We are inside a glass box of a gondola, part of the longest passenger cable car in the world, flying silently along on a nearly five-mile ride, and some 50 stories above a sapphire sea just off the coast of Phu Quoc Island in southern Vietnam. On this bright March afternoon, hundreds of colorful wooden fishing boats speckle the crystalline water below as we sail toward Hon Thom Island.
On the way back, as the 20-minute ride nears an end, Phu Quoc station and the newly built town around it come into view. The station looks like a full-scale, prefab section of the Roman Colosseum, and the town is an elaborate facsimile of a seaside Italian city complete with a hulking bell tower, mock baroque fountains in piazzas and pseudo Roman ruins. Fanning out all around are several hundred pastel — and almost entirely empty — terraced buildings lining streets named Venice, Amalfi, Positano and Sorrento.
“It looks like Disneyland,” said an amply tattooed Tomek Tabaka, 44, part of a foursome of Polish friends traveling together, “or maybe ‘The Truman Show.’”
This two-part tourism colossus, called Sun World Hon Thom and Sunset Town, is one of Vietnam’s most astounding man-made attractions (or abominations depending on your point of view).
That it is anchored by a cable car is on trend for Vietnam, which is in the middle of a cable car bonanza. The nation is home to four of the longest cable cars in the world, all built in the last decade, underscoring the stunning transformation of Vietnam’s economy and tourism sector.
Most of the growth in the global cable car industry is in the urban transit and tourism markets, and most of the action in the tourism sector is in Asia, said Steven Dale, founder of the Gondola Project, an industry tracking website. And in Asia, he said, one of the most prolific cable car developers is Vietnam.
“On a per-capita basis I would guess that Vietnam has more than any other Asian country,” said Mr. Dale, who is principal planner in the cable-propelled transit group SCJ Alliance, a Washington State-based consulting firm.
Some 26 cable car lines have been built in a dozen locations across Vietnam over the past two decades, according to data from cable car manufacturers. Of course, hundreds of ski lifts have been built in Europe over the same period. But Vietnam is remarkable in its rapid escalation of the installations for tourism.
Most of Vietnam’s systems were built by the Doppelmayr Group of Austria, one of two consortiums that dominate the industry, for the Sun Group of Vietnam, one of the communist country’s biggest real estate and tourism developers. Sun Group’s founders made a fortune selling instant noodles in Ukraine before returning to Vietnam in 2007 to make a splash in tourism on Ba Na Hills in Danang, starting with a 3.6-mile cable car to the top.
The company has added several more cable cars on Ba Na Hills, including the world’s longest single-cable ropeway last year. Over time, it turned what had been a French hill station into Sun World Ba Na Hills, a European-style theme park with a faux French village and Gothic cathedral, underground amusement park, fairy-tale castles and a bridge seemingly held aloft by two giant hands that has become an online sensation. Sun Group’s leaders insist on record-breaking cable cars with each project, as if on a patriotic mission to produce world-renowned tourism projects in Vietnam.
The company’s six Sun World attractions with cable cars boast nine Guinness World Records, including: longest three-cable ropeway, at Phu Quoc (4.9 miles); biggest cable car cabin (230 passengers) on the Ha Long tramway; tallest cable car tower (705 feet), along the line to Cat Ba Island; and greatest vertical ascent (4,626 feet) to the top of Fansipan Mountain — Vietnam’s tallest peak — in the north in Sa Pa.
Low-carbon transport or overdevelopment?
The cable cars can be seen as amazing feats of engineering that provide easy access to remote places, the height of transport entertainment and with a low-carbon footprint. But they are typically parts of mass-tourism complexes, and some travelers, citizens and environmental activists see them as scars on the landscape and a symptom of rampant overdevelopment by powerful conglomerates.
Environmentalists are anxious over Sun Group’s on-again, off-again plans for Cat Ba Island, neighboring the famed Halong Bay in the northeast of Vietnam, including a network of cable cars, a resort, a golf course and a cruise ship port — all in an area designated by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve.
But in the northwest of Vietnam, near the summit of Fansipan Mountain, where Sun Group inaugurated a Buddhist-themed complex in 2018, the Thai visitors Suvisa Vathananond and Patrick Tunhapong, both 44, considered the project a good balance between preservation and development.
