| HANOI, July 11
HANOI, July 11 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 ($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 favourite, 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 jewellery 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
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 legalise 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
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."
(Additional reporting by Nguyen Phuong Linh; Editing by Martin
Petty and Ron Popeski)