Travel Note

22nd December 2018

My final trip of 2018 began with a marathon twenty-four journey from Dublin to Ho Chi Minh City. The itinerary included a nine hour layover between flights, which was less than ideal, though on the positive side I was able to take advantage of a complimentary hotel room courtesy of the Dubai Connect programme. The price was hard to argue with, but the experience of the stop was decidedly suboptimal, to the point that I wouldn't voluntarily do it again; I'd much prefer to spend a little money for a relaxed night in the Dubai International Hotel in the airport terminal.

The flight from Dublin was assigned to the furthermost extreme of the C gates in terminal three, necessitating a brisk fifteen minute walk to immigration. This was followed by almost half an hour in the queue to have my passport stamped, and that time would have been considerably longer had I not been eligible for fast track service. Once through there was a wait for a bus to the Copthorne Airport Hotel, and a further wait to check in behind hordes of other economy class passengers. The receptionist insisted that I would need to leave my room no later than 7:00am for a 9:40am flight, and to be sure that I'd be on time they set a wake up call at 6:30am that I could not override.

As it was it took me just shy of ninety minutes from landing in Dubai when I stepped into my room, which was like stepping into a sauna. I immediately set the air conditioning to full power, but it made precious little difference; the mercury still showed 24°C a few short hours later when the alarm call indicated that it was time to stop staring at the ceiling. Formalities at the airport were completed by 7:45am, leaving me with almost two hours to burn, which I decided to use for a relaxed breakfast of traditional Emirati cuisine. (Those who count their Hard Rock credits may be interested to know that my food was served in less than five minutes from the point that I placed an order, making it a realistic option for those a tight schedule.)

The second flight was uneventful. I'd intended to spend the time productively, but my overtired brain gave up after an hour or so of proof-reading work, so I switched to mindless movies: American Animals, Crazy Rich Asians, and Skyscraper, the latter coming to an end just as we began to descend for arrival. Formalities on landing were very efficient, if somewhat bureaucratic; readers should be aware that I was required to produce a printed copy of my e-visa as the soft copy on my mobile phone was deemed unacceptable. My bag was already waiting on the carousel when I got there, and soon after I'd picked up a cheap local SIM card and caught a shuttle bus to my hotel.

 

Vinpearl Land Phú Quốc

22nd December 2018

In March 2014, the island of Phú Quốc (Pearl Island) became the first district of Vietnam to allow foreigners to stay for thirty days without having to pay for a visa. This decision set off an avalanche of investment in tourist facilities that continues to this day. The island now has over fifteen thousand hotel rooms rated at three star or above, and there is no sign of things slowing down; in mid-2017 it was reported that some 265 different projects were under development. International visitor numbers continue to rise thanks to direct air links from China, Denmark, Finland, Malaysia, Myanmar, Russia, South Korea, Sweden, Thailand, and even the United Kingdom.

Our morning began at our hotel close to Saigon Airport, where we had the fun job of crossing the road to get to the domestic terminal. In the absence of traffic lights (or indeed any obvious rules) the approved local technique is simple enough; one need only jaywalk at a suitable location while offering up prayers to a benevolent deity who will (hopefully) ensure that the hundreds of motorbikes weave around you. We found that maintaining a slow and steady pace was the best approach; stopping or changing speed could prove to be a serious mistake.

We arrived at the terminal and promptly discovered that there were six departures to Phú Quốc scheduled in a one hour period – two apiece on Jetstar, VietJet, and Vietnam Airlines – and while this seemed like a lot Flightradar24 shows that there are currently nineteen daily scheduled rotations in each direction, with extra aircraft are added at the last minute when there are enough bookings to fill them. Self check-in machines were available, though we chose to give them a miss in an entirely successful attempt to snag exit row seating. The security process was quick and painless; though we were asked to remove our footwear we were allowed to keep water bottles. Our gate was in a rather spartan area of the terminal building, but there was ample seating which at the end of the day is all that really matters.

The plane seemed to spend an eternity taxiing around the airport before we reached the runway and headed for the open sky. The cockpit crew was clearly expatriate, and soon after we started moving they made an English language announcement apologising for the congestion and promising to try to make up some time en route. I'd half expected this to be translated into the local patois by one of the flight attendants, and it was only when this didn't happen that I realised that regulars would probably be well used to delays and would only need a verbal warning if things were operating on time! Our descent began just twenty minutes after take off, and soon after we landed and met up with our pre-booked driver in the arrivals area.

