As I’m sure some of you know, a long night of drinking in Vietnam can lead to some pretty unexpected and surprising places. In fact, on any given evening your level of adventure can be measured by the equation a=(v+dn)t/p — where v is the volume of alcohol consumed, t is the hour of the night you’ve managed to stay up past, and p is… actually I have no idea, maths were never really my strong suit. The point is, this city has a lot of experiences that seem to manifest themselves only when conditions are absolutely perfect. And the further you head back in time, the more common those were.
Take Wonderland, the formerly derelict site of an abandoned amusement park in Saigon’s District 7. During the daytime, one might ride a scooter down Nguyen Van Linh and spot the curious visage of a gigantic Ferris wheel sticking out from behind rows of apartment buildings and be pretty unfazed by the whole thing. After all, clouds are forming overhead, you left your raincoat at home, and judging by the feel of the air on your skin, you reckon there’s about five minutes until the waters of the merciless sky dragon are unleashed upon you. Not today. Adventure.
But now it’s 4.30 in the morning, and you’re sitting on a stool outside some seafood place in Cholon, where these poor folks have tolerated you for far too long, and it’s really time that you think about moving along. But to where, home? Hell no! You’re young and invincible and the world is your oyster! Or, in tonight’s case, mudfish. It’s time to be alive, to really see what this city is made of.
But what does it make sense to do at this ungodly hour? Suddenly the image lights up in your head like an acid flashback. That Ferris wheel. It must be summited. By me. Tonight. So you hop in a taxi to District 7, because riding your motorbike down the highway with this particular combination of substances coursing through your body, honking your horn to the beat of the Prince song you’re belting out at the top of your lungs, would be reckless and dangerous and also incredibly obnoxious. So you obviously don’t do that. You arrive in the taxi, and spend the next 20 minutes walking in circles around the block trying to find where this actually thing is. If you have friends with you, this is the point where they start to feel like they’ll never be able to trust you ever again. Hold strong! You’re almost there.
At a certain point, you’ll find an entrance to a small tennis court, which you’ll need to walk across in order to reach this mythical secret garden. Inexplicably, there are probably two middle-aged men playing tennis at this very hour. They will want to know why you’re walking across their court. Your answer will be incomprehensible in any language. Keep moving, and finally you see it, what you came here for, what you can now smear in the faces of the so-called friends that have been getting on your ass nonstop for the last hour and can finally shut their mouths. You’ve discovered Post-Apocalyptic Disneyland.
Even through the obviously substance-induced euphoria, it’s clear that you’ve come across something special. Everything you’d find at a regular amusement park is here: a merry-go-round, a swing ride, a spinny-wheel bench-a-mathing, the aforementioned enormous Ferris wheel towering over everything. All of it covered with overgrown plants. And, what’s more, a little something extra you couldn’t see from the street. There’s a ROLLERCOASTER. Jackpot.
Now obviously the first thing you do is try to turn everything on. After a surprisingly short amount of searching, you stumble upon a small control room with a massive switch breaker built into the wall. Excitedly, you start flipping switches, one after another, going up and down the grid like a kid hitting all the buttons on an elevator (I hate you, kid). You run back outside and… nothing. Did you actually expect that suddenly the entire place would come alive with coloured lights, carnival music and a lifelike robot clown that escorts you around and teaches you the true meaning of friendship?
Not that there weren’t thrills to be enjoyed anyway. The spinny rides worked reasonably well with enough people pushing/pulling on them to get up to speed. There were plenty of weird animal statues to freak you out. And then there’s that rollercoaster. While climbing the Ferris wheel would have proved a pretty impossible task, the more gentle incline of the rollercoaster, combined with a wooden service path all the way up to the top, made for a nice early morning comedown hike. And for a time, I’d argue it had the best sunrise in all of Saigon.
You might notice that I’ve switched from present to past tense. And if so, well done; that CELTA has served you well. But there’s a good reason for it. Like too many relics of Saigon’s past, the amusement park is long gone. A recent survey of Google Maps tells me that they’ve expanded the tennis courts and added some football pitches. Which is great and all. I don’t know if people living in District 7 have much else to do with their time (ooh, burn).
But I’ll always remember a time when nights like this could lead to truly wild and unique experiences. When there were still parts of the city that were undiscovered, undeveloped and untamed. Maybe there still are. If you’re up to the challenge, go out there and prove me wrong.