Up and coming: Review of Vietnam Airlines in business on the A350 from Tokyo to Hanoi
[tpg_rating ticket-class="business" tpg-rating-score="73" ground-experience="14" cabin-seat="21" amens-ife="11" food-bev="13" service="14" pros="Friendly service aboard a new aircraft." cons="Haphazard meal service, no gate-to-gate IFE and minimal storage at an otherwise comfortable seat." /]
Vietnam Airlines offers a modern fleet of Boeing 787 Dreamliners and Airbus A350s on its long-haul routes. The airline is a member of SkyTeam, the alliance that includes among its members Delta Air Lines, Air France, KLM and Korean Air, among others. It has grown into a player with international clout, serving destinations as far as Europe. It does not fly to the United States yet, but has plans to do so, possibly this year.
If that happens, the airline will likely use an Airbus A350-900 on U.S. routes, so I flew from Tokyo to Hanoi to experience the aircraft in business class. Would it prove to be as lovely as Vietnam Airlines' blue and gold livery?
You can use Delta SkyMiles, as well as Air France-KLM's Flying Blue points, to book an award ticket on flights operated by Vietnam Airlines. However, on my day of travel, there was no availability from Tokyo to London via Hanoi.
Instead, I used cash to book a one-way fare. The itinerary included Tokyo Haneda to Hanoi and then on to London Heathrow, all in business class. The first leg was operated by the A350 (the aircraft that Vietnam Airlines will likely fly if it adds U.S. destinations to its network) and the second by a 787-9.
The one-way cash ticket cost $1,832, which we paid for with the Platinum Card® from American Express. The card earns 5x Membership Rewards points for flights booked directly with the airline or via Amex Travel. In total, the itinerary earned 9,160 Membership Rewards points, worth $183 based on TPG's most recent valuations.
The flight also earned 2,296 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) toward Delta Medallion status. Because I’m based in London and therefore exempt from Delta’s Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQDs) requirement, I didn’t earn any on the flight.
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I started my journey at Tokyo's Haneda airport (HND), where Vietnam Airlines operates two flights a day to its base in Hanoi (HAN). I arrived at the airport about three hours prior to the scheduled departure time, and there were only a few passengers at the check-in queues for economy and business class.
There was a language barrier at check-in and the agent couldn’t understand that I, a U.S. citizen, was allowed to enter the U.K. as a resident. What should have been a seamless check-in ended up taking nearly 10 minutes as the team supervisor was called to look over my U.K. resident permit.
After finally clearing check-in and getting my boarding passes to Hanoi and on to London, I headed for the security checkpoint. Traveling in business class, I thought that I'd be granted expedited security, but when I tried to enter the special entrance, I was denied access. The employee pointed me to the notice that said you must hold status with Vietnam Airlines to use the premium security lane; a business-class ticket wouldn’t cut it. The normal security line took only about five minutes to clear, though.
I then made my way to the Japan Airlines Sakura Lounge. Vietnam doesn't have its own branded lounge at HND so it partners with Japan Airlines. Business-class passengers are permitted to enter with their boarding passes even though the two airlines are members of competing alliances.
Upon entering, I found only a few passengers inside, but it grew more crowded the closer it got to boarding time.
The lounge has multiple types of seats -- office chairs, barstools, cushy armchairs and more. My favorite seats offered great runway views and a power outlet at each seat.
The lounge is divided into two parts, one for relaxing which has a few snacks and a standard beverage offering, and another area for dining.
In the dining area, you’ll find a full buffet with both hot and cold foods.
Around 3:45 p.m., I headed for the gate. Awaiting us was a beautiful A350, looking good in Vietnam’s blue livery.
Boarding went without a hitch.
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Vietnam Airlines took delivery of its first Airbus A350 in 2015, becoming the world's second operator of the aircraft. It now has 14 in the fleet.
You can expect virtually the same business-class product across Vietnam’s A350 and 787 aircraft, with the exception of some A350s featuring different seats, arranged in a staggered 1-2-1 configuration, which TPG reviewed in 2016.
On the A350s with business class featuring seats in a reverse-herringbone pattern, like the one I flew, passengers do not have individual air vents as they do on the 787. The A350 has a cathedral ceiling, meaning there are no overhead luggage bins above the center row. The 787 has them. On the other hand, the lavatory on the 787 is smaller than on the A350. Aside from that, the hard product — the seat itself — is virtually the same on both aircraft.
You will find 29 seats in business class on both versions of the Vietnam Airlines A350. Each passenger gets direct aisle access. On the version I flew, because all of the seats are angled inward, there isn’t much buffer space between your shoulders and the aisle and there’s not a lot of privacy.
The cabin is airy, but the upholstery of the seats is a dreary brown. It reminds me of the biz-class seat on the Asiana Airlines A350.
Each seat offers 42 inches of pitch and is a fairly standard 21 inches wide. When the bed is in its lie-flat position, it measures 75 inches, or 6 feet 3 inches.
Though I generally found the seats to be comfortable, there were a few design elements that I didn’t like. Vietnam chose a seatbelt with a built-in airbag, which is bulky and uncomfortable.
In addition, there's not much storage. There’s a small cubby next to each seat, but it doesn’t have a door and is used to store headphones.
There’s a small beverage holder by passengers' knees and a pop-up compartment next to each seat. The compartment was too small for my laptop but large enough to fit a book, passport and phone.
My seat, 5K, was a window seat, facing toward the window. Its adjustable armrest, when lowered, helps give the lie-flat bed extra width.
Each seat has a full universal power outlet next to the literature pocket and beverage holder.
In addition, each seat has a USB port next to the passengers' shoulder beside the headphone jack for the inflight entertainment (IFE) system.
