My Trip to Vietnam June 26th to July 2nd, 2018

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It’s not every day that a guy like me gets the invitation of a lifetime… Back in the latter months of 2017, I received an invitation to visit the Seagull Models Factory in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Duyen Luu, the CEO of Seagull, personally invited me to visit the factory and be a part of Seagull Models’ 20th anniversary celebration. For those of you that don’t know, I have been working with Duyen and her design team behind the scenes. I have been getting them scale documentation for several of their latest projects, helping them come up with ideas for new projects, and of course, promoting their products through RCUniverse and Facebook. But, I never expected to get the opportunity to visit them in person – such an experience comes along not very often! While a lot of my trip was RC based, involving an excellent tour of the factory, being involved in the 20th anniversary celebration, and even flying with a local RC club, there was more to the trip as well. Now, some of the things I had to do to get ready for the trip were done months ahead of time – I had to get a passport, Vietnam travel Visa, and several vaccinations. I’m going to try to cover all of the trip and give you a taste of the whole experience!

Day One and Two – Traveling to Vietnam

This was a little odd for me – Not that I haven’t gotten on a commercial airliner to go somewhere before, but this was traveling on a whole different level. Three planes to get to my destination, changing the date, and going somewhere that English was not the native language were all firsts for me! My first flight of the day was to depart from the airport at 06:18 hrs, so I decided to stay with my good friend Scott Anderson, who lived close to the airport. Monday afternoon, I said my goodbyes to my wife and kids, gave them plenty of hugs, and started my journey with a two hour drive to my friend’s place. Shortly after I arrived, we parked my van in a secure location, had a good ol’ fashioned BBQ dinner at a local diner, and got some sleep. 03:00 hrs came much too early, but I was up and eagerly awaiting my adventure! Scott dropped me off at the airport at 04:00 hrs, I checked my large suitcase, and made my way through security. Once cleared from security, I made my way to the gate. Right by the gate was a gourmet doughnut and coffee shop, so my breakfast consisted of a doughnut with maple frosting and a slice of bacon on top, and a really good cup of coffee.

As daylight broke, it was clear that it would be a rainy day in Minnesota. I really didn’t mind too much, as I was headed to San Francisco for my first layover! A Boeing 737-900 would be my first airliner of the day, and I had a whole row of three seats to myself! The plane took off on schedule, just before 06:20, and I was on my way to California.

Since I had access to the window, I took a few photos on the first flight – thankfully, my Google Pixel 2 XL has a great camera!

Here’s a couple of photos from the terminal in San Francisco – it was a beautiful day! My layover was long enough that I was able to have a nice walk and a decent (but expensive) sandwich and drink before boarding the Boeing 777-300 for Narita Airport in Tokyo, Japan. Unfortunately, we ran into an issue with the plane just before takeoff – apparently something didn’t sound quite right to the pilot, so maintenance was called in to investigate. After waiting for 45 minutes, we were finally cleared for takeoff! On this flight, I was sitting in a row of three seats – to my right was a small woman, probably 20 years my senior, and to my left was a bulky body builder who took up the whole armrest. Though the seats were a bit narrow for me, as I’m ‘festively plump’, we were seated on an emergency exit row and had ample leg room! The takeoff was uneventful, and I settled in for a very long flight. I tried to sleep for part of the flight, but was unable, so I caught up on a bunch of movies that I’ve been wanting to see. United has a really nice video system built into each of their seats, which made the trip feel a little shorter. About 12 hours after boarding the plane, the captain announced on the PA that there were some very gusty wind conditions at the Narita Airport, and that we were put into a holding pattern while several planes arriving before us attempted to land. We circled the airport for approximately 45 minutes before we were cleared to attempt a landing – this was, by far, the most uncomfortable landing I’ve ever experienced. Thankfully, our skilled pilot was able to get the plane on the ground and keep it there safely! Because of the delay in taking off and in arriving, there was no time for any photos at the airport. I had to hurriedly walk from my arrival gate to the boarding gate (30 gates away) – as I approached the boarding gate, I got in line to get on the plane. I just made it! Of course, once I was on the plane, the pilot of our Boeing 767-300 announced that we would be delayed in taking off, again due to the gusty winds. There were 21 outbound airliners in front of us ready for departure, so it was going to be a while… Thankfully, this flight was not at 100% capacity, so I was able to have a pair of seats to myself!

