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By Mai Nguyen and James Pearson

HANOI (Reuters) - Vietnam's aviation authority on Tuesday fined budget airline Vietjet for a semi-naked and celebratory display by bikini-clad models aboard a special flight carrying home the country's under-23 football team from a competition in China.

The team received a hero's welcome when it returned on Sunday, despite narrowly losing to Uzbekistan in the final of the under-23 Asian Cup.

"Who let these escaped chimpanzees on the plane welcome home the under-23 team?" wrote Facebook user Ngoc Nhung after photographs emerged on social media of the models interacting with the players, one of whom appeared visibly uncomfortable as a model in a bikini and reindeer antlers posed beside him.

Vietjet has made headlines in the past with its controversial use of bikini-clad flight attendants and risqué marketing campaigns.

But the impromptu show for Vietnam's under-23 team has drawn disdain from those who see it as an unnecessarily salacious stunt.

"Do you want to rename Vietjet 'Vietjerk', or 'Vietsex'?" Nhung wrote, addressing the firm's chief executive, Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao.

Thao apologised for the stunt on VietJet's official Facebook page on Sunday.

"This was an improvised performance by the logistics team that was not part of the company's programme," said the chief executive, who is also Vietnam's first female billionaire.

Model and DJ Lai Thanh Huong apologised for her part in the stunt, but said she had been told by representatives of Vietjet to "grab a photo with the players".

The Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam (CAAV) fined Vietjet 40 million dong ($1,761) and the plane's chief stewardess a further 4 million dong.

"Despite the fact the Vietjet event didn't jeopardise the safety of the flight, it could still have posed a safety risk," CAAV said in a statement.

(Reporting by Mai Nguyen and James Pearson; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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Reuters