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Vietnam to legalize gambling by locals next month

Concerns remain about rising addiction

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NagaWorld, a large casino in a suburb of Phnom Penh, is thronged with Vietnamese tourists.   © Reuters

HANOI -- Vietnam will lift its ban on gambling next month, allowing citizens to stake their fortunes at casinos and bet on soccer games, horse races, dog races and other sports.

The move is aimed at stemming a massive outflow of money through overseas gambling by Vietnamese, who now spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually placing bets in other countries and regions, including Cambodia and Macau.

By legalizing gambling, the government hopes to keep the money at home and eliminate illegal gambling businesses. However, there are concerns about a sharp increase in gambling addiction among Vietnamese, who are known as enthusiastic bettors.

Last July, a 25-year-old woman living in the southern province of Binh Duong received a phone call from a man who sounded like a Cambodian. She was told that her gambling husband was in hock for 150 million dong ($6,590) and was urged to pay the debt on his behalf.

The woman rejected the demand, saying she didn't have that much money. The next day, she received a package containing a finger that looked like her husband's.

The country's media are awash in such stories about people ruining their lives through gambling.

NagaWorld, a large, glittering casino in Phnom Penh -- the capital of neighboring Cambodia -- is swarming with Vietnamese tourists. Traveling from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's commercial center, to Phnom Penh takes only a matter of hours by bus.

Many of the Vietnamese bettors visiting the casino end up losing their shirts and running up debts they can't pay. They can also lose their fingers or ears, or, in even worse cases, be driven to suicide.

National pastime

Although many aspects of daily life in Vietnam are strictly controlled by the country's communist regime, gambling is a national pastime. During the Lunar New Year holidays, people play roulette to try their luck. Gambling such as betting on chess games or golf matches is a widespread and deep-seated habit.

"We often bet on the next day's weather," said a 35-year-old Vietnamese employee at a Japanese trading house.

The spread of smartphones has spawned a bevy of illegal online gambling sites. One of the biggest sports gambling services, "m88," allows users to bet on a wide range of overseas sports including soccer, basketball, baseball and golf. Users can easily place bets through email. There are also services that allow bets by phone.

Such illegal businesses are often operated by Vietnamese organized crime groups called "xa hoi den" (black societies).

Security police monitor the gangs, which are mostly small local groups, closely. The country has no nationwide crime organizations like Japan's large yakuza families.

There are more than 50 "black societies" in Hanoi alone, according to one estimate. More than 100 gangs are believed to be operating in Ho Chi Minh City, and a similar number in the port city of Haiphong.

A main aim of legalizing gambling is to root out the unlawful businesses and make sure that operators of gambling facilities pay taxes.

At least $800 million flows out of Vietnam every year due to overseas gambling, according to Augustine Ha Ton Vinh, a Vietnamese researcher following gambling markets. Allowing citizens to play at the nation's eight existing casinos for foreigners would keep most of the money at home.

The Vietnamese government first proposed lifting the ban on gambling in 2013. At the time, the proposal met with strong opposition from a broad range of people concerned about rising addiction and a deterioration of public security. But a majority of opinion leaders now support the idea, saying that maintaining prohibition will only accelerate the outflow of money.

To curb addiction, the government has set conditions for making bets. Only citizens aged 21 or older with a monthly income of at least 10 million dong will be allowed to gamble, and the total amount of daily bets is limited to $44.

Still, the government has offered no convincing plan to tackle the already serious problem of compulsive gambling. Little has been done to enhance education about gambling in schools or to build facilities for treating addicts.

Vietnamese generally have strong kinship ties. When a relative is in trouble, the entire clan tries to help.

In December, Vietnamese pop singer Dam Vinh Hung disclosed in a Facebook video that he had taken on more than 20 billion dong of debt piled up by his mother through gambling.

Many such tragedies could continue to happen after gambling becomes legal.

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