As far as we know, just about every square inch of Vietnam has been documented by travel blogs and magazines like ours, with the lion’s share, of course, done by us. Just when we thought we had everything covered on the ground, something new above it has taken off — hot-air ballooning.
Thanks to a new adventure company, Vietnam Balloons — which made its maiden flight in April last year — you can now explore the terrain surrounding Phan Thiet and the beachside destination of Mui Ne from more than half a kilometre up in the air. The area has some of Vietnam’s most stunning landscapes, including its enormous red-and-white sand dunes, a peculiarity in a country that is better known for its temperate mountains, tropical jungles and networks of waterways.
The balloons follow two distinct flight paths depending on the weather, most of the time taking off northeast of Mui Ne and passing over the famous white sand dunes. Alternatively, they follow the coastline toward Ke Ga lighthouse to the south of Phan Thiet. Flights take from 45 minutes to an hour and fly at different altitudes between 500 and 1,000 metres, offering passengers multiple experiences in the one trip.
According to Tomas Valiukas, the director of Vietnam Balloons, the balloons sometimes fly low enough so that passengers can actually touch the treetops brushing by as they come in to land, or they go high enough so that on cloudy days they fly above the clouds long enough to experience the feeling of “walking on the clouds”.
However, it’s the shortest flights caused by stronger winds that are perhaps the most exhilarating.
“The shortest flights that we make are the more stunning ones and they are the ones our passengers tend to be most happy with,” says Tomas, a Lithuanian who first came to Vietnam in the mid-2000s. “When there are strong winds, we usually have very few clouds, so the sunrises are extremely beautiful. The sun adds a lot to the whole experience. It’s really something to witness the sunrise from a balloon.”
As Safe as Houses
Tomas is keenly aware of the safety concerns that potential customers of his may have given that products and services in Vietnam aren’t noted for their high level of quality or safety.
“Statistically speaking, ballooning is safer than driving a car, and it’s definitely safer than riding a motorbike in Vietnam,” he explains. “We are totally confident in our balloons and our European pilots. The balloons undergo annual maintenance by specialists who fly in from Europe (there are currently no such specialists in Vietnam) and once they are checked, nothing will malfunction with them.”
The balloons that Vietnam Balloons own take six to eight passengers per flight and are designed to carry five times the weight that they actually do on any given flight. For a balloon to crash, at least 12 of the 24 stainless steel cables that are embedded in the envelope, otherwise known as the bag — or what most of us would call the balloon — would have to simultaneously snap.
“Typically it’s high-voltage power lines that are the biggest threat to hot-air balloons, but in Mui Ne where we fly, there aren’t any,” says Tomas. “There are power lines that stretch for a couple of hundred metres in the area, but they don’t carry any electricity through them.”
At first, the cost of US$165 (VND3.76 million) per person for a one-hour flight might appear expensive, however, as Tomas says, when people see the price of things, they like to compare them with other available options. For a balloon flight over Myanmar’s Bagan temple complex in a VIP balloon which carries six to eight people and have the same configuration as Vietnam Balloons’, it could cost close to US$480 per person. A flight in a much bigger basket — something which Tomas says is akin to the “size of a bus” — that holds between 20 to 30 people, would cost around US$310 per person.
Vietnam Balloons also caters for people who have experienced everything there is to do and see in Mui Ne. As a result, flights for people celebrating special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries are popular, and they’ve already had their first marriage proposal onboard. Fortunately, she said yes.
PHOTOS PROVIDED BY VIETNAM BALLOONS