Consider this: An entertainment park for children that isn’t all about giddy rides and distractions, but instead created to give them a vision of themselves as they one day will be – free city dwellers, independent thinkers, members of a community, earners, spenders, citizens engaged in their own world.
Wouldn’t that be a more edifying day out than a circuit around the Ferris wheel or a tumble down the water slide?
If you’ve ever wondered how to give your children an experience that will gently and playfully introduce them to the life they will one day inherit, Vietopia’s concept may well intrigue you. It’s a small-scale city for children, built entirely indoors and designed to provide a fantasy realm grounded in adult realities – how to use money, work, be at leisure, create art – and provide a service to the community.
Children visiting the park wander independently as they please, deciding for themselves what role to play, whether they choose to learn, contribute, or get creative. It’s one of those non-instinctive ideas that actually makes perfect sense – what better method is there to provide a fun, stimulating environment in which kids can follow their own interests and discover what inspires them in a way that may unveil their natural career paths and core interests?
It’s idealism, for sure – but when it comes to children, there’s nothing wrong with idealism, and Vietopia has it in spades. As the name suggests, this is a Vietnamese utopia, one in which everyone is gainfully employed, individually centered, and encouraged to take pride in their labors and pastimes. It’s a version of Saigon envisaged as a friendly neighborhood that could have come straight off the set of Sesame Street, all clean, wide boulevards set about the central town landmark – a replica of the HCMC Opera House with a real theater inside.
Entering the complex is an experience designed to stoke the imagination as families make the transition from reality to a children’s world: parents and their kids check in together in the shadow of a Turkish Airways airliner, passing customs as if they’ve just stepped off the plane. They’ll each receive a tracking bracelet, so that even if the kids run off by themselves (something you should encourage if they’re old enough, as they’re more likely to benefit from it all if they’re self-directed) you’ll know where they are and where they’ve been – and they won’t be allowed to leave the building without you. A few comfortable restaurants are within 30 paces of the front door where parents can pass their time on the free WiFi while the kids explore.
The first consideration, just as it would be in any new country on touchdown, is money. The town bank lies just beyond the gate, where credits from the entry ticket can be exchanged for local currency – vido – which can be spent (and earned) throughout Vietopia. With cash on hand, kids can become active members of the community, following their interests and selecting the activities most in line with their own personalities.
The majority of the installations at Vietopia are storefronts, each sponsored by a real- world company hoping their presence in the miniature city will help instill a sense of fondness for their brand. Some offer entertainment, which the children must pay for out of their video, but others offer ‘employment’ – the kids will put on uniforms, assume roles to play – and are supervised as they perform their jobs.
Either way, it’s a lot of fun: kids can earn money being camera operators in a realistic TV studio, staff a supermarket checkout, create packaging with colorful stickers for a noodle factory, nurse newborn babies at the hospital, or even man a mission to the moon in a model spacecraft, collecting samples from a surprisingly realistic lunar landscape.
One of the more subtle lessons is that learning experiences also cost money – Vietnamese kids shell out for real English lessons from their own pockets, while at other locales, children learn art or other practical techniques. If the kids spend their money wisely, they’ll leave with some genuine knowledge to take away with them.
Other activities are even more exciting. One of the most popular includes working in the fire station, where the kids slide down a pole, cram into a fire truck, and are then whisked to the other side of town where they can douse a burning hotel with their hoses. Those with a bent for discovery can explore an ancient temple, digging for artifacts in the main chamber. Whatever they choose, if they earn enough vido, they’ll find themselves swanning about the town, chauffeured by the park’s sole Vinasun taxi – always available for those who’ve been diligent enough to afford it.
Part of the reason Vietopia exists is that local education can be somewhat lacking in inspiration – and it’s the hope of the park’s organizers their ‘edutainment’ concept may help to bridge the gap between the skills taught in the classroom and those capable of enriching children’s lives.
The challenge is their strategy works best with kids who are prepared to explore independently, something that international school children will have less of an issue with than those coming straight from the national system. Those parents of children falling into either category will see them get the most from Vietopia by preparing them for the experience and showing their support for the choices made at the park – for kids who overcome their inhibitions at Vietopia, it may just be a life-changing experience.
Vietopia; 6264 1777 / 098 465 8975 / 093 587 8885; 2-4 Street 9, Khu do thi Him Lam, Tan Hung, D7.
*Images by Ngoc Tran