Hue may be home to a lost imperial city and several grandiose tombs of former emperors, but one of its most intriguing destinations also happens to be from this millennium. Opened in 2004 and shut down just a few years later, the abandoned Ho Thuy Tien waterpark is now in a state of decay which rivals that of some of its more ancient neighbors. After exploring similar abandoned parks around Asia, I knew I’d have to make time for a visit to Ho Thuy Tien. But first I had to try my luck at getting in.
Reading up on the park before my visit, a number of articles portrayed the park as a completely desolate place where only the bravest of souls would ever dare venture. Imagine my surprise, then, when I checked into my hotel, only to find photos of the park promoted as a tourist hotspot, right next to posters of the tombs and the Citadel! Ho Thuy Tien, it turns out, is anything but hidden or obscure.
If as many people tried to get in back then as they do now, one wonders if the park would’ve ever had to close in the first place. The fact that the place is abandoned, of course, is what makes the place intriguing. But open or closed, Ho Thuy Tien does have one special feature that sets it apart from other waterparks: a giant dragon in the middle of a lake.
Upon arrival, we encountered a guard at the entrance who let us in after a small bribe, just as I’d read about. But what I wasn’t expecting was to see so many other tourists show up at the same time as me. There had to be 5 or 6 bikes lined up, almost as if the park had never closed. The place is so big, at least, that we were able to disperse shortly after making it inside.
After passing some interesting Easter Island-inspired sculptures near the entrance, I came to a large forested area across the bridge from the giant dragon in the center. In the middle of the forest was a peculiar blue car, seemingly a replica of the one which the monk Thich Quang Duc drove to Saigon before self-immolating himself in public. The real thing is now on display at Hue’s most famous pagoda, Thien Mu.
But the decrepit fake car in the forest wasn’t the weirdest thing around. I wasn’t quite expecting for there to be a bunch of cows roaming loose, either. But it’s at least nice to see someone making good use of the vacant land.
Nearby, there was even an entrepreneurial woman selling bottles of water to visitors. Not feeling thirsty, I walked past her to the bridge and onward toward the center of the lake.
Entering the Dragon
The entire base of the dragon is covered wall to wall in graffiti, but don’t expect to see murals on the level of Bali’s Taman Festival, for example. There were a number of different rooms to peak into, but they were dark and covered in broken glass and rubble. And so I continued walking to see what I could find on the other side.
The dragon, it turns out, was once an aquarium, and much of the lower level has been decorated in an aquatic theme. There’s even a shark you can walk through, while mythological scenes on the wall portray Poseidon, the Greek god of the Sea. Parts of the inner tunnel even look like a giant rib cage!
While the fish tank may be empty, Ho Thuy Tien was home to a small population of crocodiles until just a few years back. Apparently, this is a real story and not just an urban legend. The Vietnamese government and international animal rights groups even had to transport them to a more suitable location. But who knows if there’s still one or two still lurking around somewhere, just waiting for a cow to get close enough to the edge of the water.
Ascending the staircase, I passed by three or four other visitors on their way down. That’s not really something you want to see when visiting an abandoned structure, as it dissipates much of the mystique. On the other hand, it brought me some assurance that I’d be very likely make it out alive.
I arrived at what’s probably the coolest-looking room of the structure. It’s a circular room containing yellow and blue glass windows, many of them round. The window shape with the blue light shining through almost made the room feel like some kind of spaceship. Or at least one that crash landed on a distant planet and is now covered in graffiti left by mischievous alien children.
Looking out the window, I was treated with the strange combination of a beautiful placid lake and the large spikes of a dragon spine.
While it took a couple of tries up and down some different staircases, I finally found it: the dragon’s mouth. The roof was covered in tags left by adventurers who’d stood there before me, some local and many international. And then I stopped to stare for awhile at the scenic landscape. I even forgot for a moment that I was standing inside a giant dragon head – a dragon head that I’d bribed my way to get to. Heading back down, I decided to see what else I could discover before it started raining.
My motorbike driver, a staff member of my hotel who knew all the secret pagodas and obscure tombs in town, also knew where to find the abandoned amphitheater. I was glad to have motorized transport, as this would’ve been a long walk.
The exterior, unsurprisingly, was completely covered in graffiti, while the path to the inside was blocked off by a wooden plank. Luckily, the wood was fairly easy to step over.
Who knew what kind of shows they put on here, if any at all. Supposedly, the waterpark opened up to visitors before they’d even completely finished constructing the whole park. Some believe that this hasty move was one of the factors that eventually led to the park’s closure a few years later.
The amphitheater, at least, seems in fairly good shape, and it’s worth walking all the way up to the top level for the views.