They had ridden to the top in a gondola shrouded by thick clouds, as if trapped in a soap bubble encircled by smoke, before finally bursting into the clear near the summit, two miles into the sky. There, the thickly forested ranges perched on a shelf of cottony clouds, offering a view of the mountaintop complex modeled after 16th century Vietnamese pagodas, including a 10-story belfry, a network of stone staircases and a giant seated Buddha. No amusement rides, no hotels, no replicas of European landmarks.
“They say this mountain is sacred to Vietnamese people, so you expect temples and a big Buddha image,” said Mr. Tunhapong, who helps Ms. Vathananond run North’s Chiangmaihistorical tours in that popular Thai city in the northern hills. “My grandmother can come up here and if I’m fit and young I can hike up here, too. It’s a small thing to add into a landscape compared to having a big tourist trap all the way up here. It’s a good compromise.”
Down at the foot of the mountain in the town of Sa Pa, the reviews were more mixed. Sa Pa hosted a mere 65,000 tourists in 2010, before an expressway was built from Hanoi in 2014 and the cable car opened in 2016. By 2019, visitors had skyrocketed to 3.3 million, according to the Sa Pa government, and hit 2.5 million last year in the post-pandemic rebound.
Vu Han, 26, who was visiting for her mother’s 60th birthday, likes how the cable car makes the mountain more accessible, but is not a fan of the town’s unbridled growth.
“I see that their lives are getting better and that tourism is developing the province,” said Ms. Vu, who was working for a nongovernmental health care and education organization in Ho Chi Minh City. “But I still see too many buildings, too many huge hotels that are ruining the scenery. And I see a lot of kids going around asking for money.”
Roads and schools have much improved in the past 20 years, said Phil Hoolihan, who runs ETHOS tours in Sa Pa, with Hmong guides leading treks through terraced rice fields and hill tribe villages; the Hmong are a marginalized ethnic group in the area. An unintended benefit of the cable car is that, because the mountaintop draws thousands of visitors daily, they “aren’t crawling everywhere and the villages remain really traditional,” he said.
Some Hmong residents see definite downsides, noting that many porters and guides who used to lead hikes up Fansipan are out of work. And they complain that most of the visitor dollars go to big companies like Sun Group while the prices of land, housing and food climb.
Sun Group’s chairman, Dang Minh Truong, in written responses to questions, highlighted the thousands of jobs created by Sun World properties and how the projects “help strengthen communities and contribute to the enrichment of society.” He also noted the company’s desire to help Vietnamese to access their country’s “endless natural wonders” and to “mark Vietnam as a ‘must come destination’ on the global tourism map.”
Cheaper than roads
Vietnam’s topography with its abundance of mountains, jungles and islands is a natural fit for cable cars, which can be built faster, cheaper and with less environmental damage than roads, said Mr. Dale, the cable car expert.
They also make sense for a developing country of about 100 million people with a rapidly growing middle class that may not easily afford a trip to Rome or Paris, but can manage a $25 to $45 round-trip cable car ticket for a taste of ersatz Europe.
Ly Tran, 34, who taught hospitality at a Ho Chi Minh City university before moving to Portugal to study for a doctorate in tourism, was with her Portuguese partner visiting Hon Thom — the small, private island owned by Sun Group where the Phu Quoc cable car leads to a sprawling water park. The company has plans to add two more amusement parks, three resorts, a futuristic skyscraper and hundreds of villas. The couple were taking a break in a palm-shaded coffee shop while their tour mates frolicked on huge, colorful water slides.
Vietnamese appreciate that tourism complexes like Sun World are well organized and clean, Ms. Tran said. And cable cars make sense, she said, because Vietnamese tourists approach sightseeing differently from Westerners.
“When you see Westerners going sightseeing, they’re going to be in sports shoes and clothes,” she said. “But if you see Vietnamese, they are usually in a long dress and sandals or high heels. They want to be beautiful for the photo shoot.”
For Frank Ngo, 41, a physical therapist from Anaheim, Calif., whose parents fled Vietnam in 1978 after the war, the cable car presented an unexpected perspective. He and his wife, Karen Do, 34, on their first trip to Vietnam since they were adolescents, marveled at the advances in the country and the smooth sailing in the gondola back to Phu Quoc.
“It’s crazy looking out at the ocean like that. My parents were boat people. They were out there for like five days in the open sea,” Mr. Ngo said, as we stepped into the Colosseum-esque station. “I was picturing me being them out there on the boat; I’m trying to wrap my head around that.”
Patrick Scott writes frequently for Travel. Follow him on Instagram: @patrickrobertscott
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