Vietnam is a paradise of low-cost living, tropical surroundings, and delicious food. It's a perfect recipe for inexpensive indulgence, but what is playing poker like?

Well, I’ve lived in Vietnam for 5 years and played poker almost the entire time. I’ve won several small tournaments and had my phone, but I've also seen the worst side of poker in Vietnam.

I still think it is one of the best places in the world to live, but it may not be the best for playing live poker.

Over a two-part article series, I’ll explain why I think that.

Laws, Shady Police, and Jailed Americans

Coming from complete poker legality in my home country, I felt a bit confused in Vietnam. You hear a lot from many different sources, sometimes badly translated. Via word of mouth, I heard many things from other foreigners.

  • Don’t play cash games here”.

I’d heard this plenty of times and it is completely true. Cash games are completely different in the eyes of the law. While tournaments are allowed and permitted by the Bridge and Poker Vietnam Association, cash games remain highly illegal. According to the law, you’ll be fined and deported at the very least. However, I heard much worse.

This doesn’t stop those who think they can fly under the radar, including two heads of the Vietnamese Golf Association who were recently caught up.

A classic scene from a busted private game

In 2020, a rumor reached me about an American player. He'd entered an underground cash game and got busted, sometime around 2004. He was apparently sentenced to a 2-year prison term, but detained in the country for 8 years after that. In prison, his parents were forced to send money for basic meals and necessities, or so the story goes. It sounded like enough of a deterrent.

  • Only foreigners can play poker in Vietnam.

You’ll commonly hear that only foreigners can play in the games and that local Vietnamese people are barred from entry – but that’s not what I saw. Most of the players in every tournament I entered were Vietnamese. While it's possible they had foreign passports and were “Việt kiều” (returning Vietnamese from overseas), I doubt it. More likely, laws weren’t being enforced.

  • Clubs pay off the police to stay open.

This is a statement that is undoubtedly true, though unverifiable. The police in this country are quite “entrepreneurial” at times. I’ve heard countless rumors about club owners making weekly or monthly payments to police, who ensure their smooth operation, much like a Mafia protection racket.

After almost half a decade of living in the country, you see bribery constantly. On a motorbike, you can be pulled over for anything or no reason at all. Next thing you know, your bike is loaded onto their truck and there's a fine to pay. Local Vietnamese folk tell me this is just an efficient way to exract cash from riders, but it's no bluff.

Police are an ultimate and nearly unchecked power here, but bribes can cost $10-$50 at a time for minor offenses (but more if you drive a car). Citizens bribe the police to avoid traffic fines, keep their vehicles, and proceed on with their days. Businesses wanting to sell alcohol also bribe police for permits and the same goes for balloons of nitrous oxide in the nightlife districts. With the advent of body cameras, bribery is more undercover, but it remains.

What many imagine most of Vietnam looks like

The Money in Vietnam

I think it’s important to speak about spending money in this country. If you’ve ever been to Vietnam for an inexpensive vacation, you’ll remember how odd it feels. If you’re used to living in North America or Europe, the low prices feel surreal. I have to say, this feeling never leaves.

One of the jokes here is that everyone becomes a millionaire upon arrival. It’s true, but not in your own currency. 100 American dollars is equal to about 2,500,000 Vietnamese Dong. This strange conversion can be confusing.

A rooftop bar with $10 cocktails or $5 local beers

A coffee is about 25k and a filling, healthy meal is about 50k. My first tournament win was around 16 million. That’s around $1 for the coffee, $2 for the meal, and around $800 for the tournament win.

If you’re not quick at conversions, you can easily lose track of the real amount you’re paying and winning. Most things in your life are much cheaper in this country, but assuming nothing is overpriced will cost you.

Walking into the wrong bars or clubs is another way foreigners part with their money here, (sometimes willingly). There are countless stories of wealthy Koreans or Americans getting their debit cards sucked dry. The average salary in Vietnam is about $300 per month, so someone with a few thousand in monthly income looks like prey to certain locals.

This happens all around the world and at no higher frequency in Vietnam. Despite the obvious differences between local and foreign incomes, a polite traveler will not be extorted at every purchase. Overcharging and price gouging do not seep into local businesses or restaurants. That being said, if you stumble down an alley into a seedy bar, don’t expect normal prices.

Landing in Vietnam and Searching for Poker Rooms

As I flew into Vietnam, I was a live and online cash game player at $1/$2 stakes. From my research, I already knew that my habits would need to change. Cash games were online-only for me now, thanks to this country’s bizarre laws. On a blog, some travelers spoke of a select few “Bridge & Poker” clubs that had permits to host tournaments, but it was well-known that cash games were illegal. Not just a “slap on the wrist” type of illegal either.

And so, live cash games were a no-no.

I was painfully aware of this leaving the casino in my hometown, just days before my flight. Life in Vietnam didn’t mean poker was closed off completely, but this side of it was.

I stride out of the outdated airport terminal and into the humidity of Ho Chi Minh. Where to go wasn’t clear, but I knew that the cash in my pocket would go a long way here, so I chose a taxi.

About 20 minutes later, I had forked over $100, about ten times the going rate. I didn’t ask the price beforehand and the driver was persistent, and I chalked this up to learning. Starting a new experience and full of optimism, I didn’t analyze the spot too much.

