All Nippon Airways Review: San Jose Mineta to Tokyo

All Nippon Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner
An All Nippon Airways Dreamliner at San Jose Mineta International Airport
Before my recent flight on All Nippon Airways, I’d only flown two Asian airlines before: Asiana Airlines and Jeju Air.

Jeju Air was a perfectly nice hour-long flight. Asiana, though, was the first Skytrax 5-Star airline I’d ever flown. It completely reset my expectations about how pleasant an economy-class trans-Pacific flight can be.

Recently, I added two more Asian airlines to my list -- All Nippon Airways and Vietnam Airlines. For today, I’ll focus on ANA.

On paper, ANA has much in common with Asiana. It’s also a Skytrax 5-Star airline. It also has a modern long-haul fleet and a reputation for dialed-in, highly polished service.

All Nippon Airways Review San Jose Mineta
A look inside the terminal a few steps away from the All Nippon Airways gate.

I had a ton of options to get from Phoenix to Vietnam. I chose All Nippon Airways Flight 1075 from San Jose Mineta International Airport to Tokyo Narita as our first leg for a few reasons. Let’s break it down:

  • It leaves mid-day.
  • San Jose Mineta is nowhere near as crazy as Los Angeles or San Francisco, my other main options.
  • It’s a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which I’d been eager to try on a long-haul flight.
  • I’d earn OnePass miles through my United Airlines account.
All Nippon Airways San Jose Mineta
The crew at All Nippon Airways in San Jose wishes Sarah an early happy birthday.

Another flight on Asiana tempted me sorely, especially since its Boeing 777 is a wonderful aircraft and the meals are way better than any airline meal should be. On the other hand, Asiana flies an Airbus A330 (or even an A320!) to destinations in Vietnam. That didn’t thrill me – the A330 I flew previously didn’t have air vents at every seat. That can make for a sweaty flight. All Nippon Airways would connect our 787 flight with a second leg on a 767, which I always find to be a nice aircraft with very few middle seats (generally, just one). The A330 was a deal-breaker, so I took a chance on the Dreamliner and the ANA 5-Star ranking.

Arriving at San Jose Mineta
Flight 1075 was just a few gates from the flight I took from Phoenix. Checking in was a breeze. We had plenty of time to wander and make our final few phone calls and emails.

Now, here’s where ANA shows what being a 5-Star airline is all about. As I strolled through the terminal, I heard someone behind me.

All Nippon Airways Review San Jose Mineta
Our All Nippon Airways flight to Tokyo left from Gate 15.

"Excuse me! Excuse me!"

It was a member of the ANA ground staff

"Do you know where I can find Sarah?" she asked (for first-time visitors, Sarah is my wife -- our departure date was the day before her birthday.).

"Sure, follow me. She’s right over here," I said.

She followed me to where Sarah is seated. And she handed Sarah a little bag and wished her a happy birthday. Inside the bag, there’s a bunch of chocolate truffles and a handwritten note.

Wow. Way to start someone’s vacation, ANA!

In the Air
You don’t have to be an aviation nerd to appreciate the shiny new All Nippon Airways Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Big windows, high ceiling, quiet engines, USB ports at every seat -- they add up to a nice passenger experience.

All Nippon Airways
Sunset at Tokyo Narita – the All Nippon Airways Dreamliner.

I also like the ANA eight-abreast seating broken into a 2-4-2 configuration. There’s a bit of space between the two middle seats, which translates into extra armrest space. As for the seats, I have mixed feelings on the retractable footrest. They were kind of comfy until I decided to stretch out for some sleep. Then, it always rubbed against my shin when it was retracted. And I could never get the right angle with it in the down position. The seats don’t recline – the seat cushions slide forward. That means when the person in front of you wants to stretch out, their seat won’t come flopping back into your space. I’m also a little split on this; I felt like my knees got cramped when I slid forward.

All Nippon Airways 787 Dreamliner
The All Nippon Airways 787 Dreamliner is a good-looking aircraft from any angle.

As for meals, All Nippon Airways is above-average -- better than domestic airlines, but completely forgettable. (On the other hand, I can tell you that I had bi bim bap for dinner on my outbound Asiana flight, with spicy octopus over rice for breakfast. On the way back, bulgogi and an omelette.) I’ll give both meals credit for not being greasy or unhealthy feeling. The Haagan-Dazs vanilla ice cream for dessert was also nice.

