing until I’m at the airport as to whether I have been upgraded, because the answer to that question could be so disappointing.
On this trip, I was flying Vietnam Airlines from Sydney to Ho Chi Minh City and my booking was coded ‘space available’. Upon check-in I was advised the flight was relatively full and handed an Economy class boarding pass along with an express departures card (as a token of my potential upgrade) which meant I could bypass the long screening lines of immigration and security. I was to hand in my Economy boarding pass at the departure gate and if a seat was available in Business I would be given a new boarding pass. With most airlines holding a Business class boarding pass will give you access to their lounge but Vietnam Airlines operates a separate system where they give you an invitation, which in Sydney is the Qantas Club Business Class Lounge, which Vietnam Airlines pays Qantas for each invitation they collect. As I was on a space available status, I was not invited into the lounge and waited at the gate hopeful for my upgrade. As the aircraft started to board, I was called over to the gate agent and I was handed a new boarding pass, for Business class. The upgrade gods were smiling down on me
Vietnam airlines operates a fleet of 11 Airbus a330-200’s seating 280 passengers. Apparently only 4 of these aircraft are specially configured in a 2-2-2 layout of 24 seats in Business class for the Australian route (to both Sydney and Melbourne). There is one gangway to board the aircraft so only 24 passengers get to turn left when entering the aircraft whereas 256 turn right into the economy cabin.
Prior to departure, a choice of orange juice, sparkling wine or beer was offered and as the flight attendants made their way through the cabin with a selection of Australian and Vietnamese newspapers all Business class passenger were handed a Clarins amenity kit for nine hour the journey ahead. Interestingly the only Clarins item, other than the red labelled blue toiletries bag, was a small 5ml tube of moisturising ‘Hydra-Quench’ cream. Other items included a shaving set, toothbrush and toothpaste, earplugs, brush, socks, eyeshades, earplugs and (not often seen in amenity kits these days) a shoe horn and shoe shine pad.
The seats in the Business Class cabin are quite comfortable and have electronic buttons that extend the seat to lay flat at an angle of 170 degrees. There is an adjustable reading light and and 110v power socket, although my power socket and most of the others in the cabin didn’t work. There is Audio Visual On Demand (AVOD) throughout all seats in the aircraft and in Business Class the 11 inch tv screens come out of the arm rest. There isn’t the largest selection of films and tv shows on offer and in fact the program guide in the seat pocket only lists about 4 movies, but as I flicked through the on-screen menu, I discovered there were more, about 12 movies in total. Not long after take off, the flight attendants came through the cabin and delivered each passenger a menu. The menus listed array of beverages including wine, spirits and aperitifs and the meal services for this daytime flight which consisted of a seven course lunch and a light meal before landing. There was also pot noodles available at anytime during the flight should anyone still feel hungry, but I believe many in Business Class wouldn’t. A few moments later I were invited to choose between two entrees and a western or Asian dish for main course and with each selection a coloured dot sticker was stuck to my headrest indicating my choice to be served.
The flight attendant pulled out my tray table from the arm rest and laid out a starched table cloth before an Amuse Bouche, bite sized Hors D’oeurve was served as the first course. These delicious morsels on rounds of toasted bread consisted of coral lettuce, rare beef and melon and a sprinkling of parsley on one, a seared scallop with dill mayonnaise and baby tomato on another and lettuce, smoked salmon and caviar on the third. Each were equally delicious but if I had to choose one I would say the scallop was the best.
Next, a tray with a salad, a soup and condiments were delivered to my seat. The side salad of mixed green leaves, sundried tomatos, roasted yellow capsicum and grilled asparagus came with a Birch and Waite balsamic vinegar and olive oil dressing. Although simple, it was a nicer than usual basic garden salad served on most airlines. Another flight attendant moved through the cabin with a basket filled with a selection of warm breads and invited each passenger to choose from the variety to which I chose a slice of garlic bread. She offered me more, but I didn’t want to fill up on bread so just had the one piece. There was also a small dish with butter on the tray for use had I chosen a different un-buttered bread.
The soup was potato and came with strips of crispy bacon and chives on top. It was creamy and the bacon added to the flavour giving it a bit of a salty hit which really worked well. However, it was only luke warm when served and by the time I actually got to it, after being served the other portions of my meal, choosing my bread, dressing my salad and snapping away with my camera, it was cold.
