Gambling and Casinos - Vietnam's underground pasttime

Submitted by tomo on October 30, 2012 - 9:08pm

Vietnamese people love gambling. If there's anything Vietnamese people are famous for it's (in order):

1. Nail salons
2. Pho
3. Gambling
4. Maybe a long off 4th would be: Billiards

The surprising thing is that there aren't really that many nail salons in Vietnam.

The Vietnamese government, probably rightfully so, have decided that Vietnamese people should not be allowed to gamble. But unlike America, where casinos are banned from existing in most cities and states (which is why Las Vegas, a place in the middle of the desert, initially attracts people from across the country), there are actually a lot of casinos legally operating in Ho Chi Minh City - in all, 43 gambling establishments concentrated in Hanoi and Saigon. But local Vietnamese are not allowed to step foot in them except to work inside them. Viet Kieu who have foreign passports can come though. Casinos are inside many of the big 5-star (down to 3-star) hotels like Caravelle, Majestic, New World Hotel, Equatorial Hotel in District 5, Movenpick Hotel in Phu Nhuan, etc. Saigon's casinos are all fairly small and nothing like Vegas (or even Macau). They are usually empty when I randomly check them out - purely for research purposes. They may be completely electronic, including all card games.

As I was saying, Vietnamese people love to gamble. Poor people don't need to beg for money in Vietnam because they can instead sell lottery tickets which everyone buys. Vietnamese people don't consider buying lottery tickets gambling. You can see card games, what they do consider gambling, in action at Tet. For the few days of Tet, every house in Vietnam turns into a casino. Kids are taught how to gamble (but not necessarily how to gamble well) and they gamble away the "lucky money" they receive from parents and other elders. For those few days, people are allowed to concentrate in small alleys and play card games for money and the police don't care.

The rest of the year, Vietnamese who want to bet on cards have another choice: make a run for the border town of Bavet (remember to enable 3G on your Cambodian MetFone account) in Cambodia's Svay Rieng province, just across from Moc Bai, which itself is just outside of Ho Chi Minh City. You can take a Saigon city bus from downtown Ben Thanh Market to Moc Bai and then walk across the border. What you'll be greeted with is a single drag with almost nothing but shabby casino buildings with names like Le Macau. In this area, your phone's Vietnamese sim card will probably still work, people will be fluent in both Khmer and Vietnamese, and stores will accept Vietnamese dong as well as riel or dollars.

Inside a Bavet casino you'll find the standard casino card games like blackjack (or Vietnamese "xi dach" / "xi lac"), poker, baccarat, and slot machines. At the casinos for rich gamblers the food and drinks will be free. You'll also find cock fighting (da ga) inside the casinos! Vietnamese people also love betting on sports and there are also a number of online Vietnamese sites where they can transfer money and bet on football matches. Strangely, these websites are very popular yet aren't blocked by the ISPs...

The downside to having a mini-Vegas right across the border of the country's largest and richest city:

Many Vietnamese gamblers are not very successful at it. They borrow money to go to casinos in Cambodia and then lose. When they lose, they either try to borrow more money (loan sharks right there in Bavet are willing to lend losers money) or they find some other way to access money. When they lose all that money then they have to deal with the mafia elements common to any numbers racket. They will be held for ransom. If they have daughters, people will be sent into Vietnam to kidnap the bettor's daughter who will then be sold into prostitution to pay off her father's debt. If they win, they can use their winnings to pay for the favors of the daughter of another past gambler. You can also buy drugs (mostly ecstacy) to ply your short-time lover with.

I guess this is what Hanoi's morality police want to discourage by banning casinos from serving Vietnamese people.

Michael Gildchrist (not verified)

Great information! Baccarat Game must be popular game in Vietnam.

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