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The old Vietnamese casino-heist scam

VIETNAM | Monday, 25 May 2009 | Views [3012] | Comments [7]

As usual, the bus was late. After half an hour of waiting patiently in the travel agency we went across the road for some beers, their arrival, of course coinciding with that of the sleeping bus to Nha Trang, 10 hours up the coast. The decision to bring rum and coke along was a double edged sword – it did help oil the social wheels but the lack of an on board toilet became excruciating. I was forced to make an emergency exit against a fence when people were getting off at one point. Claire managed to hold out to the next stop at a hotel, running around like a lunatic in search of any door with a WC painted on. While the bus was marginally better than the “sleeping bus” in Laos, it was another sleepless journey punctuated by overnight truck overtaking and massive potholes.

We shared drinks and stories through the journey with Nick, an amiable Aussie pilot who had done his time flying freight across the outback but was looking for hard to come-by commercial work on the ryanairs and easyjets of SE Asia. Groggily turning up our noses at the grubby hotel where the bus left us off, we jumped in a taxi, way to small to accommodate the three of us plus luggage, and made for the beach. After viewing a few overpriced hostelries we settled on the lovely Thanh Long Hotel, a little off the main strip with a great view of the mountains and a friendly owner who offered us tea every time we saw him. Ironically they wanted to put us in a beach view room for a few more dollars – the view of the beach was in fact a view of the back of 2 grey multistorey block hotels, not a grain of sand or a wave in sight.

After a well deserved catch up on sleep, Claire and I headed out to look around and get some food. We headed south, away from the centre and ordered coffees and omelettes in a place called “Nice Cafe”. The staff, clearly not used to foreigners giggled their way through the order and after a time brought our breakfast. The coffee was industrial strength, unthinkably potent and over- complicated by the little single cup filter it came with. It splashed all over me as I tried to get to grips with it. The staff stared on as I sat bemused at the coffee stained napkinless table. Then the “omelettes” arrived. It was two undercooked eggs, sunny side up with a large sprinkling of pepper and a bit of lettuce as a garnish. Claire nearly vomited. We sent them back, gesturing the basic principles of beating the eggs in order to make the omelette. It was quite obvious when the waitress returned less than a minute later, plates in hand, that they has thrown the eggs back in the pan, stirred them around a bit and sent them back – the yolk was still runny. We paid up, coffee and omelettes untouched, too tired and hungry to argue. Our second chicken sandwich-based attempt, after a long walk up the silvery beach in the scorching midday heat, was much more successful.

Nha Trang is a quintessential beach resort town, much the same as any I have seen anywhere in the world, with a plethora of cheap and posh hotels, bars with all day happy hours and shops selling board shorts and blow up swords. It doesn't take that long to get the gist of it. We headed back to the GH to get out of the sun and see if Nick was about.

He knocked on the door of our room a few hours later and asked to come in, looking shocked and generally taken aback. After sitting down and taking a breath he told us the story what he had been up to during the day.

Similar to us he went out for a wander. Not far from the hotel a local on a motorbike said “nice sunnies” to him in an Aussie accent. They stared chatting – the local had lived in Oz – and got on well. The local offered to show him around town on the back of his bike and Nick accepted. At this point my own internal alarm bells started ringing, but obviously not Nick's. They had a grand ole time for a few hours when the local (I'm not sure I was told his name so let's call him Johnny) offered Nick some lunch back in his house with his family. They enjoyed a pleasant lunch with Johnny's family, all washed down by a few beers. So far so good.

Johnny's brother-in-law, confusingly called Nicky, was a manager in the nearby Vin Pearl Casino, a very flash 5 star affair on the closest island to the town (for any fans of useless facts, it's joined to the mainland by the world's longest over-water built cable car at a cost of $5m).

Over the course of lunch and the ensuing beers Nicky explained the workings of the casino to Nick, and also his grand plan of doing it over. He took Nick through the basics, then the finer details of black jack, counting cards, secret signals and how to commit the heist, right down to the dealers, pit bosses and security staff that needed to be paid off and the profit margin for Nicky. All that was missing was an unknown gringo to work the 21 table for a fee of $35,000. The alarms bells in my head had been replaced by police sirens at this stage.

Intrigued, but understandably cagey, Nick was getting his head around all this when a mobile phone rang. It was one of Nicky's high roller Japanese clients, organising his suite and preferred blackjack dealer for a night of gambling at the Vin Pearl. He had won big, over $200k on his last visit but was not popular as he had not tipped anyone out, as is the convention. Winking at Nick, Nicky asked Mr. Yakimoto to come over to his house to join them for a drink, to which he agreed. In the next 10 minutes Nicky explained to Nick that this was the perfect opportunity to test the scam and, by way of revenge, make some easy money from Mr Yakimoto.

Nick, still curious, pinching himself to see if he was awake and probably more intoxicated by the prospect of making many months salary in a few hours than by the free beers, stayed on. When Mr. Yakimoto arrived there was some pleasant chit-chat followed by making the arrangements for the evening at the casino. Nonchalantly, Nicky offered to deal some blackjack if Nick and Mr Yakimoto wanted to play. As Nick recounted the tale It seemed a strange game of blackjack to me as the participants played against each other rather than against the house. Nick, assisted by Nicky's finger taps and secret signals couldn't fail to win as he knew exactly what card was coming every time.

