The Lonely Planet guide books are everywhere in Asia. We see them in many languages and at almost every tourist site. We are carrying about a dozen (on the iPad of course). We have found them to be invaluable, but they really missed with their assessment of Ba Na Hill, twenty minutes outside of Da Nang, Vietnam.
This is what they say:
“A hill resort inherited from the French, lush Ba Na has refreshingly cool weather and gorgeous countryside views. Established in 1919, the resort area once held 200-odd villas, but only a few ruins remain.
Until WWII, the French were carried up the last 20km of rough mountain road by sedan chair, but now a 5.7km (the world’s longest) cable car system has opened up access. The ride involves a rise of almost 1400m, a truly spectacular trip over dense jungle and waterfalls. At the top, attractions include a replica French provincial town, a funicular railway ascending even higher, and an exciting and fun downhill luge. None of the attractions are vaguely Vietnamese, but the cable car journey is truly spectacular, and if you visit on a weekend or public holiday, it’s interesting to mix in with local tourists.
Take an extra layer or two whatever time of year you visit – when it’s 36°C on the coast, it could be 15°C on the mountain. Cloud and mist also cling to the hill top, so if you can, try to visit on a clear day.
Mountain tracks lead to waterfalls and viewing points. Near the top is the Linh Ung Pagoda (2004) and a colossal 24m-high white seated Buddha that’s visible for miles around.
As all the hotels are poor value for money, it’s best to see Ba Na on a day trip.”
Sounds pretty average right? But it blew us away…. eventually. To recap the guide book take – there are ruins, it is chilly, there are expensive hotels and a faux French village. Oh, and a cool cable car ride. But the pictures look cool so we went.
We hired a driver for the day to take us into Da Nang to hit a grocery store (which as frequent readers know, we love to do), find coffee and then head out to check out the view from the top of the cable car ride. Our host in Hoi An advised that restaurants at the top offer average food at really expensive prices (triple normal prices he said) so we should go to the grocery store first and get supplies to picnic. This sounds like something we would really enjoy doing, so off we go. We were not sure what the difference was between the Hamburger cheese and the Toast cheese so we stuck with Cheddar.
Everything went fine until our driver (who speaks almost no english) pulls over on a dusty nondescript road and out comes a guy with a stack of worn cards that look like the fake credit cards you get in the mail (except these say Ba Na Hills on them). He writes out a receipt for 2,600,000 Dong (that’s $130 to you and me). I look at the driver. He says, “yes, tickets.” I reply with what I thought was universal communication – I wince and say, “really?” The strange man at my window shakes my $130 tab at me. I ask if he takes Visa. He laughs. Being not really prepared for this event, I happen to only have that much cash on hand, leaving me about 20,000 dong in 1,000 and 2,000 bills – which is the equivalent of having some change left in your pocket. I hadn’t thought that I would be paying $32.50 each for the cable car, but what could I do at that point. So I paid the man and off we drove.
Our driver dropped us at the front gate and we agreed to meet back in two hours – which seems like enough time to ride to the top, have a picnic and return. We took the long walk to the start of the cable car and shared the first half of the ride with two Korean pilots. They shared our fear of the Trump – North Korea mix and briefly discussed that all we know of South Korea is the scandal of their recent President. Then we all agreed to just focus on the cool view. The ride is the longest and highest continuous cable car system in the world. And it was worth the $32.50. Tickets at the gate were the same price (but I could have used our Visa). I was still looking forward to figuring out this luge thing that the Lonely Planet Guide Book mentioned, even if I had to pay a few buck more.
And this is where we recall the wonderful advice my mother probably gave me – that the secret to a happy life is keeping your expectations reasonable. I try to remember this but most of the time I lie to myself. Even if a Denzel Washington movie gets bad reviews and I tell myself I don’t care if it is bad, but I am still disappointed when it sucks. I know Kenau Reeves can single-handedly ruin any movie, so I say to myself I don’t care if it is bad, and yet it still never fails to disappoint me. Lonely Planet (and my host who hadn’t mentioned the ticket purchase pit stop) had so calibrated my expectation to below low, that when we arrived on a cool mid-morning to a big band playing American hit songs, girls in princess gowns swaying and in every direction there were wonderful wedding-picture views, we just feel in love. We wandered the lanes toward the temple and pagoda but veered off, deciding not to hike up to them (we have seen lots). We also skipped the wine cellar (apparently the only real structure left from the French occupation of the area – go figure). Under a gazebo, near a nice lawn with the most majestic view imaginable, we had our picnic, played in the grass and relaxed. We quickly realized that we needed more time to figure out this little bit of faux French paradise. We called our host to call our driver and cancelled our time at the historic statue museum in Da Nang and arranged two additional hours on top of the mountain. Kids actually cheered.
We knew that we needed to try the luge at least once. It turns out it is free with coming to up the mountain. We went twice. We had to stand in line all of 10 minutes each time. It was like the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland only you get to control the speed yourself – you have a brake you can use or you can lean forward to increase your speed. It was awesome. When we got off Judi and I dutifully followed the directions on where to go but John just jumped over one set of tracks to head back into the line, no one cared. We bought the photo of John and Judi riding together – $3, complete with glossy picture sleeve, just like the $25 version at Disneyland. Next ride I invested $5 in the mug with our pictures on it. I’m not even going to guess the Disneyland cost.
And then we found the rest of the amusement park hidden in the towers of the resort. No lines to speak of – no one in line for the 4D ride (like Star Tours in Disneyland), the shooting gallery had no one there, the Drop Tower ride was long and had no wait, the laser target shooting ride (like Buzz Lightyear in Disneyland) was fun and had a five minute wait, and there was a ride that was a bit like the Disney Haunted Mansion, except that employees actually grabbed Kate and Judi to freak them out. We had no idea this Disney-lite extravaganza was up there. Did I mention it was all included in the $32.50 cost of the ticket to ride the cable car? It blew us away! Maybe it is just because we have kids or maybe it is because we love the Disneyland sort of thing. I don’t know and frankly I don’t care. But Lonely Planet missed this one – I mean how could they be so non-excited about something that pushes the buttons of at least travelers like us? We could have spent another two hours up there but it was time to go meet our poor driver. We have vowed to someday have the money to stay in the overpriced resort hotels up at the top and enjoy more of the pubs, restaurants, rides and music that is hidden up on Ba Na Hill.
John says: I thought it was really fun. There were a lot of activities that we didn’t notice at first. After we got more time we discovered the rest. The best part for me was getting to steer and control the speed of the luge car. We went fast the whole time. Discovering the interior amusement park was fantastic. I loved that it was on a super big hill. My favorite part was the luge ride.
Kate says: I liked it. It wasn’t really French and it wasn’t Vietnamese, it was just a really fun amusement park. It surprised me. I really liked the buildings and music being played. It felt like Disneyland but it was better because there were no lines and carnival games didn’t cost extra. My favorite was the House of the Dead ride, when one of the employees grabbed my foot. I don’t think someone at Disneyland could do that. I loved that on the Drop Tower both my mom and dad went on it and at the top of the ride you could see outside and the Princesses out there would wave at you. I get why the guide books wouldn’t be crazy about it; it wasn’t very Vietnamese, but it was really fun.