Arrow's Pointing Up - March 2018

SUN GROUP

Vietnam’s Sun Group has sky-high ambitions in an emerging attractions market

by Michael Switow

From atop the “Sun Wheel,” some 705 feet above the waters below, riders have a stunning view of Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay and some of the limestone islets and pillars that have rendered this place a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage site visited by more than 8 million people a year.

Legend has it that long ago, somewhere around 2,800 B.C. when the first Vietnamese states were created, an army of invaders arrived by sea from the north. Heavenly gods sent dragons to protect the Vietnamese people. As they descended upon the Earth, the dragons not only incinerated the invaders, they spat emerald and jade jewels, which transformed into the thousands of islands now populating the bay, creating an invincible defense against future enemies. 

Today, a company founded by a quartet of Vietnamese entrepreneurs, who lived in the former Soviet Union for two decades before returning home, is creating its own jewels along the banks of Ha Long, and indeed across broad swaths of the country. Since its launch a decade ago, the Sun Group has become one of the largest luxury real estate groups in Vietnam, with more than 100 projects, 50 subsidiaries, 4,600 staff, and investments totaling at least US$4.6 billion. 

The 64-cabin “Sun Wheel” and adjoining record-breaking cable car are symbols of this ascending giant and its aggressive expansion into the attractions industry.

“When the Sun Group came back to Vietnam in 2007, there were not a lot of companies investing in entertainment,” explains Nguyen Chi Thanh, an engineer by training who moved to Russia at the age of 18 to study. Thanh and his Sun Group co-founders later spent a decade in Ukraine, where they began investing in property, including their first hotel and indoor water park.

“After years living far from our fatherland—and gaining certain success and reputation overseas—my co-workers and I were eager to come back and invest in our home country,” adds Sun Group Vice Chairman Dang Minh Truong. “As we launch new tourism projects, we’re confident our efforts will boost the growth of Vietnam’s economy and bring the country to the world map of ‘luxury leisure travel.’”

SUN GROUP

The Sun Group opened Southeast Asia's largest theme park on the banks of Ha Long Bay in northern Vietnam. (Credit: SUN GROUP)

The Sun Group has four major areas of business: leisure travel (including hotels and resorts), recreation and entertainment, real estate development, and infrastructure investment. It’s made its name, though, with cable cars, connecting beautiful remote areas that were previously difficult to access. First, Sun Group built a line to the top of a mountain in central Vietnam, then another to the “Roof of Indochina,” Mount Fansipan, in the far north of the country. In the process, the group set multiple world records. Today, the company operates five cable car lines in three destinations, with at least three more in development. 

In 2014, the Sun Group launched its first amusement park in Danang, a coastal city where it also has dozens of notable projects, including investments in an InterContinental resort and a riverside Novotel. This past year, the Sun Group opened the Dragon Park and adjoining Typhoon Water Park in Ha Long Bay, at the other end of the cable car from the “Sun Wheel.” In addition to rides and slides, Sun Group’s attractions have family entertainment centers (FECs), wax museums, 4-D, 5-D, and 360-degree theaters, alpine slides, and more to entertain guests. At the same time, the Sun Group is building timeshare condos, hotels, highways, and even an airport.

“The four areas where we do investment support each other,” explains Thanh. “When you develop the infrastructure, it’s easier to get to the attraction area; the value of the real estate goes up. It’s a circle—everything supports each other.”

The Sun World Halong Complex is a good case in point. The park only became fully operational at the end of April 2017, and at that time, company officials projected 1.5 million visitors. After a new highway to Hanoi is completed, presumably in 2018, management projects attendance will double. The improved infrastructure is also driving the prices and rental yields of units in Sun Premier Village Ha Long Bay, its upscale beachside resort next to the park. The development launched in July 2017 with some units selling for as much as US$930,000, while guaranteeing investors an annual return of at least 9 percent.

The Sun Group’s growth comes against the backdrop of a steadily expanding economy, emerging middle class, and rising foreign tourism. Vietnam’s economy grew an estimated 6.8 percent in 2017 and is expected to expand even faster this year. Inflation, meanwhile, remains low at about 3.5 percent. Nearly 13 million international travelers visited Vietnam last year, up 29 percent from a year earlier; China is the country’s largest market. Domestic tourism is also on the rise.

Sun Group brought in Spain’s Parques Reunidos to manage Dragon Park and Typhoon Park in Ha Long Bay. The companies are also in talks to expand Parques Reunidos’ services to other Sun Group properties. 

“Vietnam is growing very fast, and [the country] has changed a lot,” says Parques Reunidos Project Manager Denis Pascal, explaining why his company was keen to enter the market. “Now the Vietnamese income in each home is higher, and they’re starting to think about leisure, tours, and things to do.”

While rising incomes help foster the leisure market, low airfares mean Vietnamese attractions must also compete against international brands and more established parks elsewhere in the region. The Sun Group is working with a range of international partners, including Itec Entertainment, International Theme Park Services (ITPS), ECA2, and Wyatt Design Group to help deliver experiences at world-class standards.

“We will make the Vietnamese people proud. They can play and have fun, and don’t have to go outside to Hong Kong or Singapore to play in this type of park [anymore],” says Thanh.

Ascending Dragon

Over the past 10 years, the Sun Group has launched six major attractions in three locales across central and northern Vietnam. At least five more projects are in the pipeline. 

SUN GROUPSun World Ba Na Hills

Located about an hour from the central coastal city of Danang, visitors must take a 17-minute cable car—advertised as one of the longest single-rope cable car systems in the world—to reach the Sun World Ba Na Hills resort. Along the way, they experience spectacular views of forest canopy and waterfalls below, as well as the ocean on the horizon and nearby mountains. 

