Ice, Unicorns and Many Levels of Hell

It has been an unbearably stinking-hot few weeks in Ho Chi Minh City. So I came up with a cunning plan to stay cool last weekend: a family day out centred around a snow and ice play area at a whacky (even for Vietnam) theme park.

After all this time, I really should know not to go anywhere vaguely popular on a weekend. Vietnamese crowd behaviour and I don’t get along very well at all.

But I kept focusing on the icy play area at Suoi Tien, the world’s only Buddhist-themed amusement park.

All during the long hot drive along the Hanoi highway, while being pestered by hat touts outside the theme park, while trying to work out where the bloody ice area was, while cajoling two overheated kids to keep walking, just a little further, I was thinking “soon, soon, soon I will be not-hot and this will all be worthwhile”.

Fruit and vegetable dragons were on display at the theme park

Fruit and vegetable dragons were on display at the theme park

We finally found the ice play area, and its ticket booth. I used the baby as a shield/battering ram to hold my spot in this queue, the first of many increasingly pushy queues.

Sweat was dripping from my eyelashes and elbows as we were repeatedly pushed out of the way in the next queue, the one for boots and jackets. I clenched my teeth and focused on the sweet relief that we were all soon to feel.

The boots I were given were wet inside. No one was wearing socks. It was completely gross (and I now have a raging case of tinea).

I stuffed the kids into their outsized shoes and jackets, with sweat still pouring off me. Then we joined the jostle at the door to the play area.

You would think, given how much the Vietnamese love kids, that people would have been a bit more gentle with a two-year-old in ill-fitting rubber boots trying to walk on ice for the first time. Nup. By this stage I was using some rugby-style fends to protect my kids. From other parents and other kids. Even grandparents were getting shove-y.

The insanely-crowded play area consisted of a small icy hill flanked by a slippery narrow staircase. Masses of people were sliding down the hill on inner tubes, then stampeding up the stairs wielding their giant rubber rings.

I was still sweating, with my jacket draped around my waist as I guided and fended and slipped up the staircase to where, I presumed, a stack of rubber rings would be available.

Nup. We negotiated our way against the tide to the bottom of the staircase, where I presumed staff would be handing out the rubber rings. Nup.

Sonny, by this stage, was shivering uncontrollably. Miss M was getting a bit whiney. There was a line of people leaving the room, and I presumed there were several sections to the activity area.

People were pushing and shoving to make their way OUT of the place. I presumed they were heading to another interesting place.

I was still sweating as we popped back out into the sauna-like heat. The staff tried to tell me to continue through a tunnel, but I refused to listen. I pushed through a barrier to the first changing area and redressed Sonny in the long t-shirt and tracksuit pants I’d brought. Miss M also got a long-sleeved shirt.

Then we went back in again, and climbed the stairs to see if we could snag an inner tube.


All the pushing and shoving and screaming was starting to worry Miss M, who is usually fearless in crowd situations. It didn’t seem safe to take Sonny down the slope, or let Miss M go alone.

Even though I was still sweating (and swearing under my breath), it was time to leave.

“Let’s see what the next area is like, ” I said. “It might be a bit calmer.”

We followed a line of still-shoving people out of the play area. And found ourselves at the door, where staff were collecting coats and shoes. There was no other section. That was the end of our not-hot play date.

I could have cried.

Instead, I started heading for the Unicorn Palace. It was the only place on the map that appealed to Ms M.

It was hot walking in the sun. We stopped for a cold drink and a fried sausage and watched a parade of fruit and vegetable floats go past.

We made a detour to the toilet because Sonny’s new hobby is peeing in the toilet and then flushing repeatedly for 10 minutes.

We ignored people trying to sell us fruit, carvings, charcoal drawings, knick knacks and jewellery.

Suddenly we stumbled upon the Unicorn Palace. It didn’t look like a unicorn from European mythology but it did have a horn. Miss M was thrilled.

We climbed the stairs and stepped up onto the unicorn’s tongue. I paid for three tickets, and we went through the barrier to see what this place was all about.

There was a strange mechanised display of large old men speaking sternly and loudly to a white-robed man who sat and bowed repeatedly.

The first scene at the Unicorn Palace

The first scene at the Unicorn Palace

Miss M said she was scared. I rolled my eyes, and the young ticket boy told us to go inside, down a steep and dark set of stairs.

Miss M started whimpering. I pointed out that we’d already bought tickets, and that we had to go through the place to get out. She started crying.

I asked her if she wanted to wait with the ticket boy while the baby and I went through, as fast as possible, and then came to collect her. She said OK. The ticket boy said OK. We discussed where the back door was and how long it would take to go through.

Sonny and I descended into the darkness.

At the bottom of the staircase, there was a sudden loud scream and a spot-lit creature flew at us. It was another mechanised scene, behind prison-style bars. I laughed at how much it startled me, then walked forward a few paces.

This time a coffin lid banged open, a sign popped up and a loud male voice shouted something angrily in Vietnamese. Sonny gripped me tightly.

I wondered, vaguely, where the unicorn was, and kept going. The next scene really frightened the baby, and I debated whether to turn back or go forward. Surely we were more than half-way through the display.

“It’s OK baby, I got you,” I said, and held him tightly, walking as fast as I could through the dark tunnel, as scary things shrieked and lunged at us from both sides. Fake bodies were beheaded and eviscerated and deep voices boomed. Sonny started shaking and I was pretty sure he was going to pee on me.

Finally we popped out into the bright daylight.

We rushed back to the unicorn’s mouth to collect Miss M, who was chatting happily to the ticket boy.

I told her that it was very scary and I didn’t see a unicorn, and apologised because I didn’t know it was a scary exhibit.

We agreed it was almost time to leave. If we only find one of the fish spas marked on the map, then maybe we could cool down with our feet in water.

Do you think we could find any of the spas? Nup. We did manage to find ice cream stand, which was nice.

We also found some amazing fruit and vegetable sculptures, and a kids play area. But I was running out of cash, after buying tickets to get in, tickets to the ice area, tickets to the Unicorn Palace, and after two sets of rides each, I declared it was time to go home.

Cue the most massive two-year-old meltdown the world has ever seen.

It was midday, an incredibly humid 34 degrees and I had to carry a screaming writhing two-year-old from one end of the park to the other. Lots of people laughed at us. Only a few conveyed a trace of sympathy.

A pond full of giant khoi and a kind young lady with a bag of dog kibble eventually halted the tantrum. We stood by the fish pond, in the blazing sun, for 10 minutes while Sonny pelted dog food into the pond.

I had such a headache by this stage.

Next time we go to Suoi Tien (because there is a lot more we didn’t get to see), it won’t be on a weekend and I will insist Darling Man accompany us. We really needed someone to explain the Buddhist scenes and translate the Vietnamese.

When we got home, Darling Man looked at our Suoi Tien map and said unicorn wasn’t a very good translation of Kỳ Lân, the mythical dragon-dogs that guard important buildings.

Apparently this particular Unicorn Palace depicts the 18 levels of Buddhist hell. I think we also managed to find level number 19.

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7 years ago

By: Barbara

A career girl who dropped out, traveled, found love, and never got around to going home again. Now wrangling a cross-cultural relationship and two third culture kids.

1 Comment

  1. Claire says:

    This story is so hilarious! I am going to link to it on my site because it is just so perfectly awful. Been there too many times with small ones, yup! Well, not to the Buddhist amusement park, but you know what I mean. 🙂

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