I was strolling down one of the busy streets of Ho Chi Minh City, surrounded by the roar of incessant motorbike traffic and bustling Vietnamese, when I was approached by a man who said that I looked like some Italian actress whose name I didn't recognize. I was impressed that he associated me with anything Italian, as that is half my ancestry. I figured to people in Asia, all white people must look the same.
"You must sit and drink some tea with us!" I accepted the invitation on account of the fact that I hadn't had an English language conversation with anyone for about two days. I took a seat at the little table at the outdoor café and we shared conversation. It was two men and a girl, all seemingly in their twenties.
"Where are you from that you speak English so well?" I asked.
"We are from the Philippines. Everyone in the Philippines speaks English!" they said with great enthusiasm, "Where are you from?" When I told them that I was from Chicago, they seemed very pleased.
"My sister is going to study there!" one of the men told me, "I bet she would love to meet you and ask you lots of questions about Chicago."
"She'll love it!" I replied, and made a grand pitch about how Chicago was such an amazing city, "Except for the winter, that is." We carried on conversation and once we had finished our tea, they insisted on paying the bill.The girl invited me back to her house for lunch so that I could speak to the sister. The girl's name was Sophie, and she was thin and pretty. She seemed to radiate a sense of youth that was both playful and trustworthy.
Sophie and I got into a cab.She warned that I must be very careful in Ho Chi Minh City. She pointed out which cab companies were safe to use, and warned me that all other cabs were likely fraudulent. I thanked her for her concern for my safety. We were driven to a residential area in North West part of the city. The cab turned left off of one major street, and then made another left on a much tinier street. Sophie's house was on the right side, squeezed between two other houses with a stone exterior and a large front door. I tried to give the cab driver some dong, but Sophie insisted on paying.
"You are my guest!" she explained. After I walked in, I stepped to the right and found myself in a living room with a plush, luxurious couch, large screen television, and a tile floor. I couldn't help but notice how nice it was inside their home compared to the squalor that many Ho Chi Minh City residents experience. There were no plastic buckets, hanging laundry, or any floating garbage to be found. The decorations were tasteful and organized. Everything was clean and neat. The temperature was quite comfortable. I felt like I was in someone's home back in Chicago.
As many travelers know, it's usually the most impoverished people who invite you to share. This beautiful home wasn't quite what I was expecting, and that was fine with me. Sophie invited me to have a seat on the couch while she and her aunt prepared lunch. On the other side of the couch sat Sophie's uncle, Let, who was mostly quiet. He was watching some kind of boxing match. I tried to watch the match with him but it failed to keep my interest so I opened my guidebook instead.
I was planning on going to the Philippines towards the end of my trip, so I opened to a page with a map of the country. I asked Sophie where I should go. Sophie said she was from a town in Luzon, north of Manila, and had a boyfriend there. She asked me for my email address so that we could keep in contact and hang out in Manila.
Lunch was ready so we sat at the table to enjoy some fish, rice, vegetables, and some strange Philippine fruit I had never seen before.
"This is great," I said, "Let's all take a picture together at this wonderful meal!"
"No, no, no," decreed Sophie and her Aunt simultaneously.
"Why not?" I asked.
"It's against our religion," they retorted.I was under the impression that most Filipinos were Catholic, so their response made me confused. I grew up with the Catholic Church myself. I couldn't quite recall any "thou shalt not be in photos" commandments. I didn't, however, want to be rude. I took a picture of the food instead, a photo which later mysteriously disappeared from my camera (I'm featuring a picture of amazing Vietnamese street food instead).
It was just Sophie and I sitting down to lunch in the dining area which was situated near the bottom of the stairs and behind the living room couch where Uncle Let still sat, mesmerized by the television. Her aunt remained in the kitchen. The fish was fried whole, Filipino style. Sophie was happy to cut up the fruit as we talked about her country. I told her how I had been working in Bangkok. The fruit she gave me tasted similar to water chestnut, but sweeter. After we finished eating, Sophie and her mother returned to the kitchen in the back of the house to wash the dishes. I offered to help, but was directed to relax on the couch.
Again, I was stuck watching boxing with Let. I tried to start a conversation with him.
"You have a very nice home," I commented, "What do you do for a living?"
"I'm a dealer at the casino boat," he replied. There was more boxing and silence. A few minutes passed before Let piped up again.
"You know," Let said, "I know this girl from Germany. When she comes to town, she comes to the casino boat and pretends to win sixty thousand dollars. We let her win, because if the other tourists see a white woman winning big, they believe that they can win big, too. In return, we let her keep fifteen thousand dollars."