I did manage to get a few photos from the window of the plane – not exactly the best photos of Japan, but they’re still pretty nice!

After sitting on the 767-300 for 6 plus hours, the pilot announced that we would be arriving at the Saigon airport soon – I can’t think of the last time I had been so exhausted and excited at the same time!

Though they aren’t the greatest quality, I managed to get a couple of in-flight photos after dark. The first was us chasing the sunset, and the second was the first lights of Saigon. It was good to be over land again!

After exiting the plane, I headed to the Visa counter – to visit Vietnam, you need to have a Visa. I filled out the online application months prior to my trip, so it only took about 30 minutes to get through the Visa line and get my passport stamped. Of course, I didn’t have a photo to attach to the Visa application, so I had to pay for a photo to be taken at the airport – what a site I must have been 25 plus hours of travel on very nothing more than a brief nap! With my passport freshly stamped, I was able to get in line to have my passport checked and then I was on to the baggage claim. Unfortunately, the Visa and passport check took so long that my checked bag was no longer on the carousel. A pair of young ladies from my flight were in the same situation as myself, and we eventually discovered the lost and found area – our bags were there waiting for us! Relieved to have all of my bags, I made my way to the airport exit, where I was immediately greeted by Duyen and her son! We loaded my gear into her vehicle, and her brother drove us to my hotel in downtown Saigon.

The Kimdo Royal Hotel Saigon would be my ‘home away from home’ for the next four nights. I made it to my room, took a shower and crawled into bed to get some sleep – the total time since I woke up Tuesday morning was now approaching 30 hours, and I had lost another 12 with the date changing! By the time I made it to my room, it was pushing midnight on Wednesday June 27th, and I don’t think I had EVER been so happy to see a bed in all of my life! The hotel was very nice, and had great views both inside and out. My room had the largest bed I’ve ever seen – it appeared to be larger than any King sized bed in the US! Inside my room, you’d have no idea that I was half-way around the world. All of the amenities were as good as anything we have in the States. In the courtyard there was a garden sitting area with a waterfall and Koi pond. It was a very relaxing environment, despite the heat and humidity. These photos were taken the next morning, as it was well after dark when I arrived.

Day Three – First Time at the Factory

Duyen picked me up from my hotel at 09:30 Thursday morning, and we made our way to the factory. Though it’s not a long distance to get to the factory, it takes close to an hour with the traffic. Now when I say traffic, I mean mostly scooters and small motorcycles, as they far outnumber the four-wheeled vehicles on the roads!

Every where I looked it was just scooter after scooter!  The people who ride them appear to be fearless, zipping in and out of places that often made me cringe and wait for a collision. Surprisingly, I saw no accidents of any kind! At any given time, there was a scooter, car, or bus within inches of our car – Duyen handled it all with a calmness that I could never compose.

We finally made it to the factory, and a security guard greeted us and opened the gate. We drove in and went to the conference room. There were a lot of very ornate wood and stone pieces, and many live plants as well! Outside the windows, I could see that we were in what we would call an industrial park. Lots of manufacturing facilities making many different products. There was also ample vegetation everywhere I looked, breaking up the buildings and adding to the landscape. This was when I met Duyen’s longtime friend Catrina. She lives in the US and travels to see Duyen a few times a year. It was very nice to finally meet Catrina, as she had helped me get everything in order for my trip.

I felt honored that the small gift I had brought her made its way onto the shelf with the beautiful artwork. My wife had created a wood burnt bamboo cutting board as a one-of-a-kind gift for Duyen. Now, a small piece of Minnesota resides in her factory, and we couldn’t be happier about that!

I took a few photos of some of her current aircraft on display in the showroom. Some are older designs still in production, while some of them are brand new, releasing yet this year! At this point, we had to leave the factory to head over to the convention center for a little indoor flying practice for the celebration on Saturday.

