Like most Asians, Vietnamese people enjoy a little flutter. Watch any card game and you’ll see small piles of low-denomination notes on the table alongside cans of beer. Observe the spectators after a big football match and you’ll sometimes see money changing hands. Cockfights, long a traditional pursuit, wouldn’t be the same were it not for the chance to place a bet on your favourite cockerel. Gambling is an ingrained and mostly harmless part of the country’s culture.
But, much to the frustration of eager punters, gambling is forbidden by Vietnamese law. In fact it’s not only forbidden but punishable. If you’re a would-be punter that frustration would reach boiling point should you discover that a huge, glittering casino has been built on the outskirts of your town. As much as you’d like to, you can’t enter that casino; entry is restricted to overseas passport holders only. If you really want to gamble, your only option is to resort to an illegal form of the pastime, whether it be online gambling, playing cards, betting on sports results, cockfights, or dice games.
It’s rumoured that the Vietnamese Government is toying with the idea of legalising some forms of controlled gambling and making casinos accessible to any citizen over 20 years of age. Preventing the outflow of VND and harvesting the not-insignificant tax revenues from casino operators are tempting incentives for them to do so. They have, no doubt, eyed the $25 million in revenue that the Cambodian Government reaps yearly from the gambling sector. It’s also said that the government has already solicited bids from overseas suppliers for technical assistance in building and operating casinos and managerial training.
But it’s still just a rumour, and has been for some years now. In the meantime, if you’re Vietnamese and determined to gamble you can pay a short visit to Cambodia, where around 40 casinos await your pleasure round the clock. Bavet, an otherwise unremarkable one-horse town right on the border, exists for that very reason - satisfying the Vietnamese demand for gambling. It’s a veritable gamblers’ paradise, but you’ve got to exit Vietnam to take advantage of it. There are plenty of people willing to do just that, as thousands of visitors a day head to Bavet’s gambling venues.
Apart from escaping the country there are almost no legal options available for would-be Vietnamese gamblers. Except for the lottery, that is.
Call me an eternal optimist, but I’ve been buying lottery tickets for years. When you buy one in the West you can watch the draw on TV at the end of the week. All those balls spinning round and round, and then one number drops down. Number four. Hey, that’s me! Next ball: number seven. I’ve got that too! Wow, I could be on my way to untold riches! Next ball: number two. Damn! Better luck next week.
In the West the lottery draw is all very open, above-board, and, as the politicians like to say, transparent. Here in Vietnam I buy lottery tickets but I can’t help thinking that the draw is a little less than transparent. For one thing, there’s no broadcast of the draw. It’s done behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny. When you buy a ticket you don’t have to wait until the end of the week to find out if you’re a new billionaire or not. Buy a ticket at 4pm and that very night you can check on your mobile phone to see whether you’ve won. All very convenient, fast, and, to me, a trifle ‘iffy’.
Consider for a moment the multitude of lottery ticket sellers. They trudge around the city streets day after day, approaching anyone and everyone they see for a sale. For every VND10,000 ticket they sell they net VND1,000. And, of course, unless they’re extremely lucky, at the end of the day they still have a dozen or so unsold tickets. So, what do they do? In all likelihood they compare that evening’s winning numbers with the numbers they’re still holding. And then if by chance they discover they’re in possession of a winning ticket, what next? They claim the prize of course, as any right-minded person would do. Goodbye daily grind and hello ‘la dolce vita’. Perhaps that’s permissible in Vietnam, but it still strikes me as a bit dodgy.
Lotteries in Vietnam have a long history. The first one started in the early 1930s during French rule. With so few opportunities for Vietnamese to legally gamble, lottery tickets are a hot item, and reap $1.2 billion a year for the government’s coffers.
Alright, so what if I was lucky enough to win the top prize of VND1.5 billion? While nowhere in the region of the Powerball prizes in the US, it’s still a sizeable chunk of money. What would I buy?
Let’s see … a house, and a car, and a round-the-world air ticket. Hang on a minute, think again. A spacious, well-appointed house in a sought-after location would cost VND3 billion; twice the lottery windfall. OK then, scrub the house idea - I’ll settle for a Range Rover. Nope, sorry. They cost 5 billion, which is even further out of reach. Oh, hell. Alright, I suppose a new Toyota sedan will do. At 535 million that’s affordable. Yes, a Toyota for me, and one for the wife too. Electronic toys, bicycles, phones and laptops for the kids? Why not? There goes another 100 million. Which leaves me with around 400 million to squander. A second honeymoon at the Vinpearl Luxury Hotel in Nha Trang? Lovely. The tab of VND30 million might be a trifle expensive, but, hey, I can afford it. Right, next the round-the-world air ticket. If I shop around I can pick one up for about $8,000, or VND180 million. Tickets for me, the wife and the two kids will come to VND700 million or so. Out of the question, I’m afraid. That’s way beyond the budget. Alright, I’ll just have to make do with return tickets to Singapore - that’s 12 million. And then of course there are the relatives to think about. Let’s say 4 million a head for the six of them - that should keep them happy for the time being.
So - take a deep breath and tally up what’s left. Three hundred and sixty four million dong, to be precise. Living costs for two or, if I’m careful, three years. After that I’ll have to trade in the Toyotas for second-hand Nissans and start buying lottery tickets again. You never know your luck though - lightning has been known to strike in the same place twice!