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I’m not afraid to admit I’m a bit of an aviation geek, and have been fascinated with the A350 ever since it was announced. Vietnam Airlines became the second operator of the A350 in 2015 after Qatar Airways, the original launch customer — as you may remember, TPG Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig had quite a memorable flight on board the carrier’s first A350 flight from the US. As of the end of December 2015, a total of 777 orders of the A350 (whether that be the A350-800, A350-900 or the A350-1000) have been placed by 41 customers.
Vietnam Airlines has placed an order of 10 A350s with Airbus and requested four more from lessors. Meant to compete with Boeing’s next generation 787 Dreamliner, the A350 is wider and can seat between 267 and 369 passengers depending on the configuration and series, the most common of which being the A350-900. The A350 is constructed with a majority of composite materials, which makes it lighter (and thus more fuel efficient, which is important to me) than aircraft using traditional materials.
Recently, our TPGtv team flew from New York to London for a layover before continuing to Vietnam — keep an eye out for full TPGtv episodes starting February 1. Unfortunately, there aren’t any nonstop flights from New York to Vietnam, so we were stuck connecting in London after a decent but cramped Upper Class flight on Virgin Atlantic. We decided to make the most of our layover and take the Eurostar train from London to Paris because I had never taken Eurostar before. While I fully enjoyed the whole train-through-Europe experience, I was most excited about getting to Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) in Paris and trying out one of Vietnam Airlines’ A350 flights in business class.
Vietnam Airlines is one of Delta’s partner airlines, so you can use Delta SkyMiles to book a ticket — unfortunately, there was no award availability the day I wanted to go so I ended up paying $1,756 for a one-way business class ticket from Paris (CDG) to Hanoi (HAN).
That being said, there was Delta SkyMiles award availability for other dates. Award redemption rates for my business-class seat were going for 80,000 SkyMiles + 95 euros (~$103). I used my Chase Sapphire Preferred Card to earn 2x points on travel, as Vietnam Airlines doesn’t accept American Express.
Check-In and Lounge
I arrived at Charles de Gaulle (CDG) in Paris to a busy check-in area. Although it looked hectic, the check-in process itself was relatively painless and I was on my way to security in a matter of minutes.
I was running short on time so I wasn’t able to stop at the lounge this time. Vietnam Airlines uses an Air France lounge at CDG, and you’ll have access to it as long as you’re traveling on a SkyTeam international flight in either first class or, in this case, business class, since that’s as high as Vietnam Airlines goes. Honestly, I wasn’t too upset about missing out this trip because Air France lounges are usually nothing to write home about anyway.
30 minutes before we were scheduled to depart, our plane still wasn’t at the gate and I started to get nervous. Because the plane wasn’t there, the worst thoughts starting going through my head. Was there going to be an aircraft swap? I certainly hoped not because I had been looking forward to trying this product specifically for quite some time.
I looked out the window to the next gate over and saw the Vietnam Airlines’ 787-9 Dreamliner that was flying to Ho Chi Minh City (SGN) and it looked really nice. Suddenly, all my worries were thrown out the window as I saw our own plane pull up to the gate. It turns out the plane was just a bit delayed in getting to the airport and our aircraft wouldn’t be swapped out after all, so it was no big deal. The boarding process itself was relatively smooth and I was on the aircraft in no time.
Cabin and Seat
When I first got on the plane, I wasn’t completely impressed with my business class seat. Just from looking at it, I could tell it was going to be a cramped flight — I would need to contort myself in order to be at least remotely comfortable. Not only did the seats look small, but the cabin itself wasn’t all that aesthetically pleasing, especially for a new aircraft.
I took some time to check out the premium economy cabin (45 seats) and the standard economy cabin (231 seats). In the premium economy cabin, the seats looked okay, but were nothing special. I peeked back into the standard economy cabin and those seats looked pretty tight, which helped to put things in perspective as I retreated back to my business class cabin.
