First U.S. commercial plane lands in former Saigon since Vietnam War
HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam – United Airlines became the first U.S. carrier to fly to Vietnam since the war ended nearly 30 years ago, marking a new milestone in relations between the former enemies as VIPs on board were greeted at the airport with lotus blossoms and silk lanterns.
Flight 869, carrying 260 passengers, touched down at 10:06 p.m. at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in what is now Ho Chi Minh City. The last U.S. commercial carrier to leave Vietnam was a Pan American flight that took off from this city, the former South Vietnamese capital of Saigon, just before it fell to the communists in 1975.
“I love it,” said Bernard Lang, 62, of Falls Church, Va., who said he fled South Vietnam on one of the last flights out. “I wanted to be on the first flight to be part of history.”
The blue-and-white Boeing 747-400’s arrival was filled with hoopla as dozens of Vietnamese women dressed in white traditional tunic-style dresses, or ao dais, welcomed VIPs off the plane with blossoms and lanterns.
American actor David Hasselhoff and his wife, Pamela, videotaped the reception and took pictures with Vietnamese at the airport. The couple celebrated their 15th wedding anniversary aboard the flight on which Hasselhoff was bringing 36 wheelchairs to Vietnam from a U.S.-based charity.
“It was really fantastic. It’s really about bringing the world back together through people,” he said. “There was a big buzz on the airplane coming here.”
The flight comes as Vietnam and the United States expand relations that have been growing over the past decade. The former foes signed a landmark bilateral trade agreement in 2001 and celebrated another symbolic milestone last year when the first U.S. Navy ship arrived since the war, docking at a port on the Saigon River.
“Today’s historic flight from the United States to Vietnam – the first direct flight in almost 30 years – represents a new beginning of strengthened relations and closer ties that will reunite families and open new doors for businesses in both countries,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said in a statement.
United Airlines, which filed for bankruptcy two years ago, is also betting the daily flight to Vietnam will be a big moneymaker. Some 1 million ethnic Vietnamese live in the United States – the largest population outside Vietnam – and many visit their homeland every year, especially during Lunar New Year. The airline says it expects air travel to Vietnam to grow by 10.5 percent a year in the next decade.
“We think it’s a very important market, both from the economic as well as tourist standpoint,” said Martin White, United Airlines’ senior vice president of marketing. “We’re very proud to be the first U.S. carrier to come in here in nearly 30 years.”
Vietnam and the United States signed an aviation agreement in October 2003, allowing the countries to exchange direct flights and to add code-shared flights, which enables other airlines already operating in each country to complete part of the journey.
American Airlines has set up a code-share agreement with Vietnam Airlines Corp., while the state-owned carrier has expressed interest in opening its own direct route to San Francisco by the end of next year or early 2006.
Many of the passengers on board the inaugural United flight were overseas Vietnamese, or Viet kieu, who emerged from the airport pushing baggage through an aisle of curious Vietnamese onlookers and anxious relatives waiting for loved ones.
Anthony Nguyen, 37, of Orange County, Calif., said he wasn’t aware this was the first U.S. flight back to Vietnam when he got on board. He said he was last in his native country when he fled on a boat 30 years ago, but wanted to return for his brother’s wedding.
“I left when I was 7,” Nguyen said. “It kind of marks my 30 years, and for it to be the first airline to be here, I thought it was pretty significant. It kind of hit me when I was on the plane.”