The ambitious HappyLand project, located about 20 minutes outside Ho Chi Minh City, covers hundreds of hectares, claims an investment budget of US$2 billion, and following its completion in 2014, plans to draw 14 million visitors a year – by Richard Meyer
But it’s hard to get anyone to talk about the amusement park, hotel and entertainment project, which broke ground last year. When the project was announced in 2011, it claimed also to include a casino, although it has not yet been granted a casino license. Chances are it will never be granted one.
Overview rendering of the Happyland project
Despite having an elaborate website, holding many a party and promotional event and advertising its association with many A-list service providers, HappyLand is a project nobody really wants to discuss—not even the company itself.
HappyLand’s phones and the phones of the Khang Thong group, the parent company, went unanswered or were answered by people who had nothing to say. Emails sent received no replies.
Christine Tran, an employee at HappyLand Media, claims that her company is not involved with the HappyLand project, despite the fact that HappyLand Media’s website (http://www.happylandmedia.vn) is the website for the Happyland project. Tran provided a number that did not seem to lead to HappyLand and did not respond to follow-up emails seeking clarification.
Most companies listed as HappyLand partners chose not to talk about the project. World-renowned casino architect Paul Steelman, who was commissioned to be the designer and architect for the 999- room HappyLand Hotel, declined to be interviewed, even though HappyLand is still featured on the ‘In Design’ page on the Steelman Partners website
“Happyland is going to be a huge financial success,” Mr Steelman had proclaimed earlier in a 2011 press release.
Miranda Fong, office administrator, Steelman Architecture Asia, offered the following response to an emailed question about the current state of HappyLand: “I believe we are not in the position to answer the question: is the project still on? as we are not the owner of HappyLand.”
Representatives of Joseph Jackson, Michael Jackson’s father and at one point named as a Happyland investor, declined to comment, referring only to a 27th January, 2012 press release in which Mr Jackson said he was declining to proceed with any further investment in the project after conducting due diligence.
Joseph Jackson, Michael Jackson’s father
One person associated with the project did agree to speak off the record. The professional, who is well acquainted with HappyLand and Phan Thi Phuong Thao, chairwoman of Khang Thong, said that for all intents and purposes the project is dead. It is out of money and not paying its bills, has lost the support of its main investor and its outside service providers, and has lost key employees.
“It’s completely moribund at this point,” the source said. “She doesn’t have much to show for the millions of dollars spent.”
According to the source, Ms Thao got her start in the sand and gravel business and made a good deal of money in the process. She was going to expand and build an industrial park, but the government convinced her to develop an amusement project instead. She then began to enlist a bevy of of major international firms to help her in creating HappyLand.
The list is impressive. In addition to Mr Steelman, she also hired or had some association with: Hill International, the US-based construction management firm Savills Vietnam; Marco Polo Hotels; PricewaterhouseCoopers; and Deloitte Global Services.
What she lacked, the source said, was a workable plan. She spent money on the look and feel of success, but did not have a way to attract significant capital or make sensible investments. Mostly the company held parties and tried to create a buzz.
One story is as instructive as it is amusing. At one point in the company’s development, a professional contracted by the firm was asked to attend a party celebrating a new joint venture. It was a big, extravagant affair with hundreds of guests. When the professional asked Ms Thao who was being honored, she responded: “you”.
“She didn’t have a business plan,” the source said. “What she became very good at doing was throwing big parties. Nothing more.”
And it is not clear she was good at that either. Images of the parties featured on the HappyLand website resemble a series of staged photo ops. Consider the following pictures, captioned, respectively, “The special and distinguished performance” and “The party took place very happily and warmly.” In the centre of the second picture stands Joe Jackson beside Ms Thao.
The finished product, at least as it has been envisioned, is a strange mishmash of Disney, Hollywood and Las Vegas. You get a Maoist-looking boardwalk, creepy cartoon figures, a mock-Gothic suspension bridge and ‘Winery Villa’ that’s such a collision of competing styles it’s hard to know where to begin.
Judging from construction progress photos on the Khang Thong Group website, http://www.khangthong.vn, and the ThemeParkGuy website,
“They never approached the project from the point of view of what would be attractive from the financing point of view,” the source said. “There is nothing to find money for because there’s no business plan. The model she put together is very rudimentary. It doesn’t really bear any relationship to reality.”
He says he actually thought the project at one point had a lot of potential. It is, after all, situated in a good location, on a highway 20 minutes from a large city and regionally less than three hours by air from a number of major population centers: Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore. If developed properly, he argues, it could have been a worthwhile project.
The source adds it should have been built in manageable stages over time. Most of all, it should have been planned without the promise of a casino. The mistake that many aspiring gaming entrepreneurs make is to believe and try to sell the idea that you can build first and then get the license, he says. This rarely works, and it is a particularly bad strategy in Vietnam.
The country is very cautious about gaming. It only has three casinos in existence or in the works: the Do Son Casino in Hai Phong City; the Crowne International Casino in Da Nang City; and the MGM Ho Tram Casino in Vung Tau Province. New licenses, as the laws now stand, would only be granted to foreign investors bringing in more than US$4 billion and opening establishments restricting access to foreigners only.
HappyLand probably would not have been able to qualify for a gaming license. More to the point, it’s unlikely that major international investors would ever pour money into HappyLand in the hope that it could eventually get the proper gaming permissions.
It really doesn’t much matter anymore whether HappyLand made sense as a business or not, for events have overtaken the project. The local economy is falling apart as banks face bad debts and as a property bubble collapses. Even if HappyLand had been built to the right scale, it still may not have worked.
“A number of projects in the area have failed. There’s lots of excess capacity,” says a banker in Vietnam not involved in HappyLand but acquainted with it. “Not a good project. They are trying to sell tracts of land and marketing that there will be a Disneyland next to it—a marketing ploy.”
In the end and all told, the professional who was close to the project and knows it well is quite sympathetic toward Ms Thao, the chairwoman. He feels that some of the service providers may have taken advantage of her. They agreed to do the work and took the money, perhaps knowing full well that the project would never get off the ground.
“I feel badly for her,” he said of Ms Thao. “She has been fleeced pretty thoroughly by people who knew exactly what they were doing.
Rendering of one of the planned attractions from the official Happyland website
Richard Meyer is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok, Thailand, and covers the Indochina markets for Inside Asian Gaming.