Flying in Vietnam

I look outside the window of the company Ford Transit. A sea of green covers the land beside the highway. Nestled within the long tall grass are buffalos dragging around farming equipment. Alongside the buffalo, men and women work away in the thick summer heat filling up cane baskets. These are rice fields. 

The view from the Caravan en route to Halong Bay

I’m located in Hanoi, Northern Vietnam flying for Hai Au Aviation (pronounced hi oh). It’s a start up company with three 2014 model Cessna Grand Caravan EX’s on Wipair’s newest model 8750 amphibious floats. Our current route is return transfers and charters to Halong Bay, Vietnam’s UNESCO world heritage sight, consisting of over 2000 limestone rock islands. Scenic flights are also available from the bay itself.

Getting checked to line with Chief Pilot David Radford, a great mate of mine

Above the beautiful green outlook is a thick grey sky. It’s yet another low visibility day from the smog and haze that settles within the valley that is Hanoi. I check the weather; 6000 metres visibility and broken cloud at 1,500ft is forecast most of the day.

Flying with me today is Vietnamese pilot Loco. Hai Au employs 4 Vietnamese co-pilots who have all recently completed CPL training outside of Vietnam and floatplane conversions in Australia at Sydney Seaplanes. We look over our flight plan and manifest and jump in the ground vehicle to head to the aircraft.

If you’ve never been to South East Asia, you’ll be overwhelmed by the traffic. The horns, the overtaking, the complete disregard of road rules. The intensity of motorbikes and cars somehow congest together to flood the roads like blood squeezing its way through a blocked artery. 

Surely the driving culture cannot filter its way through the airport boundaries and onto the tarmac… well, it does! Our driver gives a toot, a flash of the lights and all of a sudden we’re overtaking a baggage train and dodging aircraft tows as we weave in between the gates, not sticking to the clearly marked lines that distinguish road vehicles from air vehicles.

We meet with the engineers at our aircraft at the far eastern end of the airport and are in shock! Air Force One is parked only metres away from our seaplanes! In awe of arguably the world’s most famous aircraft, Loco and I walk over to the barrier surrounding the 747 and get some photos. It’s mesmerizing and spotless, and a dream to be so close to this icon. However with the time getting on we need to focus on our flight and get our plane ready for departure.

Air Force One parked next to our seaplanes when President Obama came to Hanoi

The engineers have pumped the floats, taken the covers off and the refueler is waiting. Whilst my co-pilot takes care of the refuelling, I daily the aircraft and help connect up the pushback vehicle. Yes, you read that correct, we get a pushback! Once we are set, I get Loco to call dispatch to inform them we are ready for boarding.

After start I hand over the controls to Loco and go through the checklists. We get taxi clearance and make our way to the holding point at Runway 11 right. Either Hanoi’s airport design team put the parallel runways too close, or ATC is too nervous to have planes fly close together, aircraft can only depart 11 left once a landing aircraft on 11 right has touched down. It’s a frustrating system that causes a long wait on the ground.

Our flight plan takes us the long way around to Halong Bay. Vietnam’s airspace like many Asian countries is heavily military controlled. With the non-existence of General Aviation before Hai Au’s startup, “direct to” flying can be hard to come by. Instead of the direct track, we fly off on our obtuse path following air route W1, before a left turn almost 90 degrees onto W5 to head to our destination. What should be a 25-minute flight can sometimes take over an hour!

The cloud has broken up and we have opted for a visual descent rather than the ILS into Cat Bi, a small domestic airport located 15 miles to the west of Halong Bay. As our altitude descends, the excitement climbs in the cabin. The intricate network of islands are coming into view and our passengers grab for their cameras. 

The haze and smog that lingers adds to the mysterious nature of the area. Tall vertical walls protrude from the sea creating rock climbing dreams. Junk boats scuttle the waters like ants in a food frenzy. Kayakers explore caves and beaches that form on the edges of the limestone cliffs. Fishing villages appear from nowhere nestled in the protected waters of the bays. Somehow, trees thrive on the limestone islands giving great contrast of colour within the bay. 

Some of the many islands of Halong Bay

Our scenic flight comes to an end and its time for our landing on the protected waters of Tuan Chau Island, the home for overnight tours in Halong Bay. Loco sets full flap on our base leg and turns onto final approach. Locating a spot to land between the Junks, fishing boats, ferries and dredgers can be tricky, but he finds a gap and calls out his aiming point. 

With only 500 hours and a couple hundred water landings over the last year and a half, the co-pilots are still learning the intricacies of this special technique. With my hands nearby the controls, and feet softly touching the pedals, Loco touches down right on his aim point just as the stall horn comes to life. It’s a perfect landing, and I congratulate him on his efforts. 

We slide to a stop and taxi into the mariner, avoiding speedy junk boats that have a mission to win gold in the race to the docks. Our landing gear is now down and we approach the wide boat ramp used by the local ferry operators. Ground crew clear the area keeping cars, motorbikes and onlookers out of harms way as we power on up the ramp. Our taxiway is now the local streets of Tuan Chau Island. Ramping is certainly one of the coolest things about seaplane operations. 

As we park the plane and shut down, our passengers exit the aircraft to continue on with their tour of a lifetime; next stop the overnight cruise. Crowds now swarm us for a photo with the plane. I step out onto the float and all of a sudden I am the subject of their photographs. I now play the role of celebrity, as all onlookers want a selfie with the pilot.

After a quick fuel stop and a phone call for our airways clearance, we are off again, re-entering the water for our journey back to Hanoi. The water takeoff is just as exciting, as our path takes us in between the tall cliffs of the closest islands to Tuan Chau. On our climb out through the Jurassic scenery, I call Cat Bi tower to inform them of our departure.

Getting on the step around the islands of Halong Bay

Unfortunately we have departed too late and cannot transit Cat Bi airspace due to a Vietnam Airlines A320 ready for takeoff. Instructions are given for us to hold outside 15 miles from Cat Bi, at 1,000 ft until the jet passes 7,000ft on climb. It’s a frustrating way to start our return leg home. Vietnam’s ATC operators are over cautious and seem to lack planning and understanding. With this frustration brings appreciation to the way Australia’s ATC operators efficiently and effectively control the skies back home.

Other than our dealings with ATC, our return flight is uneventful. The cleared up skies have left Vietnam’s countryside open for viewing. Clumps of villages surrounded by rice fields and rivers fill the windows of the Cessna. Noi Bai tower instructs us with vectors onto the ILS for runway 11 right, and we touch down and taxi to our bay. We complete our paperwork and join the passengers on the bus back to the terminal, leaving our aircraft to the engineers for its daily wash and pack up. It’s the first job I’ve had where I walk away from my plane only 2 or 3 minutes from shutdown! 

The Cessna Caravan EX Amphibian G1000 IFR cockpit

Back in the company Ford Transit and it’s time to head for home. The drive takes about 25 minutes to Tay Ho, a suburb known for its expat community and large open lake. I get to my apartment, take a quick shower to wash off the day’s humidity, and change into some casual clothes. Some friends in town and we have a date with some cheap beer and Bun Cha in Hanoi’s old quarter, the cultural hub of Vietnam. It’s another day complete with more memories made on this overseas adventure.

Having friends visit from Australia was amazing!

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