Wow, I thought. That sounds like an acting gig to me. Nobody would be getting scammed directly because it was all pretend, like advertising, so this didn't interfere with my morals.
"Would you be interested in doing something like that?" Let asked.
Would I?! I imagined how far fifteen thousand dollars would go in a country like Vietnam. I imagined walking onto that casino boat in a long, sparkling evening gown, with a Breakfast at Tiffany's style cigarette holder in my hand, acting like some swanky high roller. I knew that I couldn't take that kind of cash out of the country, so I pictured renting the most luxuriously modern penthouse suite in all of Saigon. I thought of buying all new, tailored clothing to replace my ratty traveler's wardrobe. I saw myself riding around town in a stretch limousine with a bunch of hookers I'd pay just to hang out with me.
"I'm in," I replied.
Sophie and her uncle wanted me to join them in an upstairs bedroom so they could teach my how this was done. I suggested that we do this in the living room, but Sophie assured me that they already had a setup upstairs and that she would be my playing partner. I followed them upstairs and entered a bedroom on the right. The room had plain white walls and simple furnishing. There were two chairs set up by the window, a large table in the middle of the room, and a bed covered in colorful children's bed sheets against the wall. Sophie and I sat next to each other on the bed, while her uncle sat across from us by the window.
Let me preface this by saying that I am not a gambler. I'm not really into losing money.When I go to a casino, it's for fun. I usually throw five or ten dollars down on roulette, maybe play some dollar blackjack if they have it, and that's about the extent of my gambling problem. I told this to Sophie and Let, who assured me not to worry about it because I wouldn't be using any of my own money or actually gambling.
I'm not sure what this game was even called. I had never even heard of it anymore. First, Let taught me how to play. Then, he went on to teach me how to cheat so that the other foreigners would think I was actually winning. Let showed me various hand signals that he would rest his face on to signal which card was coming next so I could make the appropriate move forward.
However, what Let and Sophie didn't anticipate is that I cannot count. I'm good with words, but math isn't my forte. I am very tapped in to the right side of my brain, while the left side of my brain just kind of hangs out. They found it frustrating that I kept freezing up, not knowing what to do next, on account of my inability to handle even the simplest of math equations. It's difficult to count cards when you suck at counting. I was worried I might lose the gig, when Sophie stepped in as my partner and helped me decide what cards to play. I asked if she would come to the casino to help me, because my inability to count was an ongoing problem. She told me that it should be alright.
That is when Let's phone rang. He announced that his friend was here, and that we were going to play a friendly game. I told him that I did not agree to scam anyone directly, and did not want to be involved in his "friendly game". He told me not to worry, that it was his friend's fault for being so rich and having such a big gambling problem in the first place.
Before I could object, in walked a short, pudgy man in full Muslim garb. He wore a long, white robe with intricate golden embroidery, and a matching taquiyah, or hat worn by men of Islamic faith. He carried a brief case which he opened to display thousands of American dollars neatly wrapped in bundles.I had never seen so much money before in my life. It was like a scene from Pulp Fiction. Meanwhile, Sophie slipped me a wad of cash under the table. That is when shit officially got weird.
"You are so beautiful," said the man, "I could make you one of my wives!"
"I don't think so," I sharply replied.
"She is feisty!" he commented to Let. I had one of two choices at this point. I could freak out, or I could keep my cool and try to get out of this jam as smoothly as possible. My South Side Chicago tough ghetto bitch alter ego kicked in, a side of me that usually only emerges when I'm drunk. I sat there with a skeptical face, one eyebrow raised, eyeballing these guys as if I was going to reach out and cut them at any given moment.
The man described himself as a furniture salesman from Brunei with a successful business in Singapore. I wasn't sure if he was part of their scam on me, or if they were using me to scam on him. Either way, I wasn't feeling it.
"Whatever," I replied, trying to act all hard. Sophie and Let looked at each other with alarm. This wasn't the nice, friendly girl they had encountered downstairs. They had to make this quick. Sophie offered to get me something to drink, but I declined. There was no way I was going to consume anything more in this house. I was fearful that they had already drugged me at lunch, and was prepared to fight any sudden feelings of fatigue with all my mental and bodily strength.