A hand full of us were there to get in a little ‘stick time’ in the convention center. I have to admit, that due to the windy and wet conditions in Minnesota, I had not flown yet in 2018. So, you can imagine how anxious I was when i learned that I would be flying the E-flite UMX P-47 inside for the celebration! Typically designed for small outdoor areas, the UMX P-47 runs on a 2S LiPo battery. It’s pretty heavy, and doesn’t like to fly very slow! I did find a good flying speed that kept the plane just above stall speed and still able to fly in a small space, but not before running the P-47 into one of the chandeliers hanging from the ceiling… To say the least, I was a bit embarrassed, but I got the hang of it pretty quickly. With practice done, it was time to head back to my hotel room for a quick shower and a little downtime before dinner.

They picked me up for dinner at 19:00 hrs (7 PM), and we went to an upscale Vietnamese buffet. This place was beautiful! This was where I first met some of Duyen’s other guests for the celebration. S K Tan was a rep from Singapore, and he was a very funny guy! He was entertaining with his stories, and made everyone laugh. The other guests were Mike and Janine O’Reilly representing Australia for the week. Their company, ModelFlight, is the Aussie dealer for Seagull Models. Mike and I hit it off right away, and had a good time sharing stories from ‘back home’. Janine is a wonderful woman, very soft spoken and sweet. they were both a joy to meet and share company with on this trip! Also joining us for dinner were Duyen’s two children, and Catrina. We all had a great time! I tried a lot of new foods as well – some were delicious, and some not so much. I was glad it was a buffet, and I could take just a taste of the foods without committing to an entire plate! Still suffering a bit from jet lag, I was happy to get back to my hotel after dinner and get some much needed sleep!

Day Four – Factory Tour!

Duyen Picked up Mike and myself on Friday morning and brought us to the factory for the grand tour. I was more than excited to see the entire process and all of the employees that worked to make the aircraft we enjoy. As she brought us around to all of the different areas of the factory, one thing was clear – she really cares for her workers, and enjoys interacting with all of them! Take a look at the photos and videos from our time in the factory!

Here’s some video clips that I took while touring the factory. Unfortunately, my video clips were in a different format than what I usually use for my review videos, so the individual clips were uploaded to YouTube for this article. Take a look!

That was pretty much our day on Friday, as Mike and I went back to our hotel rooms after the tour. One thing I found really cool was that the factory shuts down for an hour at 11:30, and the employees have a sleep break. They usually eat on an earlier, short break, and sleep on ‘lunch’. Near the end of the hour, soothing music is played to wake the workers and get them back to their jobs. Speaking of nap, I went back to my room and enjoyed one myself.

After a short rest, fiugred I had better get my ‘shopping’ done. I ventured out and bought some souvenirs for my wife and kids! Thankfully, the hotel offered a money exchange service at the front desk, so I converted $100.00 USD into VND.

For the first time in my life, I was a MILLIONAIRE! I now possessed 2,290,000 VND. Their money system could probably stand to lose three zeros, but it felt kind of cool to have 2.29 million VND to spend. The newer bills have a plastic feel to them – I had bills in 100,000 , 50,000 , and 20,000 VND. Outside of a stray canadian coin in the US, I’ve never used any other currency!

After picking up some gifts for my family, I went back to the hotel with $470,000 VND, which was equivalent to about $20.00 USD. I figured I did pretty well for the large stash of gifts I would be bringing home. It’s funny – there was a coffee shop and a restaurant attached to the hotel. I got a blended frozen coffee drink, and it cost me $77,000 VND. That seems like a lot, until you do the math and realize the drink cost $3.35 USD. That’s about three bucks cheaper than a comparable drink in the US! Friday night, Mike and I accompanied Duyen, Catrina, and Duyen’s children to a family restaurant called …Hun. What I mean by family style is that everyone orders an item from the menu, but all the items are place in the middle of the table and shared evenly with everyone at the table. This was to my benefit, as the beef and rice dish I ordered had a lot of cilantro in it, and I really dislike cilantro! There were many other foods on the table that were really tasty, so I was a happy man! Mike and I ordered desert, which consisted of a warm banana covered in a foamy sweet cream and topped with roasted peanuts. It was delicious! After Dinner, we retired to our hotel rooms and called it a night.

Day Five – Celebration Day!

