Exposed: Tourist blackjack scam in Vietnam

Exposed: Tourist blackjack scam in Vietnam

Make sure you're not the next to be duped by Ho Chi Minh City's card sharps

Inside a small house in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, four people sit at a table playing blackjack.

“Uncle Manoy” is dealing. He says he’s a professional dealer at the “Royal Hotel."

“Cousin Louie” sits opposite. He has told the woman beside him, Martha, that he is a local gym teacher.

Sitting across from Martha is a man who Manoy introduces as a banker from Singapore. Most players would consider him the ideal opponent; he’s throwing around lots of cash carelessly.

The “banker” ups the ante to US$1,000. Martha’s heart pounds. She has 21 but not enough cash to keep going. Manoy, who has previously agreed to be her “secret partner,” winks and lends her the necessary US$1,000. She wins again. 

Not so fast

But not everything -- actually nothing -- in this high-stakes card game is what it seems.

Manoy and Louie are not Vietnamese, nor are they Malaysians, as they claim.

Those aren’t their real names.

Our banker isn’t Singaporean or even a banker. All three men are from the Philippines and unknown to Martha, have been running a gambling scam in Ho Chi Minh -- also called Saigon -- for several years.

More importantly, Martha isn’t a professional gambler. She’s just a regular backpacker visiting Vietnam on holiday and today she’s also the Filipino card sharps' “mark.”

The hook

Vietnam card scamVictims have accused this man of posing as a dealer named “Woody” or “Let.” This story is one that's often repeated in Saigon.

The scam artists’ aim is to snare foreigners who are traveling alone and have just arrived in Vietnam for the first time.

Though most travelers who are approached do not go along with the con artists, many visitors have complained that the group is a nuisance.

“I tell them that they're the 10th, 11th, or 12th person who knows someone going to work in a hospital in my home town and I think it's very interesting,” says one traveler, sarcastically.

The stories are often similar in nature: a person claiming to be from Malaysia strikes up a conversation with you in the street. One ploy is to say their daughter is applying for a visa to visit your home country.

An invitation is extended for you to meet the daughter, due to the coincidental connection.

However, on arriving at home, the daughter is at the hospital because the grandmother has been taken ill. So instead you will be invited to lunch.

Lunch turns into a friendly blackjack game, when suddenly one of the players, a "Singapore banker," pulls out a case containing around US$50,000.

The game sours

That’s when everything falls apart. Martha, a recent victim of the scam and whose name has been changed here, explains: “If I walk away, he wins the pot. Already over-extended by US$1,000 and not wanting Manoy to lose his money, I panic.”

Martha makes an agreement with the banker: he can keep some of her personal valuables as collateral while Louie and the rest of the family escort her to a bank to withdraw the rest.

Martha manages to withdraw nearly US$1,000. She hands it to the men, who accept, saying a loan shark could cover the rest.

The gang let her go, now that they have what they were after.

A well organized syndicate

vietnam card mafiaTwo card sharps flee security guards at a shopping mall. Both are still regularly seen with groups approaching tourists.According to some estimates, more than 50 individuals are working in an organized gang within Saigon, divided into multiple cells. Most are from the Philippines although they have Vietnamese accomplices.

They wait on streets frequented by tourists, such as Phan Ngu Lao, Le Loi, and Dong Khoi.

Their daily stakeouts include landmarks like 29 Thang 9 Park, adjacent to Pham Ngu Lao; the front entrances of Parkson and Vincom shopping centers; and Bach Tung Diep Park in front of the Ho Chi Minh City Museum. 

While most scenarios involve a conversation that evolves into an invitation to meet a family member who happens to be visiting the victim’s country of origin, there are other variations.

Another common scenario starts with a request for the victim to translate a letter received from overseas.

Some victims lose big

Some victims are not as lucky as Martha. “I lost US$12,000, I feel like such a fool, I knew I should have walked away but I didn’t,” blogs a victim named Mick.

“As well as the money I handed over to them, they also took my camera and I was threatened with violence if I didn’t co-operate. … The hardest part is getting past the humiliation and anger at myself for allowing this to happen to me.”

Even though the group may successfully lure a victim to a secluded location, they aren’t always able to dupe them into card games. In these cases, some victims allege being drugged or kidnapped and then robbed.

Efforts are being made to clamp down on the scam artists.

When six Filipinos in the group were arrested last May, grabbing headlines across Vietnam, city police said they had assembled a special investigative task force following complaints from mainly Japanese and South Korean tourists who had been fleeced out of large sums of money by “Asians speaking English.”

Police said one victim had been taken for US$20,000. A Japanese national allegedly lost US$8,000

A difficult investigation

In a letter sent last March to Thanh Nien Weekly, the Philippines' ambassador, Jerril G. Santos, wrote: “As of December 2, 2010, we know of five cases involving nine Filipinos in detention centers or awaiting trial in court … only arrests that progress into court cases are officially conveyed to the Embassy for appropriate consular assistance and representation.”

He added, “A few arrests of Filipino nationals reported to the Embassy by other Filipinos did not progress into court cases.”

According to sources however, most or all of these individuals have since been released. 

Travel warnings regarding these cases have been posted on the U.K., U.S., Australian and Canadian embassy websites.

Meanwhile, the card sharps continue to stalk the streets of Saigon, waiting patiently for the next innocent tourist to fall into their trap.


Adam Bray has contributed to more than 15 guidebooks to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, and has written (and in many cases provided photography) for publishers such as DK Eyewitness, Insight Guides, Thomas Cook, ThingsAsian, Berlitz and Time Out. He is fluent in Vietnamese and speaks a smattering of other local languages, including Cham and Khmer.

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