Originally published April 12, 2010 during my third Big Trip
I’ve just been grifted. In Saigon. I was thinking of writing my blog entry on the train ride and my impressions of the city, but no, I don’t care about that any more. I’ve been grifted. I don’t think many people can say that. I’ve been a losing participant (I can’t say victim because I was an actor, albeit unaware, in the game) of an elaborate con and thankfully, did not lose more money. Right now, I’m sitting here in my Saigon hotel lobby waiting for “Anne” to return my $60USD that I willingly handed over to her and her “brother” “Udi” in a very surreal last few hours. I don’t expect her to show up. If she does, I will be very very surprised, but it really doesn’t matter now.I’m not bitter, just amused.
It started after I went to the Ben Thanh market and bought several gifts and a new camera bag for myself. I had only about $1.50 in Vietnamese dong left after a few purchases. This meant a very small lunch and a walk back to the hotel. Not even enough for admission into the War Remnants museum, which was fine, I really didn’t want to view much war, remnants or otherwise. I set off in that direction for a nice walk of Saigon with my remaining few hours in the city.
A small woman passed me and said, “Hey I like your shirt.” She was petite and smartly dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. “Where did you get it?” She wasn’t asking me for anything, wasn’t trying to sell me anything, nor called me “Madam,” so I took her for a friendly local. “I had it made in India.” “Did you make it?” “No, I don’t make clothes, I just got this made.” She continued on that she was a seamstress and was in Vietnam from the Philippines buying fabric. “Where are you from?” America, I said. “Oh America! What state? My sister is a nurse and moving to Illinois next month.” She explained that her sister is a caregiver for old people and nurses there were in high demand. We talked more, she had a good easy-going way about her and invited me to sit with her at one of the tiny street side stands for a coconut drink when she found out I knew about Chicago, the city of her sister’s move.
We talked about Chicago and I showed her the pictures I had on my iPhone. She asked a lot of questions about living there and explained that her mother is sick with cancer and doesn’t want her sister to move away. Anna was just in town visiting her brother and would be returning to the Phillipines soon. I felt totally at ease, she showed me pictures of her four children and confided that she didn’t love her husband anymore. During our drink, a beggar appeared and Anna gave him 1000 dong, I followed suit.
We chatted for about 20 minutes and she asked me if I’d like to come to her home to have lunch and talk with her mother, show her pictures to ease her fears about her sister’s move to Chicago. Sure I said, as a traveler, I’d had really good luck accepting lunch invitations as a way to meet locals and learn about cultures and because she was a woman, I felt comfortable and trusted her enough to accept the invitation. We got in a taxi and went to a residential part of Saigon. On the way Anna told me how much Fillipino’s love Americans and were very sad at the American departure from their country.
Anna led me into her house, which was an open living room and kitchen. She introduced me to her brother Udi, a round older man with glasses. He was very friendly, but informed us that their mother was at the hospital right now and wasn’t there. I would have some coffee and stay for lunch.
Over coffee, Anna disappeared into the kitchen with another woman, who I was never introduced to, I assumed she was the maid. Udi and I talked about the same things that I talked about with Anna. He was also easy to converse with and told me that he worked for a cruise line and was a casino supervisor. There was a new law he just passed, he said, that disallowed him or his family to play at any casino ever again because they knew too much, knew how to beat the casino.
In his spare time, Udi was a VIP dealer, dealing at high-stakes poker games to rich Arabs. Last night he had a high stakes game at the Sheraton where a man from Singapore lost $80,000 USD. “Like water, these men treat money like water.” He shared why they play private games, “because the casino never loses. They want to play strategy, they play each other, they want to gamble and lose, they play the casino. In my work, I know all the strategy.” Udi asked me if I knew the game Poker 21. I’d never heard of it. He said, the VIPs play this game – it combines the strategy of poker with the chance of 21. He knew all the secrets on how to win, he bragged. He gave me his card. “Maybe I’ll show you, if you promise not to tell anyone.”
Interesting I said, I never really got into the whole World Series of Poker thing and wasn’t a casino goer. During my one time in Vegas, I gambled $5 and lost. I’m not a gambling person or card player so I remember thinking, this is interesting, not -oh I have to know what he knows. Andy Younkle told me the rules of 21 during high school and that was fine enough. Anyway, I usually get flustered when betting.
Lunch was fried fish, a beef stew, spring rolls and rice. I joined Anna for the meal and we talked more about her sister. We talked about her children and husband and she invited me to the Philippines. This lunch was a lot like the other lunch invitations I’d accepted from locals when traveling – easy conversation, sharing food, and invitations to visit each other. Udi had already eaten but drifted over to us and said, “I have to work at one, but I can teach you how to play Poker 21.” I was finished with my meal and had the time, so I said, OK, I had time and this was pretty interesting.
