Travel Guides: Vietnam
By Lisa Scheinin – US
Almost a year in advance, my friends Martin Valt and Kat Soderquist and I planned a trip to Vietnam for February, 2020. As it turned out, we were mere steps ahead of the international edicts for social distancing and self-quarantine accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first worrisome shadow cast over the trip was thanks to the car hire company we used. A few weeks before our scheduled departure, they sent us a notice saying that the Vietnamese government had requested that all venues for public events shut down temporarily due to the virus. We weren’t too perturbed by this, since parks aren’t primarily event venues. Also, most of the parks we had scheduled were small neighbourhood parks, which we felt were much more likely to stay open because (1) they are not major tourist magnets and (2) they need the income more than the big destination parks.
Next came a request from the car company asking that if any of us were flying to Vietnam through China, we should please not come. Fortunately none of us qualified.
It was easy to see the early effects of the virus and the USA’s response to it on my day of departure. The Bradley International Terminal at LAX, normally a zoo at the best of times, was nearly deserted. The flight board listed flight after flight to China as “cancelled.” There were only minimal lines for checking bags. It was possible for me, flying carry-on only, to walk through TSA screening and directly to the gate with no lines whatsoever. Given that this was in mid-afternoon, this would have been virtually impossible under normal circumstances.
Narita Airport in Tokyo was very much like LAX, with the usual hordes of travellers nowhere to be found. On both legs of the trip, the entire cabin crew and most of the ground crew were masked.
My cabbie to the hotel in Ho Chi Minh City also wore a mask. As I tried to exit the cab, he stopped me, saying “Wait. Present.” Dangling from his daintily extended thumb and forefinger was a mask.
Our first hotel, like the airports, was nearly deserted. This turned out to be the standard for the rest of the trip. It was easy to get EPT (exclusive pool time) and restaurants were nearly empty. Sometimes we were the only diners. This gave the otherwise bored staff an opportunity to fawn on us and remember what we liked. (“You want salted butter? I will get it for you.” “Would you like Vietnamese coffee with milk and sugar, like yesterday? Here.”)
As it turned out, we were mostly right about the parks. The vast majority of them were open. There were, however, a few closures. The responses of the parks that remained open varied. Many posted cautionary signs warning about the dangers of COVID-19, but in some cases that was the full extent of their precautions. Sometimes the staff wore masks but in all but one of the parks, nobody asked us to wear one. Rarely, we had to allow a staff member to take our temperatures before being allowed in. There was no evidence of enforced social distancing. Most of the time the parks were as deserted as the airports and hotels, but in the few cases where there were a good number of visitors, there was no effort by the staff to distance us on the rides or in the (usually minimal) queues.
In the course of the trip, the coasters of Sau Con, a Vietnamese ride manufacturer, would become extremely familiar to us. At least 16 Sau Con coasters are scattered across Vietnam. Most of these are either smaller family coasters with a single helix coming off the first drop, or a slightly larger model with a double helix. While none of these are extreme thrill machines, several of them manage to produce surprisingly good speeds and lateral Gs. And it was much more gratifying to find one of these gravity coasters in small, neighbourhood parks rather than a powered job.
As you read the following travelogue, please keep in mind that most of the coaster names have been translated into English for convenience, and the numerous diacritical marks on any remaining Vietnamese words have been eliminated for ease of reading. The generic Vietnamese term for “roller coaster” is “Tàu Lượn Siẻu Tốc”, which means something like “high speed gliding train.” Assume that any coaster called Roller Coaster in the following is really named Tàu Lượn Siẻu Tốc.
HO CHI MINH CITY
This translates to “White Rabbit” and the rabbit logo is all over the park. Thỏ Trắng is part of a larger green park, Cong Vien Van Hoa Le Thi Rieng. It has a double-helix Sau Con coaster called Roller Coaster that’s quite peppy, with good lateral Gs in the second half of the helices. This park is generally open around 17:00 weekdays and somewhat earlier on weekends and holidays. It was bustling during our visit and seemed not to be at all affected by concern about the Coronavirus. This being in the middle of the Asian New Year celebrations for the Year of the Rat, cutesy rat decorations were everywhere. This would become a recurring motif, to a greater or lesser extent, in nearly every park we visited.
Cultural Center for District 12
Another small park that generally has evening hours. This park has a rather old-looking but serviceable single-helix Sau Con coaster. It sports the generic Vietnamese name for roller coaster. Several years ago it also used to have a diminutive but long powered coaster whose name translated to Steep Roller Coaster. It was anything but. This was removed around 2017.
Dai Nam Wonderland
This, one of Ho Chi Minh City’s larger parks, was the first casualty of COVID-19 that we encountered. It had shut down for a minimum of two weeks due to concerns about the virus, with no promises to reopen after that time. I had been there in 2015 and there were no new coasters to be had for me. For the record, there are three coasters here, all of which opened in 2008: Roller Coaster, an only a mildly unpleasant (in 2015, anyway) Chinese knockoff double loop and corkscrew; Spinning Coaster, a typical Golden Horse spinner; and Worm Coaster, a Golden Horse Fruit Worm that – normally – only children are allowed to ride. Back in 2015 I discovered that a well-delivered plea by a bilingual guide can circumvent that restriction.
Khu Du Dich Nui Ba Den
This mouthful translates to “Black Lady Mountain Tourist Area.” Sometimes it can appear as Black Virgin Mountain, depending on the translation software. This is in the Tay Ninh area, close to the Cambodian border and an easy day trip from HCMC.