ANA is also a bit weak on amenities. I stuffed my toothbrush into my checked luggage for some reason I can’t remember. ANA didn’t have toothbrushes, and only had mouthwash for the business-class passengers. The flight attendant was very apologetic about the situation.

ANA Boeing 767-300ER; JA622A@SIN;12.08.2011/618ay
All Nippon Airways Boeing 767-300ER.(Photo credit: Aero Icarus)

After the flight, I read on another blog that ANA has snacks in the aft galley, but I never ventured that way. Wish I would’ve known about that! I never shut up about this, I know, but I really wished other airlines would steal an idea from the Asiana 777 and its drinking fountains. I had a collapsible water bottle that I wanted to fill.

Connecting to the Next Flight
OK, I really rolled the dice here. ANA Flight 1075 was scheduled to land at 4:10. Our second leg, Air Japan Flight 931, was scheduled to push back at 5:25 p.m. We were off on-schedule from San Jose Mineta. And we landed on the money. We made the connecting flight with time to spare – unfortunately, that meant enough time to get stuck in the boarding line with a middle-aged lecher drooling over "cute Asian women."

NRT Narita Airport: Terminal 1
NRT Narita Airport: Terminal 1 (Photo credit: Matt @ PEK)

Obviously, an older-vintage 767 won’t hold up much to a 787 even with just one middle seat per row. But the service was still nice enough. I did some reading and got a bit of sleep before we touched down at Ho Chi Minh City Tan Son Naht International Airport.

Sorry, I know I gave that trip short shrift. But I am not at avgeek’s avgeek, so I sometimes get worn down on what’s a pretty Average Joe flight on an older airplane. You’ll get a hot Asian meal that tastes better than what’s on most US-based airlines.

DGJ_0674 - Tan Son Nhat Airport
Daytime at Tan Son Nhat Airport (Photo credit: archer10 (Dennis))

Wrapping It Up
The seating on the All Nippon Airways Dreamliner wasn’t perfect. The in-flight meals weren’t as good as Asiana’s. Still, ANA is an excellent airline. You’ll definitely love the service, the on-demand entertainment and the shiny new plane. You’ll appreciate the decent food.

I’d probably pick an Asiana 777 over an ANA Dreamliner, but I’ll avoid an A330 painted any color -- even if it means a few extra bucks. But departure airport also plays a role – San Jose Mineta International Airport is a clear winner, and I’d be very likely to fly from it again.

Stay tuned for a review of United Airlines and its Boeing 787 Dreamliner flight from Pudong Shanghai International Airport to Los Angeles -- and how it compares to the ANA flight.

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A Visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels

cu chi tunnels
Looking down one of the modified-for-tourists sections of the Cu Chi Tunnels.

Plenty of writers like to call the Cu Chi Tunnels "an underground city." But that’s just a facile throwaway phrase that trivializes nearly aspect of life in the Cu Chi Tunnels during a time of war.

Out of every site I’ve visited in my travels so far, I rate this as the most thought-provoking of them all. I can’t even say that I just had fun during my visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels. It somehow feels more accurate to say that it was sobering, that it made me better realize what lengths Vietnamese villagers went through during wars against the French and the United States. I mean, people didn’t dig out three levels of tunnels stretching more than 100 miles for fun.

They created the Cu Chi tunnels to survive.

That said, I love mines, caves, tunnels – really, anything underground. And I’ve always wanted to fire an AK-47, which I also got to do at the Cu Chi Tunnels war memorial park near Ho Chi Minh City. It would be very easy to close your eyes to everything the site means -- to keep the experience at superficial level where it’s all about sinking into a foxhole, checking out booby traps and standing on the burned-out shell of an armored tank.

Cu Chi Tunnels
Tourists gleefully pose on a destroyed tank at Cu Chi Tunnels. Strange.

But we were fortunate that our guide from Saigon River Tour had bigger plans. He identified himself by the nickname "Big T." He was the most well-spoken and reflective of all the guides we encountered in Vietnam. I mentioned Big T in an earlier post; to recap, his father served in the South Vietnamese Army. When the United States left Vietnam to the communist government, men like Big T’s father paid the price in labor camps, or worse.

His father’s service, though, made Big T a great guide. Since we were in a small group that day, he had more time than usual to share insights with us.

