HANOI — Sitting alone in the corner of bar in Vietnam’s capital, Doan Minh Tuan buries his head in his hands as he watches the penalty shootout save that fires the Netherlands into soccer’s World Cup semi-finals.
He wasn’t mourning the shattered World Cup dream of entertaining underdogs Costa Rica. Tuan, 32, is a compulsive gambler, and his loss was about as big as they come.
“I sold everything in my home—television, motorbike, fridge—and now I’ve lost my house. I have nothing now. This is all I have left,” he said, pointing to the 250,000 dong (US$12) on the table in front of him.
“I bet on all games since the World Cup started. Damn my life, I always lose. The bookmaker took my house this evening, my wife had to carry our daughter to her mother’s home. I’ve nothing to lose now and I’ll sleep on the street tonight.”
Tuan’s case is the tip of the iceberg in a country where gambling is rampant and strictly illegal.
Vietnamese are known for flutters on almost anything, from card games and lotteries to online poker and back-street cock fights. Legal gambling is confined to the state lottery and dog and horse racing in some regions.
But soccer is the nation’s firm favorite, especially when the World Cup comes around.
Betting values range from a dollar among colleagues to tens of thousands for high-rollers, but losses can mean repossession of property or trading-in of smartphones, motorcycles, watches and jewelry in return for money to pay debts.
In the most extreme cases, some gamblers have taken their own lives, with media reporting as many as three suicides related to betting during this World Cup. That included a man in the central city of Hue, who drank a bottle of pesticide after Italy’s 2-1 win over England on June 14.
There’s no official estimate of the value of Vietnam’s clandestine gambling scene, but the real figure is assumed to be huge. The size of the networks, often mafia-linked, is unknown.
Anticipating a surge in wagering in a country that already bets big on European leagues, police intensified their crackdown during the World Cup and have so far made busts of underground gangs that have handled a combined 6.5 trillion dong ($307 million) since the tournament started on June 12.
But it’s an uphill struggle to counter a practice entrenched in society and where bookmakers seem always ahead of the game. The Internet has proved difficult to police, with gangs taking bets surreptitiously at street level and gambling large sums online on legitimate websites hosted overseas.
“After a few raids by police over the years, dealers have changed their tactics. They’ve became more sophisticated,” said an official with knowledge of the crackdown, who requested anonymity.
The problem goes beyond individuals and underground gambling has been blamed for a chronic match-fixing problem that has seen dozens of players arrested. One national team coach banned his squad from using cellphones during tournaments to stop them falling prey to bookies.
Soccer bosses have pushed to legalize sports betting to stifle match-fixing, cut crime and boost tax revenues, capping bets at 1 million dong (nearly $50), but after 14 years, they’ve got nowhere.
The issue is highly sensitive in Vietnam, whose communist rulers remain deeply conservative and consider it a social evil that fuels indiscipline and wrecks families.
One bright spot for Vietnam’s gambling problem could be the sluggish economy and some businesses in Hanoi believe betting may have eased off, in line with weak retail and credit growth. Pawn shops and second-hand motorcycle dealers—the usual sources of quick cash to repay gambling debts—say they have been less busy during this World Cup.
For some, the only solution is lessons learned, like 25-year-old Dung from northern Haiphong province, who talked of a thriving, four-year “betting career” that went badly wrong when he had to sell his parents’ house to pay gambling debts.
“The more I bet, the more I lost. I gambled all over the place,” said Dung, who declined to reveal his full name. “I don’t think I can ever earn back what I’ve lost. It’s the bookies who always win.”