Like many parks during this time of the year, it was celebrating the Year of the Rat. While cartoonish rat decorations – sometimes even an unlicensed Mickey Mouse – abounded at most parks, at Nui Ba Den we were greeted by a huge, buck-toothed topiary rat.
This park doesn’t have a true coaster but it does have a Wiegand Alpine Coaster. It only runs on weekends, so careful planning is required. For us, it was also a challenge to find. This park is built around the mountain and there are at least three immediately apparent cable lifts ascending it to various areas. None of them lead to the Alpine Coaster. That particular station is way at the back, and it was only by persistently showing various staff a screen shot of the ride that we were able to find it. Once discovered and ridden, we felt it was disappointing. It was short and never really gathered much speed. It also seems to have some sort of governing mechanism. Even when riding with the lever in the full “go” position, the cars slowed down on curves and never came close to the car ahead, even when one made an effort to approach it. It made for a slow, uneven, jerky ride.
This attraction was a walk-on. The park was only mildly crowded, but the focal points seemed to be the various other mountainside areas. By contrast, the shopping and dining area outside the entrance was heaving.
Long Dien Son
This large amusement park, also in the Tay Ninh area, is more worthwhile. It is beautifully landscaped and embellished with gardens and statuary, with a central lake. This park had an interesting take on the Year of the Rat, with rats cozying up to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in some areas. The park only has one coaster, Roller Coaster, a Sau Con double helix model in good shape. The operator was worried about Martin fitting in, but Martin was persistent and got his ride. We almost had the park to ourselves, even on a Saturday.
Đầm Sen Park
Another one of HCMC’s larger parks, this one is home to four coasters. We were a bit worried after finding Dai Nam closed, but at we were enthusiastically greeted by rat-costumed employees and invited in. Our visit was on a Sunday, but the crowds were absent. We were practically the only guests, and were finished riding all of Dam Sen’s coasters in little more than an hour. If this was the best they could do on a Sunday, we wondered how they could support staying open.
The park’s name means “lotus pond” and indeed the rides are clustered about a pond or small lake. Each coaster was a walk-on. We noticed that their Haunted House attraction was closed; we assumed it was because of worries about indoor attractions facilitating the spread of the virus, but there was no sign explaining this.
Dam Sen has a quartet of coasters that are, frankly, rather ordinary: Roller Coaster, a Chinese knockoff loop-corkscrew; Spinning Coaster, a standard Golden Horse issue; Flying Dragon, a standard powered kiddie coaster; and Children’s Spiral Coaster, a Chinese-made wacky worm. This last coaster, the park’s newest, comes decorated with various tunnels of fruit (watermelon, green tomato or apple, another watermelon).
We weren’t looking forward to riding Roller Coaster, the park’s signature ride, given its origins, but it turned out to be relatively tolerable. However, perhaps its most memorable aspect was in the station: a graphic pictorial sign prohibiting the, er, calorically challenged from riding. Martin could have modeled for it.
Ho May Park
Several surprises awaited us on our journey to this park near Vung Tau, a port city close to Ho Chi Minh City. Two were on the way: a seasonal fair (more on this later) and a giant mountaintop statue of Jesus that looked like a transplanted Christ of the Andes. The third surprise awaited us inside the park.
Ho May is a lovely seaside park, accessed by a cable car. A surprisingly good souvenir shop awaited us at the top of the lift, but that wasn’t the real surprise. We had included this park for its Wiegand Alpine Coaster, but had no idea that there was also a real, brand new gravity coaster waiting for us. Family Coaster, a wacky worm with bright pink track, was installed in March, 2019. The Alpine Coaster, accessed – oddly – through the restaurant, was much better than the one at Nui Ba Den. Sadly for the park, there were few people enjoying Ho May besides us, even on a weekend.
Tho Trang Vung Tau
This White Rabbit park is in Vung Tau. It is smaller than the one in Ho Chi Minh City and a bit rougher at the edges. On weekdays it opens at 17:00 and a bit earlier, at 15:00, on weekends. They are a bit casual about doing so, however. Even with three people sitting across from the coaster, pointing to it and eyeing it hungrily, it was much more important to the staff to water the plants and generally wander about aimlessly. Roller Coaster, an old, single-helix Sau Con, finally opened about 20 minutes late. It was surprisingly peppy. Not like the staff.
This travelling fair is operated by the same White Rabbit organization that operates the permanent parks in HCMC and Vung Tau. This one was operating on the grounds of the KNG Mall in Phu My. It opened punctually at 17:00. Its one coaster, an unexpected find for us, was a bright red, new-looking Sau Con with a single helix. It had no posted name. Attendance was very low, but it had only just opened for the evening.
This large, drop-dead-gorgeous park remained open, luckily, but had closed several sections due to concerns about the Coronavirus. Some closures made sense, like several of their working temples and a walk-through attraction, since they are relatively small spaces that normally attract large crowds. Also closed was the indoor powered coaster, Secret of Witch Forest, most likely because of similar worries about enclosed spaces. But the open-air croc park? Hmm.
This normally crowded park was almost empty. We were the only riders on both coasters, Mini Roller Coaster, a compact medium-size non-looper in a roofed but not completely enclosed area, and Roller Coaster, a large but relatively tame non-looper that circles a small pond.
At Roller Coaster, two operators in the station seated us and belted us in immediately. Then one sat down at a table adjacent to the track and proceeded to eat his lunch. Martin, incredulous, asked “Seriously?” Really, the guy couldn’t wait until we were done, in less than two minutes? But serious he was, shoveling spoonfuls into his mouth as we sat. (His buddy eventually dispatched the train.)
Underneath the coaster station is a fast food restaurant aptly named Roller Coaster Fried Chicken. The hungry operator’s meal did not come from there.