The initial bets were small, and Mr Yakimoto consistently lost in the good natured manner of a professional gambler, knowing his luck would turn eventually. They played with chips all the while, no money actually exchanging hands at any point. Eventually there was a big hand. Mr Yakimoto, sure of his victory bet $50,000. Nick had 21 (of course). But Mr Yakimoto refused to show cards unless there was proof that if he won, Nick could pay up. Of course, Nick, who had only taken a bank card and about $30 with him had no ability to do so. Mr Yakimoto opened his shiny briefcase to reveal many bundles of $100 bills, far exceeding $50,000. At this point Claire and I raided the minibar for beers – we needed Dutch courage just to listen. Nick took a beer too, to assist with the telling.

There was a stand-off. Nick wasn't sure what to do with himself – was he on the cusp of wining $50k or was an ominous mafia-esque hole being dug around him. An approach was agreed. They would seal the cards in two envelopes which Nick would keep. The $50,000 would be locked in a safe in the house and Mr Yakimoto would keep the key. Nicky would start calling around friends and family to raise the capital to allow the bet to be seen. Nick would make a 20% cut of the $50k – a cool 10k, more than enough to fund his further travels and stave off the need to work for a few months.

Nick, seeing that he was in too deep called it a day and left. He left the cards with Nicky, who, by the time of Nick's departure had managed to get $10,000 together. It was dark when he left the house – he'd been there for hours. He was still trying to get his head around it when he had knocked on our door. Claire and I peppered him with questions for about an hour to try and make sense of it all but we couldn't work out how or why this had happened.

The conversation carried on to a restaurant. Nick was comfortable because at no point was he asked for anything – money, hotel details, phone numbers ... nothing. He had Nicky's mobile number and commitment that once the $50k had been raised, the game could carry on. Also that the date for the casino bust was set – 3 days time.

My view was that Nick had had the best of all possible outcomes – a free lunch and beers, a great story and most importantly no debt, underworld enemies or hefty jail sentences. Once the initial buzz and adrenaline rush wore off he tended to agree, but the temptation of a lost opportunity for easy money weighed heavy on his mind. Even though it wasn't my story I had to put it down in words as a cautionary tale of what can happen on an innocent stroll around a Vietnamese town. He called Nicky up later in the evening while we listened in – Nicky had reduced the cut to 10% and was now asking for some financial assistance for the bet, plus some money up front for the casino heist. Nick thankfully left him hanging although I suspect he was as curious as we were to see what would happen if he let it go further.

Tags: beach, casino, omelette, scam




this just happened to me tonight. i lost about US$2000.

  tolan Jul 1, 2009 5:23 AM


met with them today, though, and got the money back. pretty sure it was the same guys. dont really understand it.

  tolan Jul 1, 2009 2:35 PM


Not sure who is luckier - you for getting the money back or Nick for not losing any in the first place.
Watch out for thr next scam Tolan!

  Eoghancito Jul 2, 2009 11:59 AM


This happened to me! Met a 'hawaian' man on beach in nha trang summer 09. We got talking and went for lunch back to house had some free food and met family. nice people nice conversation. Then this nick guy turns up and we went upstairs to play some cards. he showed me finger taps and it was all very interesting, then Nick outlayed the casino scam. The same japanese businessman appeared and we played some cards, finger taps etc. I won a few hands then it got to the point where he was asking me to sign a piece of paper to borrow money. Id had a couple beers but at this point the whole thing just screamed set up. The japanese businessman didnt look particularly rich and why was he at this guys house to play cards when he was in town for the casino?! I refused to borrow money on principle and got up to leave. The japanese businessman left the room offended and Nick gave me a right ear full claiming i was uneducated but I got out of there without losing any money. I thought i had made a fool of myself, turns out im not so dumb after all. thankyou!

  A909 Nov 21, 2009 12:48 PM


The Nick I refer to above is most probably the 'Nicky' mentioned in the blog. Unbelievable

  A909 Nov 21, 2009 12:58 PM


This has just happened to me in Nha Trang! Felt soo guilty that I had agreed to play! But things just happened and I was stuck then. I lost approx $400. They say they are gonna give my money back but I'm too scared to meet them! So relieved that I hadn't helped rob the Singapore guy in my case. Mines started with two ladies speaking excellent english, they got me back to there house to chat about working in the UK and then the card players arrived! It just escalated soo quickly and I got very scared. I might pass this on to a few travel websites ths is scary stuff!!!

  Eoin May 2, 2010 11:33 AM


Its amazing what a set up it is. It does escalate quickly, i was there chatting away downstairs (probably eating the food cooked by the same two ladies Eoin met - one of them thai?) then Nick showed me card tricks upstairs. Next thing I knew, after a beer or two and those card tricks he shows, Japanese guy turns up and im being passed wads of cash under the table! I was trapped! Made a right scene getting out of there but just glad i did! Was it a tiled house with a large open room, staircase and some bars on the window? Did he show you the wads of cash in the wardrobe?? Least its a story to tell but was bricking it at the time!

  A909 Feb 15, 2011 6:07 AM

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