We climbed the stairs to an air-conditioned room in the house. Going up the stairs, I had the brief thought this was not the wisest thing to do, but Anna was downstairs and I was bigger than this man so if there was any funny business, I could leave immediately. In the room was a bed, dresser, and table with a green felt table cloth enclosed by four chairs. A makeshift poker table with chips and a deck of cards. This is where he practices, I mused, it’s pretty well set up.
We sat down and Udi started to write the explain the game of “Poker 21” to me. I knew the rules of 21 and these were a bit modified to explain who and when turns over the cards and when to bet, hence the poker aspect of it, I reasoned. I’ll try to describe what I remember from the description because I have since googled the term, “Poker 21” and there’s no such game. Essentially in this “grift” version, there’s a banker, a dealer and a player. The banker tries to run up the players bet, but the player can thwart him with a little strategy. The “strategy” as Udi put it, was that you can tell what the other player has by how they move their arms. He guessed that I had a 3 and a 7 in the last hand. He was right. I’m sure I”m the world’s worst bluffer, so I didn’t question how he knew, just assumed I’d had all the “tells” that told him what I had.
He showed me the hand gestures people make when they see their cards. He then quizzed me on them as he put his hands in various parts on his arms (a swipe at the forehead is a 10 for example) in swift motion like gambling flashcards. I didn’t understand how consistent this could be across people, but didn’t ask. And then he told me that if you are to take a card, then the dealer, in Poker 21, would cover his watch. I was wondering why a dealer would share this information with card players, that’s cheating. But, I reasoned, I would go soon and it didn’t matter.
We practiced some hands where he told me when to hit cards and beat the banker. My heart was beating the entire time, it was a lot of pressure and I wanted to show I learned something. I was never going to use these skills because I was not a VIP high-roller nor a gambler, just a traveler, I remember thinking. In Poker 21, the winning happened on the last ante on whether or not I would take or not take a card, raise or not raise the ante. The final lesson was that a VIP only plays for 30 minutes and when it’s time to take a break, the dealer will say, “why don’t you get a drink.” And then a VIP goes with his winnings. Again great information I thought, feeling like I was let into this secret world of high-rollers. This would make a great blog entry I reasoned.
Udi got a phone call from one of his VIP players, the Singapore man who had lost big the night before. The Singapore man was coming over early to gamble more. Anna, at this point, had joined us with some tea. Udi continued his instruction and said that to get to the VIP room, one must practice with a test, he wrote “TEST” on the legal pad in fron of him. It was now time for the “Test,” the Singapore man was coming over and wanted to play a game. Udi had the phone on loud speaker. At Udi and Anna’s request, I would help Udi out by being the “player” against his banker and Udi would take more money. I don’t need to play, I said, it’s OK, I can go. No, no stay, he said and Anna concurred. This would really help me out. Ok, I said.
Udi said we would start out with his $200 in two hundred dollar bills that I would play with to get the pot going. The story was that I had been there all morning. Anna would join he said because, two is better than one. Ok, not really sure how that fit in. Now that money was in discussion, I got skeptical, but not skeptical enough to leave. This was getting very weird.
There was a knock on the door and the maid said, “visitor.” An Asian man wearing dress clothes and carrying a satchel came in. He was very friendly and chided Udi for the game last night. I was introduced to him, but don’t remember his name. He was just in for a pre-VIP game at Udi’s house and ready to gamble more. That must be a serious gambling problem if you’re coming to someone’s house before a big game, I reasoned. Udi argued with Mr. Singapore over a commission of winnings. I had no idea what this meant, but all I knew is that now I was a part of this con. My gullibility as I write this amazes me, thank God I did not have more cash on me.
What happened next happened very quickly or so it felt. Mr. Singapore cashed in $2000 worth of chips, which, simple plastic discs before, were now worth $500, 100, and 50. I had the $200. Udi started the game as the dealer. I was in it and still wondering what the hell was going on. I watched Udi’s hand signals AND he showed me the next card, which I did not anticipate this level of cheating. I went with it and won the first two hands. This poor man, I thought. And now I felt myself getting in deeper.
Mr. Singapore’s chips went quickly. He wanted to cash in more and reached into his bag and pulled out the largest amount of cash I’d ever been in the presence of – a stack about 4 inches thick of $100 USD. “I use American currency,” he joked, “very popular here.” Udi looked at it and said, “$30,000.” Udi changed the value of the chips where the blue one’s were worth $1000 each. The green chips were now worth $100, the minimum bet. My stack of chips looked healthy.