Cu Chi Tunnels
Slipping into a fox hole at the Cu Chi Tunnels.

Big T painted a grim picture of Cu Chi. First, he told us, the tunnels began as a way to fight the French forces in the early 20th century. He explained how the French weren’t even the worst enemy: That was the tunnel conditions themselves. No sunlight, no sanitation, no ventilation. But even that was better than the alternatives on the surface.

And it became even worse in the Cu Chi Tunnels when the villagers fought American forces.

They recycled everything, turning unexploded bombs and bits of shrapnel into their own war material. They expanded the Cu Chi Tunnels. They constructed traps designed to wound rather than kill: Big T explained that a wounded soldier took a few of his comrades out of action to remove him from the area and get treatment.

CU Chi Tunnels AK-47
I couldn’t resist a chance to fire an AK-47 at the CU Chi Tunnels range.

Big T urged us to look around the trees that form a shady canopy over the area. It didn’t look like this during the war, he said. The area was devoid of vegetation from carpet bombing and artillery fire.

And here’s the really interesting insight: Big T told us the villagers who were fighting so hard to stay alive didn’t think of themselves as communists. They just wanted so survive. What he said doesn’t quite square with the propaganda films made about the Cu Chi residents fighting American forces. And why were they fighting if they were far into what was then South Vietnam, and such a short distance from Ho Chi Minh City?

Cu Chi Tunnels
Peaking down an undeveloped area of the Cu Chi Tunnels. This is closer to what it would’ve been like during wartime.

On the other hand, it’s also hard to believe that people living a largely agrarian existence were really fighting for political ideologies. Is it more likely they were just propaganda tools? Probably so. Like so many things in Vietnam, I’ll have to do more reading to try finding the answers to my questions. It should help square what I heard from Big T and what I learned during a semester-long course about the Vietnam War when I was in high school.

Of course, every person’s view of the Cu Chi Tunnels will skew according to their background.

As an American, I’ve grown up with movies about the Vietnam War. I never really imagined having the chance to look at the war from this angle.

Cu Chi Tunnels booby trap
A booby trap on display at the Cu Chi Tunnels. It’s hard not to admire the ingenuity even while understanding the aftermath.

Speaking of angles, imagine what a guy who’s 6’2 has to do to get around in the Cu Chi Tunnels. I spent a lot of time folded in half. And we’re mostly in the cleaned-up section that allows easier movement. This is the luxury hotel section, even when we descended to the third level. Fortunately, I’m not claustrophobic – and the dramatic tourist accounts of how "harrowing" it is to get around in the tunnels amuses me. The open sections are in great shape and very clean; we’re not in a combat situation, the lighting is more than sufficient. People get so hyperbolic; I promise, it’s not even that bad in the tunnels.

Cu Chi Tunnels foxhole
Big guy in a little hole – yes, I managed to shimmy all the way into a foxhole … all 6’2 205 of me.

Bottom line, a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels is worth facing your fear of small spaces. It’s worth hearing the other side of a common story. It will make you think – possibly more than many other sites you’ve visited before.

Extra Knowledge for Visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels

Skip the two-hour bus ride from Ho Ci Minh City to Cu Chi Tunnels and find a tour operator with a boat. Saigon River Tour was excellent, but you may find others in Ho Chi Minh City. The boat takes half the time and you won’t get jostled by potholes and bad suspension. You’ll probably miss out on a chance to see someone transporting a grandfather clock on a motorbike, though.

Wear long pants and real shoes. (What is it with tourists and flip-flops, anyway?) You’ll have to crawl in the Cu Chi Tunnels, so why get all scraped or sprain an ankle?

Saigon River Tour
Heading to the Cu Chi Tunnels with Big T and the Saigon River Tour crew.

Bring some water. Even in the cooler months, the southern part of Vietnam is warm and humid. I travel with a hydration pack. And so should you, because dehydration can make your vacation suck.

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Thoughts on the North-South Divide in Vietnam

Soldiers on the move in Hanoi. Could be 1961, could be 2013.

Ask people in Ho Chi Minh City, and they’ll sing you the same song about Hanoi in a multitude of keys and time signatures.

"Hanoi is 15 years behind."

"You’ll feel like someone is watching you all the time."

"Watch out for the people. They cheat you."

"They’ll steal from you."

"They’re mean."

We even heard foreigners like us parrot the same lines.

