Teaching English abroad isn’t easy. My experience in 2015 was drama-filled and, for my own sanity, I had to decline an offer to continue working at an ESL center in Huế, Vietnam. I needed to decompress, so I went to find sanctuary in a curious place–a Buddhist amusement park called Suối Tiên Paek in the outskirts of Hồ Chi Minh City.
I had first learned about Suối Tiên Paek from searching Atlas Obscura for new things to see. The website described it as a “Vietnamese water-filled fantasy land, located rather unromantically next to a rubbish dump.” I was in, but what I found was far from what I expected. I arrived as early as possible because I imagined long Disneyland-like lines. But the park was nearly empty. Besides two Vietnamese families, a dozen school children accompanied with a teacher and a handful of employees, it was just me–sweaty, sunburnt and anxious.
The park, which opened in 1995, takes up about 250 acres of space. According to the official Vietnamese tourist website, the name Suối Tiên Paek, meaning “Fairy Stream,” derives from a “story about 7 sacred girls [who] died and became fairies in this land.” The theme park has a whimsical, fantastical quality. In addition to the standard carnival rides–merry-go rounds and child-friendly roller coasters–the park features stunning funhouse mazes, waterslide renderings of Buddhist sages, colorful statues, and surrealist shrines. Upon entering, one of the first sights set the tone: a fountain with a towering female Buddha standing on top of a globe, lying on a turtle’s back. Though the extravagant shrines and pagodas were definitely fascinating, I spent almost an hour criss-crossing the park struggling to find something to actually do. Everything except for the t-shirt shops were closed.
The park became something of a nightmare. I was lost until, from a distance, I heard screams interspersed with the score from the Harry Potter franchise. With nothing left to lose, I decided to follow the noise. Naturally, this led me to The Unicorn Palace that looks like a knockoff of Disneyland’s “It’s A Small World”–a child friendly, water ride in a large castle. Though, it is anything but. I walked up to wait for a boat where the ride supervisor helped me board a raft, shook my hand, and then ominously grinned at me. He waved as I floated down stream, “Goodbye!”
What I came to find was that The Unicorn Palace is about the five stages of Buddhist being: life, death, reincarnation, hell and nirvana. The first part of the ride was bizarre, but pleasant. I floated through a tunnel filled with animatronic cavemen and dinosaurs dancing along to an upbeat flute song. This was followed by a collapsed retelling of human history with appearances by Native Americans, ancient Chinese soldiers, Vietnamese villages and, finally, a modern metropolis.
Suddenly, things took a turn for the worse. The cheerful music was obscured by the loud screams that lured me. I was entering hell, curled up in a fetal position while passing by glow-in-the-dark Aztecs, dancing trees, and manic demons draped in white robes. The screams got louder and sharper, conveying a gruesome crime. By the time I reached what was said to be nirvana, I was sobbing. I was shaking. My eyes were tightly shut until an animatronic gorilla collided with my raft, nearly punching me in the face. I gasped. Following the last stage–a few egg statues gave birth to neon baby dolls. And just like that, the ride was over. I re-entered the real world, trembling. I quit Suối Tiên Paek and ran to a taxi ride to take me back to a hostel.
I thought about various moments from my misadventure into the ESL-industrial complex of Southeast Asia–comically struggling to learn the six tones of the Vietnamese language, being constantly shrieked at by my boss, feeling accomplished after teaching my students the lyrics to “Hey Jude,” going to every Bánh mì cart in Huế like I was Anthony Bourdain, driving my moped back after National Teacher’s Day with a basket of orchids on my lap and eventually, quitting. The taxi drove past the Bitexco Tower, a dystopian skyscraper that has a helipad sticking out of its top floor, and then dropped me off at my hostel. I left the hostel the following morning to go backpacking. For weeks, I revisited the Unicorn Palace in my sleep. I would hear the screams mixing into the family’s howling giggles. I would clutch my pillow, fearing that the animatronic gorilla was going to come back and kill me. Eventually, I started waking up laughing along with the family.