The seat controls are within easy reach. They have three preselected positions — upright for taxi, takeoff and landing, reclined and lie-flat — plus other controls for finer adjustments
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Each passenger in the business-class cabin received a Parfums Charriol amenity kit. The kit was made from a navy fabric with a brown zipper, which looked quite sharp. Inside the kit was a standard offering of eye mask, earplugs, hairbrush, dental kit, lip balm, socks and lotion.
The kit also included a set of stickers to let the cabin crew know whether or not you wanted to be awakened for meal service or duty-free sales, plus the classic "Please Do Not Disturb." I love it when airlines offer these stickers, because it prevents situations where a crew member wakes up a passenger who wants to continue sleeping or fails to wake up someone who wants service. It’s a simple solution, and one that I hope more airlines adopt.
A pair of slippers was on each seat when passengers boarded the plane.
In addition, each seat had a firm pillow and lightweight blanket, which was plenty long and not too hot.
Inside the side cubby of each seat was a set of plastic-wrapped headphones. Emblazoned with the Vietnam Airlines logo, they didn’t appear to be brand-name — and they sounded that way. They were not noise-canceling. Better headphones would be an easy improvement to the soft product.
Because of the angle of the seats, the IFE screen was in built into the seatback in front and had to be stored for taxiing, takeoff and landing. Not having gate-to-gate inflight entertainment was a huge drawback. And once we were able to use the system, it wasn’t a seamless experience. You were required to watch an entire promotional video before you could start the movies and shows.
The 15-inch touchscreen system was very responsive, as you might hope for in a one-year-old aircraft. It is controlled by a remote stored next to the passenger's shoulder. In total, there were 94 movies loaded into the system -- new releases and some classics, English hits and Vietnamese films. There were also 79 TV shows, though I found it frustrating that there weren’t complete seasons — a common problem with many IFEs. For example, there were only four random episodes of "Bob’s Burgers."
Although some aspects of the experience seemed bare-bones, others were clearly well-thought-out. One of the most notable small touches was a fresh carnation in the lavatory.
That lavatory was also the only one for as many as 29 passengers in biz class. However, just behind the business-class cabin, there are two more lavatories used by premium economy.
Each lavatory was kept clean throughout the flight and was stocked with GERnétic products.
Although I didn't use it, Wi-Fi was available on the flight. Vietnam offers the service on its A350 aircraft on select routes to Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Singapore, Japan, Korea and China.
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Upon boarding, flight attendants came around the cabin offering a predeparture beverage -- our choice of water, orange juice or Champagne. I had a glass of Champagne; Vietnam Airlines serves Heidsieck & Co Monopole Blue Top Brut, which retails for about $30 per bottle.
Just after boarding, I went to the lavatory to change into something more comfortable for the flight. By the time I’d returned to my seat, the cabin crew had left a cool towel at my seat along with food and beverage menus.
After the plane pushed back from the gate, flight attendants came around the cabin to take orders for drinks, appetizer, dinner and dessert. The dinner menu was split into Japanese style and “Western and Asian style.” In general, the menu lacked descriptions — the Japanese appetizer was “assorted Japanese delicacies,” while the other was just called “appetizer.”
The airline offered three signature cocktails: the High Mountain, made with red wine and rum; the whiskey-based Huế and the Southern Land, made with whiskey and Campari. With my appetizer, I ordered a High Mountain, which was refreshing, with apple and orange notes.
I ordered the non-Japanese appetizer but was mistakenly served the Japanese dish.
The flight attendant apologized profusely for the mistake and brought a replacement appetizer, which ended up being a mixture of both styles. I got another apology but the purser explained that they'd run out of the non-Japanese appetizers. I'd still get my non-Japanese main, though.
The appetizer, though not what I ordered, tasted good. The soba noodles were great, as was the green asparagus cream soup. I paired the starter with a glass of Viña Albali Sauvignon Blanc, which was delightful.
When I ordered my main course, I followed the recommendation of the flight attendant, who said the chicken was the best. Other offerings included grilled filet of beef with sauce and glass noodles, and the Japanese main selections of pork with pepper sauce and steamed rice or grilled flounder with nanban and steamed rice.
My meal was a stuffed chicken breast with mustard sauce and potato au gratin seasoned with thyme. The chicken was the perfect consistency, not too dry nor too rubbery, and the potatoes were delicious.
For dessert, there was a cheese and fruit option, which was served from a tray. I ended up with a rather sad-looking dry carrot stick, a single grape, one saltine cracker and one slice of cheese.
The crew also came around with a selection of other desserts like matcha cake. I had selected an orange cheese ice cream, which was topped with coconut milk and was tasty.
Because it was a short flight at just under five hours, there was only one meal service. At the end of the service, I got a green tea, served in a cute cup with a scalloped rim.
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The service on board the Vietnam Airlines flight was a highlight. When I went to the lavatory right after boarding to change, cabin crew had placed a cool towel on my seat, so it was there for me when I returned.
Throughout the flight, the service was speedy and friendly. Even when I was served the wrong appetizer — twice — the flight attendant and purser were extremely apologetic. There was an obvious language barrier, but they were incredibly friendly.
While I found some obvious flaws in both the hard and soft products and Vietnam Airlines won't win any awards for best business class, I had a comfortable seat, decent food — when served correctly — and very good service.
Vietnam Airlines' A350 passed our muster. The carrier's SkyTeam allegiance gives Delta flyers the opportunity to both earn and redeem SkyMiles on its flights, plus valuable status-qualifying perks like MQMs and MQDs, making this a flight we can recommend.
All photos by Emily McNutt/The Points Guy