Lions, tigers, bears and a haunted house in Vietnam?
It's not a fairy tale, and the only missing ingredient is a voice exclaiming, "Oh, my!"
Lac Canh Dai Nam Van Hien is a $219-million amusement park that began construction in 1999 and opened Sept. 11, 2008. It's about 25 miles from Ho Chi Minh City, up Highway 13 in the province of Binh Duong, and is designed to entertain, engage and enlighten visitors within its 1,100 acres.
When the park opened, Huynh Uy Dung, the man who put up the money, who is also an executive of Dai Nam Joint Stock Co., said: "This is a work that we have entertained for tens of years. Even the name of Dai Nam Van Hien Paradise also expresses our desire to preserve and honor the country's thousands-year-old cultural values."
I made my third visit to Vietnam this decade in August, taking a 19-day Inside Vietnam tour with Overseas Adventure Travel. Instead of making a repeat visit to the old Cu Chi military tunnels during a day in Ho Chi Minh City, I decided to hire an English-speaking guide and driver to take me to the amusement park. At $80, it was a little expensive but worth the adventure.
There are 500 hotel rooms, a golden temple, a water park, the biggest man-made artificial mountain in Vietnam, a roller coaster and lots of surprises, none more startling than a first-class zoo featuring more than 700 animals from Africa and Asia.
Watching white Siberian tigers, lions, giraffes, zebras, rhinos, elephants and monkeys is an adrenaline rush, despite heat and humidity that kept clothing clinging to me and sweat running in rivulets.
The park is so huge that some visitors complain about the distance between attractions. Free trams take visitors around the park, and cars are permitted for a fee.
The park borrowed ideas from amusement parks in Japan, South Korea and the U.S., said Tran Thanh Hai, the park's tourist services and sales manager.
Admission costs 40,000 dong -- slightly more than $2 -- with children receiving a discount. There are additional charges at each stop -- $3 to enter the water park and $2 for the zoo.
A little more than $1 gets you a ticket to enter the Vietnamese version of a haunted house. It's promoted as a way to experience the 12 levels of Hell. An attendant sends you off into a darkened building and points to the flashing lights on the floor, which serve as your GPS device as you walk through the complex, amid screams and other strange noises.
Of course, when you step on the lights, sensors are triggered, and the action begins. At one level, there's wind and a sudden temperature drop, which is supposed to represent Hell but is refreshing considering the heat and humidity.
Some of the scenes are corny, with moving figures swinging axes, and I almost laughed out loud, but just about when I thought this was all fake, near the conclusion of the 15-minute tour, I received a jolt of excitement when walking across a bridge.
Rather than reveal the secret, let me just say Californians who have experienced an earthquake won't be laughing.
To learn more, go to Vietnam Tourism.