Suoi Tien Theme Park, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
There’s an enchanted castle, although ‘cursed’ might be a better adjective.
There are rides, characters, shows – all the things you would expect at a theme park. Yet… there’s just something a little odd.
In communist Vietnam, there is no Disney. When you want to head to the ‘Happiest Place on Earth’, your best option is the Suoi Tien Theme Park, on the fringes of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
It is a burst of fun, terror, humour and angst – all at once.
The theme for the whole park is Buddhism, the predominant religion here in Vietnam. A giant golden dragon is the first thing you see as you go in and it sets the scene.
As you explore a bit deeper, you’ll find gardens full of Buddhas, a lake with a statue of a turtle supporting the world – and, of course temples. Plenty of temples. I notice one on the park map called ‘Goddess of Mercy Temple’, for example.
Some of these temples are what you might expect and follow the traditional model. Incense is burning and people are praying.
In a theme park, I wonder how many of these prayers are just before someone gets on the old roller coaster… but more on the rides shortly.
The most interesting temples are those that have been turned into attractions. It’s probably not fair to call them ‘temples’ and the park actually has different names for them – usually they’re a ‘palace’. But there’s no avoiding the dominant theme inside.
I climb up the steps to go into the ‘Unicorn Palace’. It all sounds so magical and colourful. Wrong!
As soon as I am through the entrance, it’s pitch black. I have to hold onto a handrail as I go down a set of stairs and descend underground. You might think I was being melodramatic if I said that it felt like I was descending into hell – but that’s the point.
Underneath the temple is a journey through the various levels of Buddhist Hell.
This ain’t no small world after all. The path you walk along is still pitch black – the only light comes from the displays behind bars.
Men are being ripped apart, eaten by animals, dumping into boiling pots. There’s a soundtrack of terror and every so often, without warning, a bloody mannequin will swing at you screaming.
I scream back a few times.
Back outside, in the sunlight, it is zen again and the wind rustles the trees carrying the prayer flags. You would think that one hell on earth would be enough for me but I foolishly go into two more houses of horrors.
In one, the path shakes at various points, throwing me slightly off balance. The point at which I decide to hurry to the exit, though, is when an actual hand comes out of the wall and grabs my ankle in the dark.
The other house of horrors is Harry Potter themed. Again, it’s dark with lots of screaming and creatures jumping out of nowhere.
I am not positive, but there’s got to be no way this could be officially licensed. The real owners of the Harry Potter trademark would not allow Dobby the elf to be turned into a ferocious demon with glowing red eyes.
Like any good theme park, there are also rides. They could probably be described in one of two ways. Lame or lamer. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have fun on them!
Most of the rides are quite small – a good size for kids. You swing a bit, go around a bit, maybe rise up and fall down slightly. The mini roller coaster goes quite fast but only lasts for about 20 seconds.
I get the feeling the rides are part of the fun but not the main reason the locals come here. It’s about the whole experience and having a bit of everything – rides, games, gardens, shows, food.
I like to think they don’t come for the zoo… but they may. Unfortunately it casts a dark shadow over an otherwise colourful day out.
The zoo is at the back of the park and it promises a collection of exotic animals. But rather than be impressed, it makes me angry.
The animals are kept in tiny cages, with almost nothing inside to amuse or comfort them. There are different types of monkeys, for example, staring wistfully out through the bars. Most upsetting is a small bear in a space that gives it just enough room to pace around in a circle.
The zoo is on the edge of a large complex of lakes filled with hundreds of crocodiles. I don’t feel so sorry for them – I’m convinced they’re just looking at me as a potential meal.
I wonder why there are so many of them until I see the gift shop selling handbags and purses. This is a factory farm, just one where you can pay to feed the product.
All of this seems rather contrary to the Buddhist ethos so I try to put it out of my mind and focus on everything else on offer. It really is a rather well designed park and the different areas with their lakes and rivers and statues and pagodas are quite beautiful and peaceful.
Bizarre, though? Yes. To me. Everything just seems a little bit surreal.
Things I think are hilarious are probably wondrous to the local Vietnamese families who come here, though.
They would probably think a theme park with a talking mouse and spinning teacups would be strange. So I shall not judge, lest I end up in Buddhist Hell for eternity.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN HO CHI MINH CITY
Ho Chi Minh City is super busy but accommodation around District 1 will save you a lot of transport hassle.
For a modern and quiet hostel, I would suggest the awesome Tam Social Enterprise Hostel.
A comfortable budget option is Tripwriter Hotel… and I like the name!
For a stylish design hotel, you should try Cinnamon Boutique Hotel.
And if you want to splurge, I think one of the coolest hotels is The Myst Dong Khoi.