With Duyen’s daughter set to pick me up at 09:00 hrs, I was up at 07:00 to eat some breakfast before getting ready to go. The hotel had the most wonderful breakfast buffet I have ever seen and tasted! Of course, not everything was to my Western flavor pallet, but most of it was delicious! After breakfast, I got ready for the celebration. Believe it or not, I actually wore a suit – for those of you that know me, you know that this is very far outside of my normal attire!

Upon leaving the elevator, the front part of the hall was filled with many of Seagull’s current aircraft, and some 2018 new releases as well. The large 50cc Decathlons were there in both color schemes, the new Nieuport 28, and the yet to be released Mitchell B-25 and 1/5 scale L-4 Grasshopper! There were a total of 35 different airframes on hand for guests to see!

Before everyone was seated for lunch, I poked around in the hall a bit. Man, there were a lot of tables! They had also been spread out more than they were on Friday, leaving less room to fly – good thing I had gotten some practice time!

The stage had been set up very nicely, and included three large aircraft paintings and an ice sculpture! That was an amazingly large block of ice!

After the tables had been filled with guests, but before lunch was served, Duyen’s kids gave a touching speech for their mom.

The speech was followed by a video showing some of Seagull’s aircraft and some of the OEM models the supply to companies like Hangar 9. It was a great video and everyone loved it!

Following the video, A group of us put on a show for all of the guests by doing a little indoor flying. I flew the UMX P-47 again, along with another UMX P-47 flown by a friend of Duyen. A pair of UMX T-28s were flown by two of Duyen’s employees, and another employee flew the UMX Timber. The guests seemed to enjoy the show, and I managed to avoid the floor – well, mostly. These P-47’s are difficult to fly in small spaces! Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one that bounced their plane off the floor…

 

Lunch was served in seven courses – Unfortunately, two of my photos didn’t focus properly, but every bite was absolutely delicious! Featuring lots of seafood, these courses were wonderful!

As you can see, it was a packed house! I’m not sure how many guests there were, but I’d guess there were close to three hundred people in attendance. Everyone had a great time, Including Duyen and Catrina! After the celebration wrapped up, it was back to my hotel room for the day. I enjoyed having some extended down time, and walked about the plaza in front of the hotel for a while. I went to the restaurant attached to the hotel for dinner and enjoyed a plate of ‘spaghetti carbonara’, which turned out to be much different than I expected. It was still a good meal, but tasted much like a ham and cheese sandwich on spaghetti noodles! The rest of the evening I spent in my room, catching up on emails and messaging with my wife and a good friend in North Carolina.

Day Six – Local RC Club Flying

Because of the heat and humidity, they like to fly earlier in the morning. After breakfast, I packed up all my belongings and checked out of my hotel. Duyen picked me up at 08:00 hrs, and we headed out of the city to meet up with the local RC club. Mind you, for this overweight Minnesota man, it was already HOT outside! But, I enjoyed the time outdoors, and even got a bit of sun. I took my camera along to take photos for this article and for Duyen.

When we arrived at the flying site, which happened to be a road at the edge of town, the club already had shade tents up and they were assembling their airplanes. As they each were ready to fly, they took to the sky one at a time. Some of these pilots were very experienced, and some were beginners and intermediate pilots. I will say that they are more adept to flying in less than ideal conditions that I am, but we’ll get to that in a bit….

One more thing – the local club even brought out a cake to help Duyen celebrate the 20th anniversary of Seagull Models! It just goes to show that modelers around the world are a great bunch of people!

Here’s some photos of the local club in action!

Seagull Models Airplanes

Duyen had planned to have some of her employees bring out several of the Seagull airplanes to fly – Mike and I were the special guests and were invited to fly a few of the airplanes as well. For me, it’s a little nerve-wracking to fly airplanes that aren’t mine, but Duyen insisted that we have a good time flying.

After the Seagull team had finished assembling the airplanes, we were ready to fly! The first plane into the air was the new F-8F Bearcat. The Seagull test pilot handled the plane well, and made it look look nice on low, fast strafing runs! This plane really looks great in the air!

