I pointed and the Vietnamese gentleman plucked a writhing hen from a crowded cage as his young son negotiated a price with my travel companion, Joram. Feet tied with simple felt string and stuffed into a plastic bag, it was as typical as picking up a gallon of milk at the supermarket on the way home from work.
Joram and I were headed to Ho Thuy Tien, the abandoned amusement park located in Huong Thuy town of Hue, Vietnam. We had learned of the property’s existence through a couple of backpackers, directions scrawled in Vietnamese on a dirty, scrunched napkin.
They had also told us about three crocodiles that called the derelict property home, and how they had brought a live chicken to feed them a couple days prior.
We decided to do the same before heading out on our bikes to Hoi An. Though feeding the devastated crocs a live chicken might draw criticism, someone left them there, several someones had seen them, and there they continued to rot in a fucking shit hole.
Ho Thuy Tien
There’s a certain rush one experiences getting lost within the haunting remains of an abandoned building. Hopping off the motorbike as the sun rose sleepily over the eerie property, my eyes roved hungrily. This beacon of human creativity and accomplishment and purpose was now forgotten; a pathetic shell stretching one desperate hand to the surface in an attempt not to drown under the reclamation of mother nature.
Paths run in every which way, guided every few meters by overhanging pink blossoms and drooping branches. They run to everywhere. They run to nowhere. They are our means of exploration, sating our thirst for a fascination of the forgotten.
A dried up water park with cracked slides and greasy green water hid beneath matted palms and pine needles, faded concrete mushrooms with speckled caps pushing up from the children’s pool. I padded down the winding fiberglass with soft soles, sliding to my bottom and watching brown leaves come loose, tumbling into the stinking pool below, vibrating ripples kissing the murky glass.
Roofless brick guesthouses peek from dense brush and infant forest on the sloping edges of the park. There are no doors or windows either. Rust blood skeletons with creeping green veins, floors of gravel and stone, carpeted with velvet moss.
But, the aquarium is the most impressive structure on the property. It resembles a crashed space ship, a most extraterrestrial specimen sitting pretty in the middle of a gleaming man made lake.
The guardian of the three-story aquarium is an intimidating, full bodied dragon sculpture; its scaled coils wrapped protectively around the space ship’s walls in a menacing embrace. A massive head and mouth gapes at the top, creating a spectacular viewing area where visitors can stare beyond the lake and park from behind fat, jagged incisors.
It is the black soul of Ho Thuy Tien, holding a shameful secret within its decrepit walls.
“There’s a certain rush one experiences getting lost within the haunting remains of an abandoned building”
My clammy hand trails along the serpent’s tail as I round the base of the aquarium. There is a fence, a body-sized hole forced up from the ground, leading down to a paved walkway underneath the aquarium entrance.
Crawling beneath the rusty barrier with care, we tread lightly upon the path. It is an enclosed basement, a botanical garden of some sort with looming styrofoam walls styled and painted to give the illusion of a stoney jungle cave. Overgrown tropical plants and bushes make the hidden enclosure come alive amidst the wary despondence.
Suddenly, I see them, and I gasp, because they are unnervingly close.
The malnourished black crocodiles lay in filth and squalor, trapped within the repugnant bowels of the dragon’s scaly coils. A mess of wooden boards, contorted metal fence and twisted barbed wire hold them captive to a cramped, vile pond. There is no room for movement; they sit, snout to snout, dinosaurs decaying amidst mildew and refuse and thick black slime.
Besides the random chicken, the locals must feed them also. How else would they have managed to stay alive all these years?
Empty food boxes lay strewn about the enclosure, soggy and molded. Chunks of styrofoam have been savagely ripped from the walls, thrown at the despised reptiles, mocking them, pestering them to react, to fight for their freedom. But, they have given up.
No one wants you. No one cares about you. You are abandoned; left behind to rot like the toxic water and stagnant trash in this concrete dungeon where the sun’s rays fail to reach.
You are forgotten. An exquisite creature damned to a life of anguish. Once upon a time, your future glistened brighter than the boldest star in the heavens. You were an integral part of a most magical reality. But instead, you were swallowed by a fire breathing dragon and your beating heart is now the only sound that echoes faintly throughout this empty wasteland and your suffering, it is infinite.
And yet, miraculously, they continue on day in and day out, displaying the same instinctual resilience as their ancestors that have survived since prehistoric times.
“The malnourished black crocodiles lay in filth and squalor, trapped within the repugnant bowels of the dragon’s scaly coils”
The terrible squawking and flapping and whirring feathers made me feel odd. Sick and cold. I’d never felt like this before; being in control of a life and then taking it away with a snap of two fingers. Observing this life: alert and blinking round eyes, a questioning cluck and a nervous twitch, a warm body pressed against my bosom in the chilly morn.
First, the plump hen was there and then, it was gone. Its limp body floated in a mess of feather fluff and filth, wings jutting at unnatural angles, its head and throat clamped tight between nightmarish jaws.
I felt this fragile life pass through me as the sun rose slow and gold. In the awakening of a new day, this life was taken away and would never see the day unfold.
The crocodiles sat motionless, disgusting, decayed logs in the musty gloom. Browned teeth bared and electric cat eyes unblinking through the chinks of the distorted fence.
Silently, we stood. Then silently, we strode off. We had places to be, things to do, our own lives to continue in the midst of this early death. This death that gave life and a sliver of hope to the abandoned, to the forgotten. And they stayed behind. And we did not see the chicken ripped to shreds by massive reptilian behemoths fighting greedily for guts and scraps.
A Brief History
You won’t find Ho Thuy Tien in a travel guide or travel website. Word of Ho Thuy Tien is quietly being passed from traveller to traveller as an off the beaten path must for those in Hue.
A faded, blown up photograph hangs lopsided at the entrance of the aquarium, a rare clue to the history of this mysterious park.
It displays a large group of Asian women and men, dressed to the 9s in traditional gowns and suits. An older gentleman, in particular, sticks out from the rest with his beaming eyes and proud smile. The dragon peers from behind, a snarling toothy grin and demon eyes.
The image sings a tale, begging those that visit the abandoned park to remember what it once was- a childhood dream come true, a project of patience, hard work and hope for a bright future filled with laughter and adventure and endless imagination.
But that future never came. The half-finished park was opened by Company Hue Tourism in 2004, but never really got off the ground for unspecified reasons. According to Đời sống và pháp luật, they handed the park over to HACO with plans to resurrect the business in 2013, but two years later, it continues to remain dormant, collecting dust, with three sickly crocs in desperate need of rescue and refuge.
UPDATE: After visiting the crocs back in February, I (and at least one other backpacker I know about) wrote to PETA and WWF about the state of the poor animals. It has come to my attention that the crocodiles are no longer at the park. According to the locals, they were recently moved by the Vietnamese government to a wildlife park in Northern Vietnam.