Simon Stanley gets a sneak peek at the first professional motor racing circuit in Vietnam. Photo by Vinh Dao.
An alpine white BMW slides sideways out of the bend towards us, its polished bodywork glinting, its rear tyres screaming, and two white-hot exhausts growling as its driver teeters on the razor-sharp edge of control. Through a cloud of tyre smoke and dust, the agile 5-Series rushes past the press pack before swinging its nose towards the next corner.
It’s late March and I’m at HappyLand Circuit, a motorsport complex currently under construction in Long An province, 35 kilometres from downtown Saigon. As construction workers continue to toil over the pit garages, the spectator’s area, the hospitality suites, the inner motocross circuit and the adjoining quarter-mile drag-strip, a small section of the 1.5 kilometre outer track has been opened to give a taste of what’s to come.
“We will eventually have seating for 25,000 people,” says Nguyen Ngoc Hoan, the track’s designer and HappyLand Circuit director. As the first track of its kind in the country, Hoan hopes it will soon put Vietnam on the region’s motorsport map. “Next year I want Vietnam to be on par with Malaysia and Thailand,” he says, referring to the world-class racing scenes in both countries.
Leaving the track’s edge, we shelter from the sun on the first-floor balcony of what will become the ‘super-VIP’ hospitality suite, now dubbed the ‘white castle’. A dozen super-bikes eagerly rev their engines, awaiting the green light on the tarmac below. Owing to its current width, bike racing will be the focus on HappyLand’s main track – the cars are just for show – although an off-road rally-car course has been marked out in the nearby fields.
Hoan’s a happy man; the cacophony of exhausts clearly music to his ears. “I’ve waited a long time for this,” he says. The flag falls, the bikes take off and Hoan looks over his budding empire.
28-year-old salesman Nguyen Hung steps off of his Honda CBR600 after a gruelling session of practice laps. Having owned a progressively larger and faster array of sports-bikes since his teens, from 150cc to 200, 400, and now 600, today is his first time riding on a dedicated racetrack away from public roads, laws and speed limits.
Dressed in full race-spec clothing – leathers, full-face helmet, boots and knee-sliders – he tells me how he’s been getting on.
“It’s difficult,” he says, “because I cannot find the correct racing line yet. Also, my tyres are for the streets, not for racing, so it’s quite slippery.”
For Hung and the growing community of sports-bike enthusiasts in Vietnam, HappyLand’s grand opening couldn’t come sooner.
“In Vietnam we’ve never had a racetrack like this before,” he says. “I used to dream about going to Thailand and Malaysia to race, but it is very far and I cannot take my bike. I could only go to watch. Having this circuit has made me really happy.”
Veteran of the Vietnamese motocross scene, Dang Nhat Minh, is a director at motorsports events company Red Wing, which will bring races and spectators to HappyLand. “We are building the foundations of racing in Vietnam here,” he says. “We’ve started at nothing, taking it one step at a time.” Through Red Wing, Minh hopes to teach a domestic audience about the appreciation of motorsport. “The second step is safety,” he adds, “both off and on the track. Then the third step is to send riders outside of Vietnam to compete abroad.”
Like circuit director Hoan, the team at Red Wing are keen to see riders like Hung quickly progress into the big leagues. “I think professional Vietnamese racers will start coming up next year,” says Minh.
With his 250kph Honda, and a place on HappyLand’s forthcoming training course (hosted by Malaysian Grand Prix rider Azlan Shah Kamaruzaman), Hung, naturally, wants to be among the first band of pro racers.
“Of course, I want to try. I want to be like Valentino Rossi,” he says. Despite his enthusiasm, he’s also realistic. “But maybe it’s too late for me. They will have smaller bikes here, like 50cc or 70cc, so I will bring my kids so they can learn to ride.”
As well as regular safety courses and skills training, HappyLand will host a range of bike and car events aimed at wowing audiences while nurturing a new generation of petrol-heads. Drag-racing, off-road rally-cross, moto-gymkhana, stunt shows, go-karting… HappyLand wants to do it all. Additionally, Hoan hopes that MiniGP will become a popular event for those wishing to cut their teeth in the racing world. Featuring four-stroke, 125cc compact versions of full-blown racing bikes, MiniGP has been the starting point for many of the world’s top riders. It’s also much cheaper, slower and, most importantly, safer. “This will be better for everyone in Vietnam,” says Hoan.
With various open-days planned, I ask if anyone can simply show up and let loose on his track. The answer is a firm “no”. The track’s technical team will assess every new rider’s abilities, explains Hoan, following an inspection of whatever vehicle they’ve brought along (although bikes will be available to hire). If your skills are not up to scratch, you’ll be invited to join the race school.
The Big Picture
From the top of the white castle, we look out across the surrounding fields, all now owned by the HappyLand project. Covering 338 hectares, it’s immense. But it doesn’t quite match the developer’s masterplan. Five years after breaking ground, the grassland around the circuit, initially ear-marked to become the multi-billion dollar HappyLand theme-park and entertainment complex, shows little evidence of the hotels, roller-coasters, cinemas and restaurants that were once scheduled for completion in 2014.
Beset by delays and funding difficulties, it’s hard to see how what was initially touted to become Vietnam’s answer to Disneyland will ever work out here. However, Hoan’s plan for an equally immense, international-standard motorsport complex (reaching far beyond the circuit’s current boundaries) might just be the answer. Vietnam has the weather, the space and a growing generation of speed enthusiasts with money to spend and fuel to burn. I’m reminded of a small village in the middle of England. Rural and remote, like HappyLand, it was unheard of until a nearby abandoned airforce base, known as RAF Silverstone, became an impromptu venue for motor races in the late 1940s.
While Vietnam won’t be hosting a Formula One Grand Prix anytime soon, by the time these words reach you, HappyLand Circuit should be up and running, with the completion of the spectator, hospitality and garage facilities coming later in the year. So if you want to find out just how fast your little Honda Dream can go, or fancy honing your skills on something a little nippier, the gates of HappyLand await.
Published May 2016 – AsiaLIFE Magazine