Saigon’s Buddhist Disney World: The Theme Park Equivalent to Hard-lining Angel Dust
Saigon is an unsung paradise for theme park connoisseurs. It’s like a Southeast Asian Orlando, except all the theme parks are aggressively Buddhist-themed and hilariously bat-shit insane.
My main reason for coming was the multi-billion dollar Suoi Tien Theme Park—a Buddhist rip-off of Disney World, replete with stern religious mascots, a plunging waterslide out of Buddha’s mouth, and the usual rides, like “Mystery of Acrobat-Witch Forest,” “God of Soil Temple,” and a large, inexplicable statue of a transgendered apple wearing a mustache and lipstick.
“It sounds amazing!” cried Espen.
Andreas and Espen were two animated, young Norwegian guys who agreed to join me on my circuit of Saigon’s ‘Big Three’ parks: Suoi Tien, Dam Sen Water Park, and—our first stop—the unpopular and bizarre Dai Nam Wonderland.
Passing through the entrance gate, we were greeted with an auspicious statue of a cobra holding money and wearing a hat—the significance of which escaped us.
I unfolded my park map. Dai Nam was a world unto itself, containing a theme park, a water park, Buddhist temples, a zoo, a few resorts, shopping complexes, a shuttle system, and the largest man-made lake in Vietnam. It’s a similar experience to Disney World, except you’re the only visitor in the entire park.
I pointed to the map. “Ooh, let’s start with that ride!” I scanned the summary, “The Five Phoenix Discovery makes tourists feel like being lost in the heaven. After visiting, you will understand what the samsara incarnation is, predict how your next life is, and choose a karma of rebirth.”
It looked like a kiddie ride. I wondered what they’d forecast for my next life; perhaps I’d be drinking apple juice with Buddha in ‘the heaven.’ We entered a rainbow building shaped like a phoenix, where we found a diorama of mechanical Chinese deities frowning and pointing to a sobbing Vietnamese woman.
“I think it’s a fun-house,” said Andreas, following an arrow down a staircase.
We descended into the dark, black-lit basement, where we were greeted by blood-curdling torture-screams. The arrows appeared to be leading us into Buddhist hell.
According to ‘Five Phoenix Discovery,’ my next life will be a pageant of demonic puppet torture porn.
Espen and Andreas fell over laughing.
We walked through a jerky, robotic holocaust of dolls being bashed to death with rocks, sawed in half length-wise, disemboweled by demons, mutilated with table saws by giant chickens, and several other acts that I’m simply at a loss to describe.
This was not a children’s ride. On the contrary, any bright-faced youngsters that might wander into this building would reemerge with the haunted, granite eyes of a war veteran. To make sure of this, the park installed a surprise-interactive component: while the visitor is gaping in horror at the dioramas, the speakers let out a shriek, “BLALALALA!” and a foam ghost rockets out of the shadows on a zip-line, passing inches over the guests’ heads. Unfortunately, this effect was designed with hobbit-sized Vietnamese people in mind—not towering Scandinavians.
“AHH!” Espen flailed as a foam ghost slammed into his face.
“Ha Ha, this ride sucks!” laughed Andreas.
“I know, it’s great!” I grinned. “They have an ancient Egypt ride too!”
“No way! What–”
The puppet-snuff was quickly losing its novelty, so I proposed we try the pleasant-sounding ‘Five Unicorn Palace’ —Dai Nam’s Buddhist interpretation of ‘It’s a Small World.’
Our inflatable raft drifted through a dark tunnel into ‘Five Unicorn Palace.’ We emerged amidst a colorful jungle. Miniature volcanoes glowed, mechanical apes chattered, and neon dinosaurs rotated in place to a cheery melody.
“Wow, it’s sort of like ‘It’s Small World!’” I told Espen and Andreas.
The happy song continued as our tiny boat floated past the dinosaurs, past tableaux of cavemen, then ancient civilizations. We saw Amazon hunters, Chinese warriors, and smiling Vietnamese villagers, before arriving to our shiny, modern age.
Then the happy music faded into murder screams.
Our boat drifted through a green tunnel and arrived in what looked like a Buddhist revamping of ‘The Human Centipede.’
The speakers were deafening. I shielded my ears as our boat glided through the demonic splatter-fest.
Espen shielded his head.
I realized that we were witnessing the Buddhist ‘five stages of being’—life, death, reincarnation, hell, and…
I pointed to the upcoming tunnel. “That must be nirvana!”
Our boat drifted through the tunnel and into a meth addict’s nightmare, acted out by crappy mechanical puppets. The demons were replaced by dangling flowers, rainbow velociraptors, and an offensive depiction of a Jewish man making a fist. Some of the puppets were malfunctioning—their limbs flapping pointlessly, their eyes rapidly winking as if having a stroke.
“What the fuck is that,” Andreas pointed.
I turned my head. “It appears to be two giant Aztecs in dayglo body paint dancing next to a tree covered in faceless heads.”
“Oh. I thought so.”
Our boat lead us to a polka-dotted egg vomiting a projectile stream of plastic babies. Then abruptly the ride was over.