Condor

Vinpearl Land Phú Quốc is the second amusement park to be constructed by the Vingroup, coming some eight years after the first opened on an island on the opposite side of the country. It features a 40,000 square metre area dedicated to water slides and pools, as well as a 130,000 square metre area filled with dry attractions. The grand opening took place in late 2014, though it wasn't until a few months later when all the attractions and rides were fully complete. The majority were brand new, though at least a few were acquired on the second hand market, notably the Lossepladsen Huss Condor that once operated at BonBon-Land. Sadly this ride was down for maintenance today, along with the Ocean Train Coaster, meaning that I'll need to find my way back to the park at some point if I ever want to finish the complete set of 207m roller skaters.

This unexpected closure meant just one tick for us today, namely Flying Dolphin Coaster (#2547), a Vekoma Family Boomerang using the lacklustre 185m layout that premiered at both Drayton Manor and Parc des Combes back in 2011. This installation certainly looks nice, courtesy of royal blue track and a themed train, but sadly it isn't all that good; as with its European cousins the train burns a little too much potential energy on its forward journey, resulting in a return trip best described as flaccid. We rode three times over the course of our visit, allowing us to confirm that both ends of the train were equally weak. (The newer Rebound model of the Family Boomerang is an infinitely better ride, though my favourite installation as of this writing is the duelling version at Wildlands.)

Our second hit was the Ferris Wheel, a fifty-five metre high model with forty cars. Each had tall plexiglas screens on all sides for safety, but there was a two inch high gap below these that was more than adequate for our camera lenses. Pictures from the heights were somewhat limited due to trees, though the vantage point allowed me to spot the fact that the safety fence surrounding the Flying Dolphin Coaster came to an abrupt halt part way round the layout, rendering it almost entirely useless. I found myself thinking back to the comedy safety barriers at Wonder Island; one suspects that no American or European park would be able to get away with something like this.

The park is home to a 5D Cinema manufactured by Shenzhen-based OCT Vision, a subsidiary of the group that developed the various Happy Valley parks across China. It features thirty separate motion platforms with five seats mounted to each. The system is capable, at least on paper, but the implementation is shoddy at best; throughout the performance we could see the seats in front of us moving around a second before we did, and neither block was synchronised with what was actually happening on screen. Most of the motions were gentle, but there was a spine-crunching drop effect used several times that did not feel good at all (and was probably doing the hardware no favours). There were two additional effects that we noticed; one was a prod in the back of each seat that was only used once; the other was an air spray that was seriously overused, negating its effectiveness.

The movie showing today was the imaginatively named Color Forest, a story about a number of Pixar-style bugs (or possibly those from Happy Valley) trying to escape from an enormous spider. The soundtrack was in English with Vietnamese subtitles, and I'm undecided about whether that was a deliberate choice for the benefit of foreign visitors or a cost-saving measure. One suspects that the investment required to overdub the footage would have been trivial when compared against that required for the installation as a whole.

Santas

The park was not busy today, which was quite surprising given that we were visiting on a Saturday just three days before Christmas. Less than ten percent of Vietnamese identify as Christian, and December 25th is a normal working day, but despite these facts the holiday remains a huge event throughout the country with decorations and festive music everywhere. Over the course of our ten day trip we noticed that the music selection nationwide was focused mainly on five songs: Jingle Bells, All I Want For Christmas Is You, Last Christmas, We Wish You A Merry Christmas, and Feliz Navidad. In most cases the recordings were techno/dance versions, with several parks and one airline piping out the godawful Crazy Frog EP, da-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding. Vinpearl Land chose to get in on the act by having ten members of staff in Santa Claus costumes cycle through the park in convoy, and in a sign of the times at least three of them were female.

