The builders of Ba Na Hills, a resort town in the mountain behind Da Nang in Vietnam, have built an amusement park that pays homage to medieval living, allowing Asian visitors to come see an old French village without suffering any of the inconveniences of jet lag.
In the early 1900s, The French discovered this stop away station and constructed twenty some villas during their occupation. And if you wander slightly off the beaten path, away from the planned constructions of the Ba Na Hills resort, you can see some of these old ruins, abandoned to overgrowth.
Ba Na Hills in the city of Da Nang in Central Vietnam
I first stopped upon Ba Na Hills a few years ago, before the resort was fully completed. I asked a taxi driver what I should go to see in and around Da Nang. He raved about the site, telling me I would especially enjoy the ride up to visit it.
The drive up to the cable car station is picturesque, yielding glimpses of the hillside and variety of central Vietnam. And on the approach itself, one sees the longest cable car ride in the world. Taking this cable car offers a gorgeous trip that takes about twenty minutes, lifting you above cloud line, letting you see greenery all around, the richness of the geography around Da Nang, trickling waterfalls and streams, the ocean shimmering in the distance. It’s a terrific construct and way to see the site.
I got off at the first stop of the cable car. And rather than taking the next lift up to the main site, I decided to walk up the road used only by the construction crews for carrying building materials up and down. It was on this walk that I encountered remnants of old villas, left alone to fall to disrepair. Juxtaposed with the carefully aged, “ruin-like” castle and its inventively aged ramparts, ruins and faux ruins made for strange, surreal bedfellows. The true past in actual ruins, its modern kitschy version just above it, glowing in the midday sun.
I was pulled to the actual ruins, but no paths lead there and I could see they were simply ramshackle walls, shells of the past, containing only plots of overgrown weeds. So instead, I clambered my way upwards to the novelly constructed castle with its ramparts and quaint fortification, saying hello to workers labouring hard on the way. The workers were laying down stone steps and lathering faux stone walls that looks real from a distance or from the birds eye perspective of the cable car.
Ba Na Hills capitalises on a new model of instagram-able tourism, trips that favor the photographic recording of the experience over the experience itself. Facades, surfaces, are given precedence, and can take the place of reality. Black iron street lamps and crumbling stones form street scenes. New buildings, made to look old, are placed under certain camera filters and take on a fine, classically aged look. Actually touching the buildings of this French village reveals lacquer and concrete, sensations just slightly off from those given by crumbling stones of an actual old village in France.
For the kids, the resort has a concrete mountainous cave whose three floors contain a large video game arcade, several themed spaces that are reminiscent of Universal Studios rides that celebrate movie sets, including a Jurassic Park room, a large souvenirs shop, and centered around a three levelled rotating swing carousel. You can ride down from the highest station to the lowest station on the resort on a tracked sled course, the same tourist attraction that’s featured now at so many historical sites. There are themed buildings on site, including stations named after and resembling train stations in Paris. Perhaps the only historically real structure is the old French wine cellar, created in 1923 and kept preserved still in the resort.
A grand fountain makes up the main square, offering a view of the town beyond it and with a great view of the biggest building on site, a cathedral complete with wood pews and stained glass interior, where newly wedded couples often pose for pictures. Plastic penguins, for some reason, were placed in the fountain. Selfie stick carrying tourists from all over Asia are often seen snapping shots with gleeful abandon next to these penguins.
It was a beautiful, bright summer day, a day full of possibility and no limits. A hotel nearby housed a European garden and a luxurious grand verandah that jutted out onto a precipice, overlooking the fantastic countryside beyond. Statues of mythical Greek gods and creatures adorned both sides of the outlook, giving an impression, I’d imagine, of presiding on Mt. Olympus.
A Replica Europe in Vietnam
Vietnamese kitsch is connected to a willingness to adopt what’s most compelling about other countries’ pasts without worry of being inauthentic, sentimental, or maudlin. It’s easy to simply poke fun at this attempt to elevate through half baked imitation. It’s much harder, I think, to consider how this act is both a striving for authenticity and an acknowledgement that the copy could never be the original, but that our culture is ok with that.
I recall with some amusement my first encounter of authentic copies on my return back, when I went to an amusement park just outside of Ho Chi Minh City that boasted having in its park the largest banyan tree in the country. The tree was but a part of many other curiosities, from enhanced natural environments with streams and stone bridges with stone railings painted to look like wood, complete with curving concrete tree stems. When I discovered this “largest banyan tree in Vietnam”, it was just a regular sized beauty, worthy of celebration, but not, as its moniker suggest, the largest in Vietnam. Its roots, in fact, were attached to, and extended by, painted stone stems, fake concrete running overground. Anyone looking at it can see where the real tree ended and the fake extension began.
I wished I could have asked the artist their thoughts on making this fake largest banyan tree, how much they studied the real tree. Whether or not they felt what they were doing was elaborating upon the lie. Ba Na Hills is in many ways like this “extended” banyan tree. It exists as an extension of an old French colonial settlement, but made easier and more substantial for visitors.
It captures the visual texture of olden French towns, but not its tactile reality or inconveniences. It’s medieval Europe made glossy for photographs, placed squarely in the midst of Vietnam. Just don’t look too closely, keep aiming the camera angle a certain way, and you can truly appreciate the grandness of the facade and the audacity of the imitation.
Next to the stone cathedral, under the refracted light of its faux stained glass, I stood and serenely posed, asking a nearby visitor to take a picture of me. Once done, I posted it on Facebook with this as my caption: “Apparently, it only takes 1.5 hours to fly from Hong Kong to France. Love it!” It got me some puzzled comments and quite a few likes.