We decided to skip ‘The Great Dragon God Maze,” as we could hear the screams from outside. It seemed that all the rides in Dai Nam Wonderland were exactly the same; that is, all except one—the park’s most popular attraction.
The advertisement for ‘Snow World’ read as follows: “You have ever dream of seeing real snow, touching snow, getting the falling snow flower or playing with snow. Snow World will surely satisfy all your dreams. The adorable snowman, funny penguins of arctic appear in the Snow World will take you to another world.”
“All our dreams?!” cheered Andreas. “We gotta go!”
Before entering ‘Snow World,’ we were forced to change into thick winter jackets, wool gloves, and heavy rubber boots—all of which seemed very unnecessary. At first.
In retrospect, I understand why ‘Snow World’ is their most popular ride. For people living in the tropical oven of Vietnam, seeing snow must be as awe-inspiring as seeing the Aurora Borealis.
However, if you don’t live in a tropical oven and snow is not an exotic concept to you, ‘Snow World’ is just a blisteringly cold walk-in freezer decorated with plastic snowmen, Santa Clauses, and—for whatever inconceivable reason—Pikachus. The most impressive part of ‘Snow World’ was that it had drawn enough crowds to trample the artificial snow into a sheet of filthy, compacted ice.
“This is awesome!” cried the Norwegians. “It’s like home!”
“I can’t feel my face.”
Espen and Andreas were puppet-ed out, so I made my way to Suoi Tien alone.
Located next to a smelly garbage dump on the side of a highway, Suoi Tien Theme Park aims to give visitors the magic of Disney World and a conflictingly somber religious experience at the same time. Needless to say, I was the only one there.
I wandered through the entrance, passing ice creams carts, religious shrines, and silent rollercoasters. I passed a knock-off Disney Castle juxtaposed with multi-armed Buddhist deities. I passed incense-laden altars, an animatronic Confucius, and a hideous, Disney-esque mouse character, whose droopy, paralyzed face made it look like he had cerebral palsy.
The best part of visiting a Buddhist theme park is that there are no lines. The worst part is that most rides require a minimum number of passengers to operate.
“No!” stammered the rollercoaster lady as I handed her my three dollars. “Five… You. Buy. Tickets. Five. Five. Tickets.”
“Five. Tickets. Five.”
“I’m not paying fifteen dollars to ride a shitty rollercoaster. Do you really think five people are going to show up here at the same time?”
“Tickets. Tickets. Five.”
Also closed was the ‘Midair Bicycle’ ride, which allowed guests to peddle across a wire suspended over a pool of giant, circling crocodiles.
I was fortunate enough to get into the ‘Strange Creature Display,’ which was like a mix between a zoo and Auschwitz. The squalid, cement cages reeked of shit and a dozen of them were stuffed to capacity with bats, turtles, and monkeys (sometimes all at the same time). The only thing ‘Strange’ about the display was the curator’s bizarre fixation with porcupines—cages upon cages of porcupines. Porcupines everywhere. SO MANY PORCUPINES. I’ve never seen so many in my life.
At the front of the demented zoo, a man sat on a performance stage reading a newspaper. Behind him, two signs advertised daily shows—one involving animals doing circus tricks in humiliating costumes, the other showcasing a presumably unhappy dolphin who is made to jump through a hoop that’s engulfed in flames.
I pointed to my watch. “Four o’clock. Is the show starting now?”
The man shook his head. “Only if fifteen people.”
“Fifteen people!” I scoffed.
Of the remaining rides, most seemed uncannily similar to the ones in Dai Nam Wonderland (but with more impressive production value and even less taste). Not that it made a difference—both parks were completely abandoned.
What made Suoi Tien so weird wasn’t just the absurdity of its concept, but the spectacular scope and ambition with which it was executed—that fact that millions upon millions of dollars were funneled into such an impossibly stupid project without anyone considering, not even for one minute, that it was a completely awful idea. I tried to imagine a Christian equivalent, a waterslide thundering out of the Virgin Mary’s gaping maw, a Ferris Wheel of St. Catherine, an afternoon parade of Roman’s dragging Jesus across the park. I also tried to imagine an Islamic version, an angry mob of Egyptians chasing the meet-and-greet Muhammad with torches and pitchforks.
The grand irony of it all is that Vietnam isn’t even a Buddhist country. It’s not even religious—less than twenty percent of the population professes a faith. Suoi Tien would have reached a larger Buddhist audience if it had been built in Hoboken.
I wondered if anyone was actually amused by ‘Snow World.’ I wondered if anyone was frightened by the animatronic blood orgies. I couldn’t imagine. The Vietnamese dodge landmines for breakfast. Simply crossing the street in Saigon is infinitely more horrifying.
I decided not to visit Dam Sen Waterpark. If I truly wanted to scare myself, I’d be better off heading to the Mekong Delta and trying to hunt for cobras.
I bought my bus ticket that night.
For an equally demented theme park outing, check out China’s Dwarf Kingdom in “Three Words: Midget. Theme. Park.“
To hear about the weirdest restaurant in the world, click on over to “Fringe Chronicles: Tried to Order Dinner in Tokyo. Got Assaulted By a Man in a Frog Costume Wielding a Puppet Instead”