When the flight attendant was taking my order, I asked her what she thought was nicer for the choice of entree as both sounded lovely and I couldn’t decide. She said I could have them both, I thought she was joking at first but she was serious, so I did (and this is another reason why I only had the one slice of garlic bread!) Both of the entree choices were cold dishes, a seafood dish and a smoked chicken dish. I giggled to myself remembering previous flights and cabin crew walking down the aisle asking “chicken or fish? chicken or fish? “ This was a step up! The first entree, seemingly personally plated in the galley by crew, was seafood orientated with two seared scallops, gravlax salmon, mixed green and purple lettuce leaves, diced yellow capsicum and ribbons of carrot with lemon slices on the side. The now cold plump scallops were cooked beautifully and the gravlax salmon was cured nicely with just the right amount of saltiness and spiciness. The salad, taking up a lot of the plate and probably there to fill it was slightly disappointing as I don’t like purple lettuce, the carrots were cracked and dry and there was no extra dressing, other than the lemon slices. Perhaps I was being a bit picky though as overall the dish was lovely and I quite enjoyed it.
My second entree, the smoked chicken anti-pasti arrived after my first entree, now just a plate of purple lettuce, was whisked away. Again appearing to be personally plated by crew in the galley, it looked impressive. It came with Serrano cured ham on top of melon , four slices of moist looking smoked chicken adorned with a piece of fig and three large puffs of buffalo mozzarella sprinkled with cracked pepper. Baby tomatoes, sun dried tomatoes, red onion, coral lettuce and a few leaves of witlof finished off the plate filling it to the brim. It’s a known fact that when flying in a pressurised aircraft, we lose a certain percentage of our sense of taste, which must have happened to me as I was eating this dish. The only thing on this plate that I could taste was the sundried tomatoes with their slight tang and the witlof with its bitterness. The chicken was icy cold and hard almost like crunching on ice cubes as it was watery, with no flavour or smokiness at all and the buffalo mozzarella was rubbery with the occasional fleck of pepper offering only the slightest hint of heat. The Serrano ham was chewy, although coupled with the melon did allow each mouthful some flavour although mostly of melon. I was sadly disappointed with this dish as it looked so delicious.
There was quite a few minutes between clearing my second entree and delivering my main course, the Asian choice of Hainan Chicken Rice. Served hot in a ceramic rectangle dish with the foil covering removed just before being placed on my tray table did make me wonder if the same was being served in the economy cabin. Was the only difference to the service that we had the plated up entree’s (of which I had both), amuse bouche’s and several rounds of drinks? In presentation terms, it was a shame this main course could not have been personally plated up for each business class passenger. However, the dish was lovely. The chicken was silky and retained its moistness and the rice had that lovely chickony flavour expected from the dish. The bok choy still had a crunch in the stems with the glass noodles and added chili enhancing the overall flavour of the meal. I struggled to finish it all as a result of my gluttony after my two entree’s.
Being so full from all the food so far and quashing it all down with a few glasses of French Sauvignon Blanc meant I let the trolley of fine deserts pass by me and managed only the smallest piece of French Brie and a few red grapes when the second trolley with platters of fruits and international cheese’s came past. Not long after all the plates were cleared, a third trolley came down the aisle with aperitifs, spirits, wine and cognacs. I still had a half a glass of wine, but didn’t pass up the chance of a Drambuie, straight. The heat and intensity of this upscale malt whiskey, with its 40% alcohol volume, was perfect thing to help pass the time as a few minutes later, I pushed the button that made my seat into a bed and fell soundly asleep for the next 5 hours.
Upon waking the flight attendants were busying themselves lowering the tray tables and dressing them with the starched yellow cloths in preparation for the next meal service. I had yet again ordered the Asian dish, fish in a soy dressing with noodles and vegetables and was astounded as the size of this ‘light’ meal which came with a bowl of garden salad complete with a Neil Perry sesame and soy dressing (isn’t he the face of Qantas Business class?) and a refreshing fruit bowl of melons, red grapes, pineapple and watermelon. The fish, served in a small rectangle dish, again looked slightly ‘economy-esque’ in presentation and although tasty was quite heavy and filling and I really only picked at it after finishing off my salad and fruit, besides, I was still full from the lunch service!
There was enough time to watch a few episodes of ‘Just for Laughs’, that French-Canadian Candid Camera style show that I seriously think every airline shows on board, before the crew started preparations for decent into Ho Chi Minh City. We landed slightly ahead of time and we were advised me may switch on our mobile phones. Interestingly while Facebook has its moments and is often blocked in this part of the country, Grindr however wasn’t 😉
As we were the first off the aircraft, from being in Business Class and only one other flight arrives at the international terminal at this time, it was a very quick procedure passing through customs and immigration. Within 30 minutes I was on board the bus that would take me to my hotel for the night in Ho Chi Minh City, a motor scooter metropolis.
Although not as superior as some airlines, and being classed as a 3 star airline by SkyTrax, the world’s leading airline and airport review site, it was a comfortable flight with plenty of food and drink, if sometimes lacking in the presentation to the standard of most Business Class services. However, travelling Vietnam Airlines is the most direct and convenient way if travelling to Vietnam and the service is always with a genuine smile.
I flew courtesy of Vietnam Airlines