Annigje Jacobs explores Dai Nam, a wonderfully weird Buddhist-themed theme park. Photos by Brice Godard.

Vietnam’s biggest theme park, Dai Nam, has been open for almost a decade now. But it hasn’t yet made its way to the lists of tourist hotspots. This is surprising because the vast complex is located just outside Saigon’s city limits, and it has one of the world’s more bizarre theme park concepts: Buddhism.

Dai Nam is an enormous place, a world in itself, really, with more than enough to do for the adventurous tourist. There’s an amusement park, a temple, a beach, a zoo, a hotel and a race course. And no matter which parts you choose to visit, you’re in for a surprise.

An amusing start

The central theme park, also known as Dai Nam Wonderland, opened its doors in September 2008. The impressive gate, wide entrance lane and broad layout show the place was designed with substantial crowds in mind. As you enter, you’re greeted by traditional Vietnamese tunes and birds chirping through speakers.

As soon as you arrive at the first attraction, these are drowned out by shrill shrieks. Welcome to the enormous Five Dragon Discovery haunted funhouse. The fantastic scenes are all handmade by Vietnamese craftsmen with a great love for black light body paint. Some of them are surprisingly scary!

Dai Nam hosts many more haunted houses and they all bring Buddhist stories to life. The most outlandish one is undoubtedly the ‘Five Unicorn Labyrinth’. Inside this attraction, a small boat takes you on a Buddhist journey to the afterlife. The execution of the scenes is somewhat cobbled-together, often bizarre and very graphic. You float past colourful jungle scenes and fruit trees. But you also see bloody skeletons and even disemboweled human bodies. If you’re planning a family trip to the park, be cautious. This ride may put a bewildered smile on your face, but is probably a little too scary for young children.

There are enough other things to do for the little ones though. The park has a dinosaur carousel, a giant stride and many kiddie rides. The only thing lacking, here and everywhere, are other visitors. The good thing: there are virtually no queues in the park. Some rides however require a minimum number of passengers. Others, like the bumper cars, are just more fun when you’re with a group.

Strolling down the main roads of the park, you’ll see that not all the games have stood the test of time. Much of what you see is best described as dilapidated glory, or if you’re in a less poetic mood, simply as rusty old rollercoasters.

Snow World, the park’s most popular attraction, is the only place where you might have to wait for your turn. At the entrance, the attraction supplies rubber boots, winter jacket and gloves – be sure to put them on. Once you step into the giant freezer, you can slide down a 15-meter snow hill on inflatable rafts. The enthusiasm of the Vietnamese families around you definitely adds to the fun.

Spiritual extravaganza

To calm down after so much excitement, follow the 12 golden zodiac signs starting at the western exit of the amusement park. At the end, you will arrive at Dai Nam’s second glorious sight: The Golden Temple. A massive place for worship that lives up to its name: all doors, statues and most objects inside are inlaid with 24-karat gold. In this sumptuous temple, Buddha, the Hung kings and several other gods are worshipped. Look for the transparent box filled with little red envelopes next to the main altar. Pick an envelope and unfold your fortune. It’s in Vietnamese but worth tapping into Google Translate, or better still, finding a local who can read it to you.

Some people consider the setting of the temple too dramatic to be spiritual. But there’s definitely a certain sense of magic and wonder to it. The extraordinary statues, shiny altars and colourfully dressed Buddhas with flickering lights will certainly leave an impression, even on non-religious visitors.

Behind the temple, you will see the Bao Son: a scaled-down, concrete version of Da Nang’s Marble Mountains. Amidst these stands the so-called Precious Tower that was built for Vietnam’s heroes. Each of the nine levels venerates a different ancestor, such as: the unknown martyrs, Tran Hung Dao and – of course – Uncle Ho.

Let’s go to the beach

If you are not too keen on exploring multiple areas, do as many visitors do: head straight to the Dai Nam Beach. More of a waterpark than an actual beach, it’s a great place to relax with friends or family.

It’s big, clean (like the rest of the park) and there are plenty of food and drink stalls.

So, lean back, gently move your body to the ever-present Vina-house beat and wonder at yet another set of sculptures built to honour Vietnam’s history.

Or take a refreshing dive in the enormous man-made lake, divided into  salt water and fresh water parts. There is a variety of waterslides and wave pools to burn off any excess energy.

Everything you need for a day in the water is available on the spot: bathing suits, sunscreen, water toys, etc.

And there’s more: you can rent a horse and ride around in the outdoor arena. There’s a helper available if you need one (from VND200,000 per 15 minutes).

Animal kingdom

Next stop: Dai Nam Zoo. Let’s be honest, zoos in general are not the best idea humankind ever came up with. And the Dai Nam Zoo can’t compare to its American or European counterparts in terms of size or quality standards. Most tourists skip this part of the park, but if you’re really keen on seeing exotic creatures, do pay a visit: it’s allegedly the best in Vietnam. The animals, from exotic birds to crocodiles, elephants and white tigers seem relatively relaxed and curious.

The decorations in and around the animal shelters are not exactly a copy of the natural habitat. The turquoise-pink mushrooms and fences seem to be built to please the visitors rather than the permanent inhabitants. And watch your hands, there have been some incidents. In 2013, one of the elephants said goodbye to his caretaker by throwing him in the water tank. And in 2009, one of the tigers escaped.

Need for speed

The newest part of the Dai Nam complex is a 60-hectare racecourse, officially opened in May 2017. The set-up of the course is professional. It includes a 2,200-metre track for motorcycle and go-kart racing a 1,600 metre track for greyhounds and horses and a pool for jetski performances.

If you enjoy the sound of roaring engines and racing horses, this is the place to go. From the podium, you have a good view of the tracks and the stadium commentator definitely knows how to warm up the audience; his excitement is infectious, even if you don’t understand Vietnamese.

The races are held on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. Expect to see motorbikes, go-karts, national racehorses plus foreign (Australian) racehorses. The greyhounds and jetskis are less frequent. You can check the racecourse schedule to see what’s going on at truongduadainam.vn.

If you enjoy karting and you’ve been looking for a good place in Vietnam, Dai Nam is definitely worth a visit.

The go-karts are in good condition and so powerful, even experienced drivers will get a kick out of it.

You’re allowed to rent one and use the professional track if you are at least 16 years old and above 1.6 metres.

A never-ending story

The founder of the park, Mr Huynh Uy Dung, created the park to celebrate 4,000 years of Vietnamese culture and history. Its official name, Dai Nam Van Hien, loosely translates as “cultures and traditions from the old Vietnam”.

It’s doubtful whether you’ll learn anything new about Vietnam during your visit, but the complex is definitely one-of-a-kind and impressive.

And looking at the excavators on the fallow land around the buildings, we haven’t quite seen the end of it yet.