Back outside, I noticed a smaller structure off in the distance. I wasn’t expecting much, but curiosity got the better of me and I decided to go check it out. I’m glad that I did, as it contained nothing other than a spaceship ride! The door was left wide open, as if it was inviting visitors to climb up and sit inside. I didn’t dare try.
While lacking the eeriness of an abandoned hotel or the eye-popping murals of other old theme parks in Asia, Ho Thuy Tien is still a fun visit for people interested in urban exploration, lakes or dragons. After seeing everything, it was time to continue visiting a bunch of other sites I’d planned to see that day. Later that evening, though, I remembered that I hadn’t actually seen it all.
As my visit to Ho Thuy Tien was in the middle of a busy day touring various pagodas and tombs, it wasn’t until much later in the day that I remembered I’d forgotten something. I never made it to the park’s waterslide, one of Ho Thuy Tien’s most photographed areas. In fact, there was even a picture of the slide on the fridge in my hotel lobby. So the next day, I made plans to go back.
But the following day, things were different. The guard man at the entrance had changed, and he absolutely would not let anyone through. Not even for a “tip.”
My driver, though, knew of another side entrance, located closer to where the amphitheater is. We rode over there and with no guard in sight, celebrated the success of our trespassing mission with a high five.
The celebration was short-lived, though. Not even a minute had passed until another guard on patrol rode by on his motorbike and told us to leave. There was no chance of entering the park that day, despite how easy things had been just a day before. Riding past the main entrance, we could see at least ten or so foreign tourists hanging around, unsure of what to do.
Reading recent reviews online, this seems to be the norm now. It may even be possible that my first visit coincided with the infamous bribe-taker’s very last day on the job. Apparently, people are still able to successfully get in through the other entrance, but even if you make it, you’ll have to hide from the other patrolman on his bike.
With so many people entering Ho Thuy Tien in recent years, it’s possible that someone finally got hurt. Or maybe they really did discover some holdout crocodiles. Nevertheless, with Ho Thuy Tien much harder to gain access to these days, it might reestablish its former legendary reputation once again.
Hue can be reached by plane, train or bus from Vietnam’s major cities.
Train prices can vary greatly depending on what class you’re in. From Hanoi the journey takes around 14 hours, while from Saigon it takes around twenty!
A bus from either Hanoi and Saigon would only ever be considered by the most masochistic of travelers. Getting between Hue and Da Nang/Hoi An, however, is best done by bus. The journey only last four or five hours.
If you’re going to be doing a lot of traveling around Vietnam and are flexible with time, you might want to look up the “Vietnam Open Bus Tour.” Essentially, for a set fee, this allows you to get on and off long distance buses as you please.
You can also fly directly from Saigon to Hue (as I did), and the price is very reasonable. Be aware the when you arrive at the airport, there’s an airport shuttle that will take you into town, but it still may be another 10 – 15 minute walk to your hotel. As it was raining, I decided to just take a taxi.
As is common in Asia, you’ll be approached by a number of sketchy touts with big fake smiles as soon as you walk outside. Ignore them. You’re best off sticking to a proper taxi company with a uniformed driver, such as Mai Linh.
Hue’s attractions are very spread out and public transportation is nonexistent. The Citadel, fortunately, is walkable from the center of the city which also contains most of the hotels and tourist-oriented restaurants. It’s roughly twenty five minutes on foot and you’ll have to walk along the bridge over the river to get there.
To get around to the city’s various tombs and pagodas, you have the option of taking an organized tour, hiring a private driver or renting your own motorbike. I recommend a combination of these methods, spread out over a period of days.
If you need a driver, I would not recommend dealing with the drivers or touts who approach you in the street. They seem to be offering you drugs more often than rides! (You’ll see what I mean when you get there.) Instead, I recommend booking a private driver (often a just a motorbike, on which you’ll sit behind the driver) via your hotel with the price confirmed beforehand.
During my time in Hue I stayed at Ibiza Guest House which I couldn’t recommend highly enough. The hotel is well situated and the owner is incredibly friendly and helpful. She can provide a wealth of information on things to do and see in the area, and will set you up with a reliable driver if need be. Furthermore, the complimentary breakfast was delicious with generous portions.
Both shared as well as private rooms are available. I stayed in a private, which was one of the more spacious rooms for the price I’ve stayed at in Southeast Asia.
The weather in Hue is notoriously bad. If it’s not raining, the air will still be wet and moist and possibly even cold. It’s a far cry from what people often think of when picturing the jungles or beaches of Southeast Asia. If you’re traveling in the colder months, be sure to pack a few extra layers to sleep in. It can get cold at night and you’re unlikely to find anywhere with heating.