Mike was up first, flying the new Nieuport 28. Being from Australia, he was flying Mode 1. He had brought his own transmitter along, so the Nieuport was bound to his transmitter and set up accordingly. After getting comfortable with the plane, Mike was having a good time flying! Though he and I thought the plane was slightly tail heavy, he was able to make it perform well – minus a small encounter with a bush that jumped in his way when landing…

Next up was me and the 50cc Decathlon. I’ve been a fan of the Decathlon since I first laid eyes on one about 25 years ago, so to get to fly a large one was going to be a real treat! With the engine running reliably, I taxied the Decathlon out to the street from which we were flying – at that very moment, it really dawned on me how narrow the street was, and how many hazards there were to hit… So, as I’m advancing the throttle and trying to keep an eye on the sides of the street, the Decathlon jumped off much sooner than I anticipated, and at a much slower speed than I would have liked. Now, I can give you all kinds of excuses about what happened – the plane wasn’t set up the way I like it, there was too much throw on high rates and not enough on low, etc, etc. I could go on, but the real truth is that I just wasn’t ready for the plane to become airborne. I fought to try to level the wings, but ended up putting the plane down hard. Unfortunately, I broke the prop and the left side fiberglass wingtip came off. The Seagull crew worked frantically to get the plane ready once again! I talked with the test pilot and expressed my concerns, to which he replied he would get the plane in the air and hand the transmitter to me. Now, I was already feeling a little heartbroken and stupid for breaking the plane to begin with, but they all really wanted to see me enjoy a flight. So, when the Decathlon had been repaired, it went back up! This time, after the trims had been set, I got a hold of the transmitter. I flew the giant scale Decathlon around for several minutes, feeling anxious about it the whole time. eventually, I settled into a bit of a groove, and the nerves subsided. I was actually having some fun at this point! Just before the transmitter’s timer went off, I handed it back to the main pilot for landing. Sure, I felt a little foolish, but that street really had me flustered! He brought the Decathlon in for a nice landing, and rolled it out well!

One of the other Seagull pilots took the Decathlon back up after a fuel refill, and did some basic 3D maneuvers. He did really well, right up to the landing. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves…

Whoops! Well, it’s bound to happen to us all at some point…

Up next was the new Yak 11 racer. After a brutal fight to get the engine to run properly, the Yak 11 was finally ready to fly. With our trusty test pilot at the sticks, the Yak took off easily, but appeared to be a little tail heavy at first – as it turned out, the Yak really likes speed, and gets sluggish at lower speeds. He got the plane trimmed to fly well, and the engine started bogging down, so he brought it around for a landing. Back on the ground, more engine tuning took place until they were satisfied with the engine. Back up in the air the Yak 11 went, and the transmitter was handed to me – we left the gear down, just in case of a flame out. I flew the plane around at full throttle for about 4 minutes when the engine abruptly quit. I yelled out ‘dead stick’, and he grabbed the transmitter from me. It took everything he had to get that plane back on the ground on the runway, but he did a really nice job doing so!

The last of the Seagull aircraft to take flight was the new 50cc P-47 Razorback. Its engine seemed to be running strong right away, so it was started and flown – Unfortunately, a few minutes into the flight, the engine quit – with the gear retracted! The pilot did his best to keep the airspeed up as he attempted to drop the gear, but it was of no use. The P-47 was too low and slow to make a recovery glide to the runway. She disappeared out of sight into the tall thick grass off the runway, but not before I got some really good photos of the  Thunderbolt!

Thankfully the P-47 survived with only minor damage, and it will fly again!

That wrapped up our day of flying, and we left the club members to finish up their own flying. A group of us went to a small restaurant called Pho Hung – Pho is a type of noodle that is usually served in a bowl with meat, vegetables and broth. It’s very similar to a noodle soup, but we ate it with chopsticks! When lunch had been finished, we drove back to Duyen’s residence. Catrina and I stayed at Duyen’s house because we had to catch a very early flight out of Saigon airport Monday morning. For most of the afternoon, I just laid low, and took a shower an nap. I was nearly soaked through my clothes from sweating in the high temps and hot sun. Laying down in an air conditioned room sure felt nice.

Dinner was served for the last time during my journey, and consisted of an ‘American meal’ of Steak, mashed potatoes, French Fries, and a drink. It was very tasty! Around 20:00 (8 PM) I retired to my room for the night to get some sleep before flying out on Monday.