The business class cabin is comprised of 29 seats in a staggered 1-2-1 configuration — like Delta’s 767-300ER and 767-400 aircraft. I recommend getting a seat against the window for more privacy and room. On this flight, I was in seat 5A, an aisle-facing seat, so my cameraman across the aisle could capture in-flight footage of me for our upcoming TPGtv episode.
When I sat down, I realized just how tight of a squeeze it really was. Although the seats are lie-flat, they’re not wide at all whatsoever. If you’re broad chested or more than six feet tall, you will likely not be very comfortable — I had to wedge myself in and sleep on my side with legs bent in order to fit.
One of the most noticeable differences on this flight (that helped to make up for the small, uncomfortable seats) was that the A350 is so quiet. After flying on Kuwait Airways’ less-than-impressive 777 first-class product from New York to London before the airline canceled the route, I couldn’t help but notice how noisy it was for the duration of the flight. After flying on Norwegian’s 787 Dreamliner and now this A350, I realized just how much of a smoother and quieter ride it is and felt genuinely relaxed getting off the plane.
Service and Food
I was really hoping that the service would make up for where the seats and cabin were otherwise lacking. The service was fine at best — very cordial, but not sophisticated like some of the other Asian carriers out there. I got a pretty basic amenity kit, which the carrier provides to business class passengers on flights of more than four hours.
Vietnam Airlines serves two meals on this flight, lunch and breakfast. Although I was asleep for almost the whole flight, I did stay awake to try the food. For starters at lunch, I chose the smoked fish, spicy shrimp, vegetable salad and a bowl of creamy corn soup. It was all fine — no complaints, but I just wasn’t blown away.
For my main lunch course, I chose a beef dish — stir-fried beef and shiitake mushrooms with Vietnamese sauce, steamed rice and vegetables. It wasn’t anything worth writing home about — in fact, my beef was a bit chewy, which wasn’t all that appetizing.
For my third and final course of lunch, I chose two desserts just to say I tried them. My first choice was the cheese plate, which was decent.
For my second dessert selection, I had pistachio and praline ice cream and a cup of tea, a nice way to round out a less-than-thrilling meal service since nothing really blew me away.
After the meal service, flight attendants came around the cabin offering a selection of fruit from a tray. That was a nice touch and a great way to conclude a so-so in-flight meal experience.
I only chose to sleep on the flight because I was absolutely exhausted, and luckily, I ended up sleeping for most of our in-air time. One of the really unique things I got right before I fell asleep was something I’d never seen before on a flight, a red sticker that said, “PLEASE WAKE ME UP FOR DUTY FREE.” I had to giggle to myself — I thought it was pretty funny and I had never seen anything like it before.
Before we landed in Hanoi, we were offered breakfast, which after a refreshing sleep, I chose to wake up and take advantage of. I ordered the five-flavored beef, hoso udon and kai-lan cabbage, which was served with fruit, coffee, orange juice, yogurt with fruit and a mini chocolate twist bread.
Overall, the entire experience was fine — nothing on this flight, from the seats to the service to the food, made me feel like this was an extremely memorable flight and I wouldn’t pay the premium to fly it again. That being said, I was just plain exhausted from so much travel that I couldn’t honestly tell the difference between this flight and another airliner. Let’s just say I’m very happy that I chose to redeem AA miles to fly home from Asia on Cathay Pacific first class (more on that coming soon!), which is leagues ahead and in a whole different hemisphere from Vietnam Airlines’ product.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens with Vietnam Airlines’ new planes. I hope the carrier adds nonstop service from the US or Canada instead of us having to fly through London or another European destination because, quite frankly, Vietnam is such an incredible destination — incredible, incredible, incredible! I cannot say enough great things about the country, and I can’t wait to share my experiences with you on TPGtv starting February 1. I’d give Vietnam Airlines’ product a satisfactory grade, but it’s nothing I’m dying to try again anytime soon. Vietnam itself on the other hand is amazing and I can’t wait to go back!
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