Back in November, we ventured to Hue (Huế), Vietnam’s Imperial Capital, for a long weekend. Ross and I had both visited Hue before (together in 2012, and Ross again in 2016 with friends)—and honestly, our impression of the city wasn’t that favourable. Neither of us had taken the time to explore Hue properly. Now that we’re living only a short flight away in Hanoi, we decided we should try and fix that. As well as he classics, we also wanted to include a few of Hue’s more unconventional sights in our itinerary—including An Bang ‘tomb city’ and Ho Thuy Tien, Vietnam’s famous abandoned waterpark.
Hue was the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty up until 1945. The city itself was all but destroyed during the Vietnam-America war, but thankfully, many relics of the past survived. Great efforts have been made to restore some of Hue’s most prominent landmarks.
The Imperial Citadel is Hue’s most prestigious site—and for good reason. Its history-filled pagodas and halls are lavishly decorated and absolutely gorgeous. We spent a whole morning exploring the furthest nooks and crannies of the massive Citadel complex. We could have stayed all day.
In the afternoon, we hired a car and visited three more imperial sites–the tombs of Tu Duc, Khai Dinh and Minh Mang–located south of the city. We found them equally as majestic and intriguing. I can’t believe we missed out on seeing them back in 2012.
On the tail of the dragon in Hue
Hue is more ornate than any other city I’ve been to in Vietnam. Peering out the taxi window on the ride from the airport, I noticed a lot of colourful temples and shrines tucked back off the main highway. There is a strong tradition of embellishing burial sites—someone told me that Hue is a place where the ‘mourning smile’. My first visit failed to impress on me the exquisiteness of the mosaics that decorate the citadel and tombs. This time, I couldn’t take my eyes (or camera) off them.
Dragons (rồng) are one motif we saw again and again. Central to Vietnamese folklore and myth, dragons bring rain—and with it, prosperity and power to the nation. Dragons represent the emperor and by extension, the entire universe. One of the first origin stories we were told when we arrived in Vietnam says that all Vietnamese people are descended from the eggs of a dragon and a fairy.
During the Nguyen Dynasty, dragons were typically portrayed with a spiral tail, a large head and eyes, scales, a lion’s nose, stag’s horns, and exposed canine teeth. You can see some examples of this style in the images above.
Towards the end of the period, images of dragons apparently ‘degenerated’ and became less refined, losing their majestic features and likeness. This corresponds symbolically to the gradual decline of Vietnam’s last royal dynasty.
That brings us to Ho Thuy Tien. Perhaps Hue’s most famous dragon, it too has degenerated over time. Once a popular leisure spot for local families, it now draws a very different crowd. We decided to go and see what all the fuss was about.
What is Ho Thuy Tien?
Hồ Thủy Tiên (Thuy Tien Lake) is a smallish natural lake located about 8km south of Hue’s Imperial City. An entertainment complex of the same name sits on the lake’s edge. The famous dragon structure—a three-level aquarium—is perched out on the water.
Inside the dragon, there’s a ticket booth area and a few exhibits—the standard glass tunnel type thing you often see in aqua parks. Apparently these were used to show off fish and crocodiles (the latter still lurked in a pool until recently, before PETA was called in to intervene). On the bottom level of the dragon aquarium, there’s also an outdoor exhibit (pictured below) and upstairs, a performance space. There are fun slides and grandstands elsewhere on the property.
The park is currently open and unattended—we had no trouble moving around as we wished. You can even climb a staircase to the top of the dragon’s head.
The secret is definitely out about Ho Thuy Tien. We were surprised to find flocks of Vietnamese teenagers and a few other tourists at the park on the day we visited (it was a Saturday). If you’re looking for a hardcore urbex experience, this is certainly not it. But if you are interested in doing something slightly offbeat in Hue, I highly recommend visiting Ho Thuy Tien.
Why was Ho Thuy Tien abandoned?
Based on what I’ve read online and the short conversation I had with staff at our hotel in Hue, no one really knows exactly why Ho Thuy Tien was abandoned. Opening in 2004, the park apparently cost millions to build and was only operational for a couple of years before it was shuttered. Plans to revive the park have also been shelved. It’s unclear what Ho Thuy Tien’s future holds. Now that tourists and young people are visiting the site again, I’m sure the owners (or government) have recognised its renewed revenue potential.
If abandoned fun parks are your thing, I’ve heard there are a few similarly ramshackled waterparks in Hanoi. Maybe one day I’ll go check them out.
How to get to the abandoned water park
Grab/Uber is yet to arrive in Hue, and since we don’t ride bikes, we organised a car and driver for the day through our hotel. Our driver was happy to add Ho Thuy Tien onto the usual Hue day trip itinerary at no extra cost. The lake is located between the tombs of Tu Duc and Khai Dinh, and is accessible via a quick detour off the main road.
Everyone in Hue seems to know about the park’s newfound popularity, so you won’t have any trouble finding someone to either take you there or point you in the right direction. If using your own transport, just follow the directions on Google Maps. The entrance point is clearly marked.
Tips for visiting Ho Thuy Tien
Bring cash. Some enterprising men have revived the toll booth at the entrance to the park and are now charging a small fee to enter. A ticket cost 10,000 VND per person at the time of our visit.
Wear enclosed shoes. There is a lot of rubbish and debris inside the waterpark. Best to wear shoes that protect your feet.
Plan to spend 30-45 minutes. If you plan to go further afield than the main dragon, consider using your own transportation as the park is quite spread out.
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