My partypoker app functioned flawlessly from the hotel and I started to plan my first live game here. I knew that playing online from Vietnam might be short-lived from partypoker, but I was aware of alternatives like Natural8 and iPoker.

And so, multi-tabling Google Maps and $0.10/$0.25 PLO, I searched Ho Chi Minh city for poker clubs.

Partypoker is a great option for players who want a quality site they can trust. The site has gone to lengths to protect players by banning HUD software and allowing players to maintain anonymity at the tables. This shouldn’t put off grinders however, as Partypoker’s tournament value and unmatched rakeback offers of up to 60% are not to be missed by any serious online player.

Getting Into My First Vietnamese Game

Thank God for Google Maps. The app had no problem directing me to my first Vietnamese poker club, Victorious Poker.

At first, I thought I was in the wrong place. The lobby was not decorated like any poker room I’d ever seen. The red carpet was the only casino-like feature along with a small podium. Behind it hid a twenty-something-year-old employee, scrolling through Instagram. With a passport and a small “new member fee” of about 5 USD, I became a Victorious Club player.

Feeling like I’d just been fleeced of $5, I was ushered through a set of doors.

Behind them was something I’d never seen before. A few grown men stood around something that looked like an air hockey table with a screen on top. They were shooting at fish and something told me that this quite child-like looking game was for real cash.

I later found out that it’s called game bàn cá, or fish table game.

For now, I went upstairs to the poker room.

bàn cá involves shooting fish and collecting the points they drop

First Impressions of a Vietnamese Bridge & Poker Club

The room exceeded expectations. It’s tough to find space in the densely populated Ho Chi Minh City, so I was instantly surprised by how spacious it was. About two-thirds was taken by tables, with a raised podium and a final table at the end of the hall. There was a reception booth, a smoking area, and a full kitchen tucked out of sight. Large screens showed levels and in general, it was quite luxurious.

A $50 rebuy MTT was already underway, down to around 20 players.

An average daily schedule at Victorious

One security guard was present, burning small printed joss paper in a slightly superstitious but popular Buddhist practice. Apparently, this is an offering to ancestors in the afterlife. I had no issue with the practice, but it was a sight to see. The metal bucket was holding a substantial fire and sending up a lot of smoke, and this room didn’t have world-class ventilation.

We all lost a year of our lives that day from smoke inhalation, at minimum. Then again, it was probably equal to the smog on the streets, which is something I’d accepted.

You have to understand that Ho Chi Minh is a city of contrast. On the corner of this street, a vendor sells iced coffee for $0.60 and fresh coconut juice for $1. But upstairs in the poker room, players are buying into tournaments for $100 at times. Not a large amount to most readers, but that’s about half of the average monthly salary in Vietnam.

That much money (called Dong, which many foreigners find hilarious) goes a long way in this part of the world. Someone could easily find accommodation and food for a week on that much money. It would be simple to find three delicious meals for $10 a day, even now in 2024 (and probably into the future).

The room had been a surprise, but would the tournaments be as loose as another foreigner had assured me?

full house, nut flush, and straight flush – is this Casino Royale?

Hồ Chí Minh Poker Tournament with $785 Guaranteed

Saigon wasn’t my home turf, so I wasn’t looking to get into big games right away. This was an exploratory tournament and a scouting mission, to test the waters.

I showed up minutes late for the start of a fantastic event – perfect for what I had in mind. It was a Free/330k/340k, meaning one free entry, then about $16 to rebuy, followed by $16 again.

The prize pool? It was 20 million VND, which is just around $785. Not life-changing, but I was in a new country, only spoke some Vietnamese, and preferred my odds here to an online MTT with 1000 entries.

The game was fantastic. Where I’m from, a single hand in a cash game could pay more than the entire guarantee for this tournament – but it never felt that way. There were very few regs, tons of splashy play, aggressive moves with nothing, and outbursts. The table was full of characters. There were the travelers, mainly Korean and Japanese. The rest were affluent local business owners, CEOs of family-owned businesses, and rich kids.

Another setup hand

Most players had the skill level of your average $1/$2 casino-goer. Out of nine players, you could expect one or two tighter, older players, plus the same amount of solid regs. These guys stood out. Sometimes they’d be playing a couple of online poker tables on their phone; expressionless but focused. These ones usually stayed out of the chit-chat of the more casual players.

That first day, I busted quite early and bought a rebuy. The win didn’t come on this inaugural session, but I made the money and covered my tiny buy-ins. I knew I’d be back. What I’d seen from the field was promising and my worries about security or game integrity were gone. Victorious Poker had all of the comfort of a major casino, in a much smaller package.

Tournaments were the only game in town and that is still standard across the country. Anyway, I was playing cash games on partypoker from my laptop. It didn’t last forever though. The support team eventually told me to stop playing from Vietnam, but were nice enough to send me my bankroll.

Playing in live cash games in Vietnam is a risk I’ll never take. I’d heard too many stories.

Poker Tournaments [Types And Basic Strategy Guide]

More Poker Tales from Vietnam in Part 2

As much as I’d like to compress everything into one article, it would do you a disservice.

Here’s what Part 2 of the story contains. I’ll talk about winning back-to-back tournaments in a Ho Chi Minh power club, a friend being nearly deported for playing in a legal tournament, and recent busts in the city. I hope you’ll enjoy these firsthand tales.

Leave a comment if you’d like the answer to anything Vietnam or poker-related.