Vietnam culture
Soviet-influenced icons are everywhere – north and south – to remind residents and visitors of Vietnam’s past.

And we didn’t find any of it to be true. Not that we don’t understand – Ho Chi Minh City (then Saigon) and many of its residents wound up on the wrong side of Vietnam politics when the United States left the country to the communist government in Hanoi. People like Big T, one of our tour guides, still feel the repercussions of a conflict that ended before he was born. His father served in the South Vietnam military and wound up in a labor camp. The labor camps were one of the prices people paid in the aftermath of what Vietnamese people call the American War.

Vietnam culture
Ho Chi Minh City is racing ahead – some say it’s leaving Hanoi behind. See them both and decide for yourself.

Even today, Big T tells us, high-paying government jobs and a shot at upward mobility are off-limits for him and his family. His father made this clear to him at a young age, and gave him some advice: "Don’t worry, and do the best you can. Enjoy your life."

So I understand the root of the bitterness and friction.

As a visitor, though, I have no clue why another traveler would have a harsh word to say about Hanoi and its people.

The traffic is just as bizarre. The street vendors are just as insistent. The prices are just as low.

There are differences, especially if you stay in a central location like the Old Quarter. The streets in that part of Hanoi are even more congested than the larger, wider boulevards in Ho Chi Minh City. But you can also get away easily to areas where you can stroll on the sidewalks without stepping around people and motorbikes.

Vietnam culture
Hanoi’s vibe hit me as more relaxed and more European than Ho Chi Minh City.

And those streets will lead you to some very nice parks and urban lakes. They’ll also take you to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, the president’s residence and a multitude of government buildings.

There is a strange vibe in this part of Hanoi, at least for a visiting Westerner. Uniformed soldiers stroll around, and some even carry AK-47 rifles. The presence of Soviet-related images like the hammer and sickle add an aura that’s slightly disquieting for someone who grew up during the Cold War – and never expected it to end.

Vietnam culture
I wonder what Ho Chi Minh would make of his near deification – and what your average Ho Chi Minh City resident thinks of it.

Still, Hanoi is where my attitude changed about Vietnam. When I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City from the U.S. (with a brief stop in Tokyo), I had a hard time settling in. I questioned our choice of destinations. The traffic and general mania of Ho Chi Minh City grated on me the entire first day. I started to like it a bit better after a few days.

But Hanoi is where I started to really have fun -- despite constantly getting lost in the warren of Old Quarter streets, where the street names seem to change every 200 feet (This is absolutely true. The names reflect what used to be sold on the streets – and sometimes still do – so they translate into things like Drum Street, Casket Street, Fishcake Street and many others). We started to pronounce the few words we know better. We got away from the areas that cater to foreigners, and spoke with and ate with people who have no part of the tourism trade.

Vietnam culture
Ho Chi Minh City has much of its own “peoples’ revolution” imagery.

In Hanoi, we met a few local people through running the Song Hong footrace. They’re now our Facebook friends, and they shared their thoughts about how things work in Vietnam.

Don’t take any of this as a knock against Ho Chi Minh City. We met plenty of friendly residents.

Here’s something interesting: Not a single Hanoi resident said a bad thing about Ho Chi Minh City. Maybe it’s easy to be magnanimous when your family wound up on the winning side of a conflict that continues to define the country -- when you have the upper hand and the opportunities. The biggest difference I noticed is that some Ho Chi Minh City residents still call it Saigon; not a single Hanoi resident, however, used "Saigon."

There might already be some change in progress: Ho Chi Minh City local Elly Thuy Nguyen still pokes fun at Hanoi in her handy and funny eBook, My Saigon: The Local Guide to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam … but with a sly, ironic tone that says "I really don’t believe everything I’m writing."

I hope Nguyen isn’t alone in her attitude. And that the future holds an equal chance for everyone in Vietnam – no matter what choices previous generations made.

Until that happens, visit Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Then decide for yourself.

787 Dreamliner – My Travel Highlight of 2013

Dreamliner Review
The 787 Dreamliner is a pretty airplane from any angle.

I usually get just one big international trip every year. So it seems too obvious to name my recent trip to Vietnam as my Best of 2013. I mean, that means my big trip would score the top spot every year.

Alright, then – if we go beyond the trip to Vietnam, what’s my most-interesting travel-related tidbit of 2013?