Meals

It’s funny, but I have never really thought about how (and what) the rest of the world eats on a daily basis. Though I didn’t take a photo of every meal, I did catch some of them – take a look at some of the things that I found to be delicious!

Random Scenery 

We didn’t have time for sight seeing, so to speak, so as we traveled around, I took whatever photos I could. Some are great, some are not, but they were all a great addition to my journey to another country!

 

Day Seven – Time to Go Home

We got up at 04:30 to get the bags packed in the car and headed for the airport. Outside the front doors, Catrina and I said our goodbyes to Duyen and started our long journeys for home. On all three of my flights home, I had aisle seats, so getting any photos was impossible. I did manage to snap a few when we got off the plane at Narita airport in Tokyo. This was the first time I had ever exited a plane and not gone directly into the terminal. We left the plane on a set of stairs, got into buses, and were then driven a half-mile or so to the terminal. I had time in Narita to get a good meal of beef and rice (no cilantro this time), and a clear diet Coke. It was an odd beverage, but it went well with my meal. I loaded onto the next plane, and started the long flight from Narita to Chicago O’Hare. From the time I boarded the plane until I exited, it was about 13 hours again. I managed to get about 4 hours of sleep on this flight, and shared my row of seats with a 3 and a half year old little girl and her mom. Both were excellent seat mates, and made traveling home a treat! As we got off the plane, they wished me safe travels and I went on my way.

As I walked into the monstrosity known as O’Hare airport, I was a little overwhelmed – this was the largest airport I had seen! Because I was returning from an international location, I had to go through customs, but this time, I was going through customs with close to a thousand other travelers at the same time. I had to claim my checked bag, walk through a few doors, and then recheck the bag for the final flight to Minneapolis. With my bag rechecked, I boarded a train to my terminal. I stood in line for what seemed like eternity to go through security again, as they had limited X-Ray machines in use. It was the equivalent of the grocery store having 20 checkout lines available and only using three on a busy day! I finally made it to the X-Ray machine with only 20 minutes until my flight was to start boarding. At this point, the security guards decided my carry on bags needed to be turned inside out. When they were satisfied that I didn’t have anything illegal or dangerous, I was allowed to repack my bags and hurry on to catch my flight. Thankfully, the flight was a few minutes behind schedule, and I made it! The final hour of flying was about to begin – and then we waited… After a 30 minute delay, we finally took off and headed for Minneapolis! On the ground in Minnesota, I had never been so happy to be home – I picked up my checked luggage at the baggage claim, and headed out the doors. My good friend Scott was waiting to pick me up outside, so I didn’t even have to wait for him! As we drove to a local seafood restaurant for dinner, we talked about my amazing trip. Dinner was great! a large platter of Lobster tail, shrimp and even the broccoli was tasty – not to mention the enormous strawberry margarita to go with it! Back at Scott’s house, I chatted with him and his wonderful wife Cindy for an hour or so before turning in for the night. Because I had a two hour drive yet to do in the morning, it was good to get some much needed sleep before getting in my van to make my way home. Tuesday morning, I woke at 08:45 so I could get home in time to see my family before they left to go visit grandma and grandpa for some fourth of July parades. Before I left Scott’s place, I had one more great meal with him – fresh omelets, coffee , and an ‘old fashioned’ doughnut! Funny – the first and last food items I ate on my trip were both a doughnut…

The final leg of my trip home was an uneventful but rainy drive. As I turned into my driveway, I was overcome with a sense of relief to finally be HOME.

My Final thoughts…

Wow! That was one awesome week! There was never a dull moment throughout the trip, even the down time when I wasn’t busy was great! The food and the people were amazing, and I learned a few things about a culture and country that I previously knew very little. The plane rides were long and tiresome, but worth the destination. I would like to extend my gratitude to all of the people that helped make my journey such an awesome experience! Scott and Cindy Anderson, Duyen Luu, Catrina, Mike and Janine O’Reilly at Model Flight Australia, SK Tan in Singapore, and all of Duyen’s family, friends, and employees – even the mom and little girl on my long flight home – THANK YOU! You will all be remembered for a very long time to come!

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