Record-Breaking Ascents

Guinness World Records earned by Vietnam’s Sun Group’s cable car installations:

• Biggest Cable Car Cabin 
(a double-decker cabin in Ha Long Bay that can carry 230 passengers)

• Tallest Cable Car Tower (620 feet in Ha Long Bay)

• Longest Nonstop Cable Car (19,032 feet in Sun World Ba Na Hills)

• Longest Nonstop, Three-Rope Cable Car (3.9 miles at Sun World Fansipan Legend in Sapa)

• Highest Ascent by a Cable Car (4,488 feet in Sun World Ba Na Hills)

• Highest Ascent by a Three-Rope Cable Car (4,626 feet at Sun World Fansipan Legend in Sapa)

The top of the hill is largely themed as a romantic French village, with a town square, medieval church, quaint shop fronts, flower gardens, turrets, and parapet walls, though there are also sections with Asian temples, a Japanese tea house, and an 88-foot-tall Buddha statue. For the cost of the cable car ticket (US$30 adults/US$25 children, with cheaper prices for local residents), visitors can also enjoy an indoor attraction center (with 4-D theaters, dark rides, and a drop tower) and double-spiral alpine slide.

Ba Na Hills was Sun Group’s first attraction and remains its most popular. More than 2 million people visited in 2016. The highlands provide a welcome respite from Vietnam’s hot, muggy summers. Vietnamese couples can frequently be spotted posing for wedding photos in front of the church or against the mountain backdrop. A new castle—designed by Itec, with dark rides and a coaster—and a 120-room, five-star MGallery Hotel are under construction. Both are slated to open in 2019.

SUN WORLD DANANG WONDERS

Danang Wonders' newest acquistion, "Queen Cobra," is a suspended coaster that climbs 111 feet before coming down at nearly 50 mph along five continuous twists. (Credit: SUN GROUP DANANG WONDERS)

Sun World Danang Wonders

Sun World’s first amusement park, Danang Wonders (formerly Asia Park) opened in July 2014 on the west bank of the Han River in Danang, which has a population of about 1 million. A 377-foot-high observation wheel is the focal point of the park. There’s also an FEC (with unlimited free video games), a host of family rides, and three roller coasters, including the recently added US$6 million suspended “Queen Cobra.” Much of the inventory was purchased from South Carolina’s now-defunct Freestyle Music Park (formerly known as Hard Rock Park), then re-themed for Danang Wonders, enabling the Sun Group to spend considerably less than owners of similarly sized parks. Land has also been set aside for a cultural park that will highlight the food and architecture of 10 Asian countries.

Sun World Fansipan Legend

A two-day trek to the “Roof of Indochina” has been replaced by a 15-minute Doppelmayr Cable Car ride. The cable car overcame engineering and geographical challenges to link the northern mountain town of Sapa with Mount Fansipan, and it garnered two Guinness World Records in the process. Sun Group’s Truong tells Funworld that Fansipan Legend “has realized the dreams of millions of local and international tourists” since its launch in February 2016, and “can be seen as a milestone project in Vietnam in terms of scale and construction challenges.”

SUN GROUP/PARQUES REUNIDOS

 Sun World's Typhoon Water Park opened in April 2017 and features 12 attractions. The park is divided into three zones for families, teenagers, and kids. (Credit: SUN GROUP/PARQUES REUNIDOS) 

Sun World Halong Complex

Billed as the largest theme park in Southeast Asia, there are three adjacent Sun World attractions in Ha Long Bay, each with its own admission ticket. The Mystic Mountain Complex—featuring a cable car, towering Ferris wheel, indoor entertainment complex, wax museum, Japanese gardens, and an alpine slide—was the first to open, in June 2016. Seven months later, Dragon Park Ha Long debuted with three intense rides—including Huss’ Top Spin Suspended and Topple Tower—as well as 17 family rides. “Dragon’s Run,” a Bolliger & Mabillard coaster, features several inversions and more than 3,600 feet of track. The Typhoon Water Park rounds out the triumvirate; it opened its doors in April 2017, with a large wave pool and an array of attractions from ProSlide. The parks are operated by Parques Reunidos, while the Sun Group directly manages Mystic Mountain. Beachside timeshare villas are currently under construction. A luxury hotel, five-continent-focused cultural park, a large plaza for events, and iconic multimedia spectacular are also coming soon.

In the Pipeline

As if the Sun Group didn’t have enough on its plate with recent openings and the rollout of new phases in its existing attractions, there are several big projects in the pipeline, including:

A high-end ecotourism complex on Cat Ba Island that will have a theme park, water park, golf courses, a multimedia spectacular from ECA2, “condotels,” public beaches, and, of course, a record-breaking cable car. Work started in May 2017 on this US$3 billion project, located near Hai Phong approximately 13 miles southwest of the Sun World Halong Complex.

A 100-hectare, US$200 million theme park in Hanoi aspires to offer world-class attractions while highlighting northern Vietnamese culture. Named after a legendary golden turtle, the Kim Quy Park is designed by Itec, Arup, and One Landscape. Construction began in 2016, and the park is slated to open later this year.

A US$450 million cable car on Phu Quoc island in the south of Vietnam (to accompany an award-winning, Bill Bensley-designed luxury spa), an ecotourism complex in the mountainous Vinh Phuc province northwest of Hanoi, and a casino situated about 30 miles from Ha Long City. 

Major infrastructure projects including an airport in the Van Don Economic Zone (where the casino will be located), a port in Ha Long, and new highways, as well as residential properties in Hanoi.


Michael Switow is a Singapore-based journalist who covers the Asia-Pacific attractions industry for Funworld.