It started out—like so many failed things do—as a beautiful dream: a sprawling wonderland at the edge of a lake, a hedonistic playground the likes of which the area had never seen. Outside the confines of the city and everyday reality, the park would be a beacon of joy and whimsy, drawing visitors from near and far with its epic grandeur. There would be lazy rivers, an unending tangle of waterslides, aquariums filled with exotic fish and crocodiles, and a giant amphitheater from which to watch daily shows. It would be an amusement park, sure, but it would also be a glittering and magical kingdom; a newfangled temple where the modern-day gods of affluence—distraction, leisure, pleasure, entertainment—could be worshipped wholeheartedly. It would be a sparkling new jewel in the crown of an imperial city on the rise.
And for a short time, it was. Ho Thuy Tien, which cost nearly three million dollars to build, opened to the public outside of the Vietnamese city of Hue in 2004. It was only half-finished, but that didn’t matter. The waterpark still drew crowds. They came to see the three-story-tall dragon whose scaled belly was filled with fish tanks; to stand inside of the dragon’s open mouth and gape at the jungle that stretched beyond; to eat at the restaurants that dotted the sides of glassy swimming pools. The park was all the things it was supposed to be—fun and magnetic, a place to dream on.
Then, just a few short years after its glorious debut, the park closed—suddenly and unceremoniously. And, even though rumors swirled for nearly a decade that it might one day re-open, it never did.
But that doesn’t mean Ho Thuy Tien doesn’t still draw visitors. In recent years, the park has become a mecca for a certain type of intrepid traveler—the kind who’s drawn to off-the-beaten-path destinations and vaguely macabre scenes of former grandeur. “I came across the abandoned water park the same way many people find travel inspiration these days: via endless Instagram scrolling,” explains Chris Christiano, a New York-based art director who, inspired by photos of waterslides overtaken by jungle and, later, recollections from other travelers, recently visited the park. “There were rumors of a few liberated crocodiles on the loose around the lake after an early vandal shattered the glass aquarium tanks inside the belly of the dragon,” he says of the potential and enticing dangers.
Though the park is not difficult to find—it’s actively geotagged on Google Maps and everyone in Hue knows about it—a surreal sense of mystery permeates the place. “I rode a motorbike from the center of town for about 15 minutes and then turned down a dirt road for another few hundred meters before reaching the front gate,” Christiano recalls. “Inside, the overgrown foliage, broken concrete, and rampant graffiti made it feel like it was frozen in time. The whole place has a post-apocalyptic, Jurassic Park vibe to it—I felt as if I had just arrived from the future and stumbled upon a forgotten society. The forced change in perspective was really quite trippy.”
Perhaps it’s that sense of switched perspective and eerie solitude that continues to draw travelers to the park—and to abandoned places in general. In this era of digital-everything, shortened attention spans, and reality TV presidents, the chance to stand alone in a broken place once bustling with life now feels almost necessary—as does the chance to marvel at the raw power of nature. “I didn’t cross paths with any wild crocodiles, but there was a herd of beautiful cows grazing on the grass around the water slide area. Other than that, I only came across one group of about ten Vietnamese teenagers exploring the park,” explains Christiano. “The desolation definitely amplified the dystopian quality. With tourism at an all-time high worldwide, and so many places completely bogged down with people, it’s becoming harder to feel the magnitude of a special temple or an ancient ruin. It’s a very rare experience to be able to be alone somewhere that’s in such a state of decay.”