Sophie instructed me to put the wad of cash, which was supposedly fifteen thousand dollars, on the table. We played the first hand, which I somehow won, despite the fact that I wasn't counting, looking at Let's hand signals, or making any effort whatsoever. I was more focused on maintaining my cool and mean persona. They asked me to put down more for the next hand, but I said that I didn't have any money. Let said that it was alright, that the man from Brunei would credit us. The man from Brunei tried to create small talk with me, but I wasn't interested. I somehow managed to win every single hand over the course of five minutes, and the contents of the briefcase were supposedly ours. I saw right through this supposed beginners luck. There was one problem.
"You only bet fifteen thousand dollars," the man from Brunei explained, "And I have put down sixty. You must match my amount before I give you your winnings."
"That sounds fair," Let replied. He turned to me,
"Can you put down the rest of the money?" he asked.
"Are you kidding? I'm broke!" I was pretty broke.
"Well, what if we took it out of your credit card?" he suggested.
"I don't even have a credit card," I lied. My credit card was only for emergencies, and this was definitely not an emergency.
"What about a debit card?" he tried.
"I don't have that kind of money," I firmly declared. Let considered which of his friends he could call on to loan him money. He made brief phone calls in English to his friends, asking them for money. I hardly believed the calls were realistic. Then, he led me into the hallway for a private discussion.
"Wow," he begged, "This is a lot of money we just won. My family really needs this money. My mother needs heart surgery and we cannot afford the medical bills."
"I'm really sorry to hear that, Let, but I can't help you. I'm not who you think I am. I told you I was working in Bangkok. I get paid in baht," I explained, crossing my arms and leaning skeptically to one side.
"No," Let replied, "We need dollars!"
"Thailand equals baht. Baht is what I got. What part of this don't you understand? I do not have a Western income. I have been working in Thai-laaand. Thailand dude. Thai wages. I don't have what you're looking for." My body language must have conveyed a sense of my calling his bluff, so Let started getting desperate.
"What if," he resorted, "We took what you do have and turned it into gold? Then we could make a profit."
"I'm not even going there, Let, that straight up sounds like a scam to me. I'm finished here." I walked back into the bedroom where the others were waiting. The man from Brunei had to leave, so he agreed to lock the briefcase and leave it at the house, taking the key with him.
"I will return later once you have the money," he said as he walked out the door.
Sophie suggested that perhaps I should be on my way, too. I couldn't agree more. I climbed into a taxi with Sophie and her Aunt and they dropped me off at the post office. They asked if I could pay for this cab ride, and I happily complied. I calmly stepped out of the car into the scorching afternoon heat, walked up the post office steps, and into the building.
The moment that cool, air conditioned air hit me, South Side ghetto me regressed into hibernation. What the fuck just happened?! I opened my purse to make sure everything was still there. My camera, my wallet, my cell phone, everything was accounted for. Did I really just walk away from that entirely unscathed?
I was too confused and embarrassed to tell anyone, so I just went ahead with mailing my package. There were plenty of police officers at the post office, but I guess my inability to speak Vietnamese was yet another reason I didn't report it. Also, I hadn't actually been scammed, so what did I have to report? Later that day, I went to an internet café, where I Googled "Filipino gambling scam Saigon". Nothing came up. I did, however, receive an email from an account registered to someone named Dianne Closas the next day.
"Hi how are you?" it read, "This is Sophie did you still remember me? How are you now? You are in America now? Did my uncle call you? Pease try to answer me if you are not busy" (3/5/2011). I didn't respond.
In revisiting my story after all this time, I once again Googled the term "Filipino gambling scam Saigon", and the results had grown immensely. Blog after blog describes the exact same house that I had visited. There are message boards filled with warnings about the gang of Filipinos operating out of Ho Chi Minh City in attempts to scam tourists through dishonest gambling. There have been reports of other travelers who lost thousands of dollars at the hands of this gang. Most travelers offered to put their own money down and gambled against them, unaware of the gang's methods for cheating. Others were drugged and robbed.
How I walked away unharmed is astonishing to me. Perhaps I was being too difficult, or maybe they believed I wasn't worth anything and wanted to get rid of me in order to move on to another tourist. It was all pretty wild. Travelers to Saigon should be aware of this scam and avoid talking to these people entirely, because they are dangerous. I'm grateful because I was lucky.
This is an excerpt from the new book, "Around the World in 80 J's", now on Amazon
Breakfast at Tiffany's. Dir. Blake Edwards. Perf. Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard, Patricia Neal. Jurow-Shepherd, 1961. DVD.
Pulp Fiction. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson. Miramax Films, 1994. DVD.