The paucity of guests was particularly evident when we sought out lunch, as all three of the park restaurants were completely deserted. The first option we looked at was Chingu BBQ, a Korean Roast Hot Pot restaurant, but we decided that that wasn't the right choice today. The second was a branch of Lotteria, an Asian fast food chain that is best avoided when sober if not in general; we stepped inside briefly, but aborted after less than ten seconds due to the smell. That left us with Deli Land, a table service outlet with a wide range of local options. The quality on offer was comparable to a mid-range restaurant back home, and as such was exactly what we needed.

Our waiter used his limited English to tell us that we should go to the Mermaid Show at the park's aquarium, and we decided it would be unconscionably rude not to. The performance consisted of a woman in an elaborate flipper costume swimming back and forth in a fish tank, and while it was visually interesting for perhaps half a minute the appeal quickly wore off. The locals were far more impressed, however, with many choosing to film the entire show with their mobile phones. As ever the exit led into a gift shop selling all manner of things, not least polo shirts promoting a non-existent Alpine Coaster; it took me a few moments to realise that this was probably the one belong belonging to Vinpearl Land Nha Trang.

Readers attempting a similar day trip to Vinpearl Land Phú Quốc should allow an hour to travel the thirty kilometre distance between the local airport and the park. There are a wide range of food options available in the airport terminal, both landside and airside, including both local and western selections.

 

Thỏ Trắng

22nd December 2018

Thỏ Trắng (White Rabbit) is a chain of small amusement parks with several locations around Vietnam. The first branch opened inside Lê Thị Riêng Park, some three kilometres south of Saigon Airport, in 2011. Though technically within walking distance of our hotel one needs a great deal of self-confidence to be a pedestrian in Ho Chi Minh City after nightfall due to the creative local approach to driving. We decided in the interests of sanity to use Grab to get where we were going; the fifteen minute journey cost us just VND 10,000 (~€0.38).

On my first trip to Vietnam back in 2012 I wrote about Mini Roller Coaster, a small ride with a dramatic direction change that was far more lively than its physical dimensions would have suggested. This coaster was my first encounter with Sấu Con, a Vietnamese manufacturer that has a significant percentage of the local market for amusement rides. Nineteen of their coasters feature on RCDB as of this writing, and one suspects that there are quite a few more that have yet to be discovered by the enthusiast community. They also produce a wide variety of standard flat rides that are staples across the country, including the Apollo drop tower, the Crazy Wave Miami, and the Đĩa Bay Frisbee.

Roller Coaster

Roller Coaster (#2548) has the imaginative product name of "Roller Coaster with 2 Loops", the latter word being used to refer to a descending helix that makes up the majority of the layout. The design is simple, yet effective; as the train descends it picks up plenty of speed, resulting in strong lateral forces and a sensation of speed amplified by the fact that the area has filled out with foliage. This is followed by a climb and a straight portion of track set adjacent to (and above) a set of urinals, providing what can only be described as a unique visual effect. A right turn then brings passengers back to the station platform. Today each ride consisted of three laps.

The station building has been decorated using the artwork and logo from RollerCoaster Tycoon, complete with the screaming male head seen on the box of the third game in the series. Anita took advantage of this for an entertaining selfie. The presentation is certainly eye catching, but it is the train that really steals the show: each of the five cars has been decorated with colour-changing lights that make elaborate patterns both in the station and as the ride is in motion, making it a real shame that most of the track is hidden from the midway.

The hardware has a number of curious design quirks. The support structure appears to have been constructed out of steel pipe, and though it has a somewhat wider diameter than the running rails it wouldn't surprise me at all if it were produced and shaped using the same equipment. The station is located about two metres above the lowest portion of the layout, presumably to minimise the height of the lift hill while simultaneously reducing wear and tear on the brakes. Last but by no means least, the motors for the tyre drives are located parallel to the track rather than underneath, with the motion being transferred (and the speed adjusted) using rubber belts.

Each pair of seats shares a fixed position restraint that pulls down from above, and I can report that this has no effect whatsoever on the ride quality; I found that I didn't come into contact with it at all. The comfort level was absolutely fine at both ends of the train, with only some very minor clunks in places where individual track segments were joined together. The sensation was different in different seats, though not by enough for me to say that one position was superior to another.

Readers should be aware that it took us the better part of an hour to get a Grab to take us back to our hotel when the time came to leave; those planning to travel around Ho Chi Minh City without a pre-booked car should bear this in mind.