CNN International: If there’s one deeply unattractive quality in a travel writer it’s a sneer.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a jumped-up gap year kid blogging about how the“locals” don’t understand correct environmental protection or a corpulent blowhard taking a break from opining on American politics to glare askance at hectic traffic and piles of rubbish.
It’s the kind of writing that doesn’t do much except inflate its author’s ego and annoy readers.
So it’s not with a sneer that we view these theme parks. It’s mostly bewilderment.
Why the concrete bunnies? Wherefore scale models of real things you can already see in the city? Is that guy really hanging off the rollercoaster one handed? And he’s …welding?
Theme parks are popular in Vietnam. Each weekend the behemoth-sized Suoi Tien, just outside Ho Chi Minh City, is packed with families traipsing about looking at old mechanical dinosaurs or dressing up in old-time mandarins’ costumes for photos.
Whether this is better or worse than standing in a 16-day-long line to visit Disney’s Space Mountain is anyone’s guess.
“Finish, broken, cannot’It’s what? We ask the woman at the ticket counter.
“Finish,” she replies.
The downhill luge we’d driven along bad roads in hot sun to ride was “finish”and it was barely noon.
We were at Black Lady Mountain, Nui Ba Den in Vietnamese, a mid-sized hill that was another slag-heap strategic point when the Americans fought here.
These days it is a small-time theme park with not much more than a long downhill luge to recommend it. And the luge wasn’t working.
A couple of months before that I’d traveled hours along Highway 1 –- the narrow road that links Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City over a few thousand kilometers of noisy dust –- to ride ostriches at Mango Garden, known in Vietnamese as Vuon Xoai and in Dong Nai province outside Saigon.
Our group was told: “Ostrich is … broken.”
We’d walked past several thousand of the things in paddocks and were standing at a corral full of them. A sign on top showed faded but joyful people riding these equally faded monster birds. The price was only 10,000VND (US$0.50).
We asked again, please?
“Ah,” he looked about to be swayed, then closed with the one word that speaks of dead and certain finality: “Cannot”.
We had to eat them instead (several barbecue places around town offer it on their menus).
Cartoon hell, in ferroconcreteWhat the lugeing mountain lacked in working luges it made up for (not really) in terrifying concrete animals. The most terrifying were the bunnies, which were to Thumper what Chucky may be to say, Pinocchio.
A meter high with ferocious buckteeth that spoke of serious inbreeding and once gaudy color peeling off them in great clumps like weird tropical mange. They were everywhere.
Elsewhere, penguins doubled as rubbish bins.
You can make anything out of concrete here. A popular activity across Vietnam is cut down a lot of trees, put in new concrete ones, then call the thing “eco .”
Huge dragons, fake cliffs and representations of mythological figures from various eras are also common.
Discount Dali’s very bad brain dayMany of the exhibits or attractions at these parks aren’t broken, or intentionally terrifying. They’re just bewildering.
A friend of mine was once explaining attractions at Suoi Tien, Vietnam’s biggest, best-loved and strangest theme park.
He described one thus: “A large rotating teapot, two mannequins hanging from the ceiling, apparent victims of some celestial lynch mob, and a memorable tableau which seemed to consist of a woman electrocuting a baby.”
That, according to his wife, is the park’s idea of what Heaven might be like.
At Hanoi’s Bao Son park, a few kilometers outside the capital, you don’t just ask “WTF?” which can be fun, but: "what’s the point?", which is not.
Apart from clattery rides sourced from China and a laser show, there is also a recreation of the city’s Old Quarter. That’s the Old Quarter the whole city grew up with and can see, for free, any time they’d like.
Even the local press couldn’t resist criticizing the whole daft venture. They pointed out that entry fees for a whole family to the park stretch far above the average income.
Making the news, for the wrong reasonsWhen Vietnam’s amusement parks have been in the news this year it’s usually been for the wrong reasons. Last September, an Indonesian tourist was killed by a falling tree in a waterfall park in Dalat in the Central Highlands.
Earlier this year a six-year-old autistic boy was found dead at Dam Sen water park in Saigon. According to local news his parents have plans to sue the park, believing the management to be responsible.
Not so long ago the international press got all excited when it was revealed that one of the investors in Vietnam’s biggest new amusement park venture -– Happy Land -– is Joe Jackson, Michael Jackson’s father.
The new park, which is due to open by 2014, will be located in southern Long An province a short way outside Ho Chi Minh City.
The plan is likely to attract 14 million visitors a year, and is expected to cost a mammoth US$2 billion. That's an awful lot of concrete.