Vietnamese theme parks have a strange prescription — to provide a cultural experience along with fun. The best of them accomplish their edutainment blend through weird tricks like sending water slides out of an ancient king’s mouth or putting a lazy river down the middle of a nebulously Buddhist creation myth.
And by the best of them, of course I’m talking about Ho Chi Minh City’s Suoi Tien (“fairy stream”) Theme Park.
The numbers are impressive enough — 5,000 crocodiles, 2,000 meters of underground fairy stream networks, one dinosaur garden, one roller coaster called “Roller Coaster”, and a giant man-made beach with the face of an empire puking a waterfall into it. The park is dotted with massive shrines, which are congregated upon by fruit-shaped parade cars every holiday. There is a Harry Potter-themed haunted house where park staff grab your legs as you walk past.
(And, oh god, there is also a small medical curiosities exhibit featuring three-legged cows and two-faced dogs along with accompanying yellowed newspaper articles, apparently transformed by Agent Orange contamination.)
Heading north, you’d be remiss to miss the abandoned but still staffed and wedding-photo-trawled Ho Thuy Tien waterpark. Here again Vietnam’s creation myths rear their massive heads — most notably in the form of a three-story dragon which formerly housed an aquarium. Now its swollen belly is full of broken glass, graffiti and snap-happy tourists.
Newcomer Ba Na Hills could signal the future of Vietnam’s theme parks with its photo-friendly utopian mountaintop environs. Here an animatronic dinosaur museum coexists with recreations of European castles and Swiss mountain chalets, peaceful gardens are united by a sky bridge held up by the hands of a colossus, and the separate areas are tied together by the longest cable car ride in the world. (Cable cars are a bit of a fixation in touristic Vietnam, threatening to destabilize delicate ecosystems like that found in Son Doong Cave, the biggest cave in the world.)
There’s something poetic about the weird turns these theme parks take. There’s a bit of the architect’s whimsy in their lack of strict maintenance and brand identity, as they seem to say, here is the fantasy we’ve dreamed up — now do with it what you will.