On the next hand, Mr. Singapore raised me. He swiped his hand across his forehead, which Udi had taught me meant that he had a 10 for a total of a 29. Udi flashed me the next card, it was my turn to decide if I wanted to hit or stay. I would have 20. I said hit and got the card. Mr. Singapore raised the bet to more than I had in my chips. I thought about folding, but Udi said, “you give up now, you lose all this.” This point marks the only flash of greed I felt during the game and was the turning point that meant I was the fool and my money would be easily parted.
At this point, Udi was keeping a total of chips and cash on this legal pad and said that I could cash in more chips. I was confused, I thought we were only playing with his money. I don’t have any money, I said. Mr. Singapore looked at me and said, “oh been playing all morning eh, out of money.” Anna gave me a rushed look, put something in, she whispered. I got the feeling that I had to do this otherwise, the ruse on Mr. Singapore would be up. I opened my money belt and pulled out $50, enough for one chip. Udi saw the extra $10 and said, no no put all in to finish hand, otherwise you lose everything.
So I did it. I handed them $60 USD, you know, the money I needed for visas and country exit fees and the remainder of my trip. And because the minimum bet was not $100, I actually saw him write $40 credit under my name. In this surreal moment the thought, well if this is fake I’ve only lost $60 ,crossed my mind. But I did it to keep playing and help Udi and Anna con this rich Singapore man. Who was playing cards in a residential Vietnam home. In the middle of the day. With $30,000 pocket money. With a backpacker and a shady dealer.
On the next hand, I knew, through a series of hand gestures from both him and Udi, that Mr. Singapore had a 20 and the next card I would be dealt was a 21. Mr. Singapore ran up the pot and raised me three blue chips. I looked at the pad of paper. This was now $3000. There was no way I was going to go into a “Credit” of $3000 to keep playing. I said I had to stop. Anna and Udi protested. You will lose all this, he said. Yes, and I was ok with that, even though I had 21.
Mr. Singapore wondered what was going on and cracked more broken English jokes. No I said, I’m out. Udi asked if he could speak to me in the hallway. It was at that moment that I knew this was very very wrong. What kind of “high roller” was Mr. Singapore if he would let a dealer and a player have a side conference. He tried to convince me to keep playing, that it was a sure win. That it wasn’t my money, it was his money and I could get it back. I didn’t sign anything that said credit on the $40. I did not know what would happen if I had a credit, real or fake, I wasn’t willing to take any more changes. Who knows, there may have been a syndicate behind this who would have gladly walked me to the cash machine to get more money.
At this point, I got firm and said, I would not keep playing.
We went back into the room. Mr. Singapore won the hand and before I knew it, Udi handed him all the money – the $200, my $60 and Mr. Singapore’s $30,000. Singapore left and Udi and Anna scolded me for not keeping up the game. I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible, this turned a new level of wierd and I was out my $60. What about my money? I asked. Anna asked for my hotel address and said she had to go to the hospital now and see her mother, but would be by in an hour. As I left, Udi shook my hand and said, don’t tell my secrets ok.
After this and the Hanoi motorcycle driver, I realized that these thieves shake your hand, not lift your wallet. Anna, who had promised to ride with me back to the market area to pick up her silks, found me a motorcycle taxi instead. There were no offers to contact for her “sister” in Chicago as we had originally started our conversation with, nor desire for me to stay to assuage her mother’s fears, conveniently forgotten. I was sent off with barely a look.
I laughed to myself the entire ride, I was grifted. I looked back at all the players, the con, the gaining of trust, the ridiculousness of it all. I grinned broadly and shouted “GRIFT!” to any Vietnamese who would listen. The motobike taxi wanted to drop me off away from my hotel street, but I had no idea where I was so he kept driving. Finally, he dropped me off at the market and said, “oh very far, price is 500,000 dong (about $45)” I looked into his shallow eyes and said, 20,000 fair price and put it into his hand. He gave me a disgusted look and I walked away.
Looking back and writing this I realize that my desire to please and trust total strangers had overwhelmed any sense of common sense.How many other times had I given so much, so willingly? So often, too often. I was marked, grifted, and beautifully so.What really scares me is what I think about what could have happened if I hadn’t left, who knows who these people were connected to, police who had been bribed, or amount in the hole I would have had to cover. I offer myself compassion and reflection on this experience to learn more and hone my common sense a little more. And I will never accept invitations to go to people’s houses ever again, I don’t care how good my past experiences have been, this was the one that ruined it all. Honestly, I really can’t wait to rewatch all the David Mamet movies I can find.
Photo credit: Jepoirrer on Flickr