Easy. This year, I took my first flight on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The first was back in July, a short domestic trip from Houston to Chicago. But I logged two more flights, both trans-Pacifics, as the curtain closed on 2013. The first was from Mineta San Jose International Airport to Narita International Airport outside Tokyo – that was also my first flight on All Nippon Airways, which Skytrax rates as a 5-star airline. Next, I flew from Shanghai Pudong International Airport to Los Angeles International Airport on a United 787 Dreamliner.

I’ll review both flights in upcoming blog posts (NOTE: I am not an avgeek’s avgeek. So I won’t tell you what runway we took from, list the aircraft registration number or subject you to four photos of every meal/snack. That stuff just doesn’t interest me.). For now, let me focus on the 787 itself. Both airlines fly the 787-8 variant, which is the first launched. The 787-9 just made its first flight, so it’s not yet in service.

787 Dreamliner Review
Inside the United Dreamliner. Notice the LED lighting and the very high ceiling.

The ANA 787 holds fewer than 200 people seated eight across in the economy cabin. The United seems packed tighter at nine abreast.

Regardless of their configuration differences, each Dreamliner had some common features that make this a nice aircraft for a journey across continents.

You’ll notice amenities like on-demand entertainment at every seat. But here’s the really nice part – you can charge up your electronic gadgets with a USB port at every seat. That’s terrific convenience. The cabin is spacious, with lots of headroom for a tall guy like me.

787 Dreamliner Review
Notice the huge engines … believe it or not, they’re still very quiet.

There are some things that are harder to measure, like the higher air pressure and the higher humidity. Both factors are difficult to measure scientifically. And how do you account for an aviation nerd skewing his observations because he’s pumped to fly the latest and greatest in commercial aviation? You don’t.

Still, I think the complete package of the 787 Dreamliner makes it a better experience for all passengers. I hope much of what Boeing learned from the Dreamliner winds up in the 777X.

Here’s a suggestion I’ll pass along: If Boeing opts against using traditional window shades and uses the Dreamliner-style dimming windows, I hope its engineers can get the window to shift to fully opaque. If they don’t, each of them deserves to fly up against the window facing the sun for the rest of their lives. Seriously.

Still, I’m very happy I had the chance to fly on it three times. The 777 was in service for more than 10 years before I got my first flight, and I didn’t want to wait that long or a Dreamliner ride. Mission accomplished!

787 Dreamliner Review
When the Dreamliner takes to the air, its wing flexes upward. You won’t believe how much it moves.

One Old Photo and an Avgeek Mystery -SOLVED

avgeek mystery
A very young Wandering Justin meets the captain and poses for a photo. Unfortunately, those days are long gone.

UPDATE: Consider this avgeek mystery solved. See the italicized text at the end for the thrilling conclusion.

I have an aviation geek (avgeek, for short) mystery on my hands. It’s this photo.

Believe it or not, that’s me. I’m pretty sure I’m 5 years old. I’m definitely making my first visit to Phoenix from Chicago. That’s Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. And, in a throwback to the days of Catch Me if You Can when airline pilots were semi-celebrities, I’m posing on the apron with the captain.

Now, here’s the avgeek mystery: What is that plane?

For the longest time, I thought it was a TWA 707. But I no longer think so. The red stripe is perfectly rectangular, where the TWA red stripe tapered. My best guess is that it’s a Western Airlines plane.

I’m also no longer sure that it’s a 707. First off, it doesn’t appear to have a tandem landing gear. Also, there are only two windows between the two doors, where I believe the 707 had three. That made the Boeing 727 my lead suspect.

But there’s also a ridge on the wing that I haven’t seen before on a 727, so I’m uncertain.

Is there an avgeek out there who can solve this mystery for me?

On a related note, how cool would it be if people these days still recognized the skills involved in flying a commercial aircraft full of paying passengers? I see way too many people saying stuff about how "these planes practically fly themselves."

Yeah, right. I’d love to put someone in a 737 flight simulator and see if they could even manage to figure out how to start the thing up.

Update: I posted a link to this post in the Boeing Airplanes community on Google+. The enthusiastic and knowledgeable people there soon had me convinced that this was a 727. But what about the airline? It took this photo of a Western Airlines 727 at Sky Harbor to confirm for me that the 727 in my photo was a Western Airlines plane. Thanks to Henrik for digging up that photo on Great work, avgeek detectives!

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