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Last Updated: Monday, 13 February 2006, 12:56 GMT
Gambling and graft in Vietnam
By Kate McGeown
BBC News

Pham Van Quyen, one of the nation's most popular players, and one of the men arrested for match-fixing
Vietnam's 'David Beckham' was one of the footballers arrested
It has not been a good spell for Vietnam's efforts to stamp out illegal gambling and corruption.

First came the news last December that two popular, national team footballers had been arrested over charges of match-fixing at the South East Asian Games.

Two more players were detained a few days later, also on charges of accepting large bookmaker payouts.

Then in January, a senior official was arrested for allegedly gambling millions of dollars on European football matches - an amount so large that the authorities immediately suspected he must have been involved in some form of bribery or embezzlement.

Such incidents have been coming to light so frequently that when told about the footballers' arrests, Sports Minister Nguyen Danh Thai said he was "not shocked" by the news.

But the worry, according to analysts, is that the implications go much wider, since gambling often appears to be at the heart of a serious problem with official corruption.

'Everyone gambles'

All forms of gambling are illegal in Vietnam, except in a small number of carefully vetted licensed premises.

But you could not tell that, if you walked around an average Vietnamese town most evenings.

Vu Huyen
It's impossible to eradicate [gambling], so the government should legalise it instead
Vu Huyen, artist
It is easy to find groups of people huddled on street corners, eagerly watching the progress of card games while money changes hands.

"Everyone gambles here," said Vu Ngoc Bonglai, a student in Hanoi. "Sometimes it's just because we've got nothing else to do. But we only bet with small amounts."

"It's especially a problem [around Lunar New Year] because many young people get money from their families and use it to gamble on the streets," he said.

Even the government admits that small-scale gambling is widespread - almost a traditional part of the country's culture.

"The Vietnamese have been gambling for generations. What we really need to worry about is the scale of gambling, as well as the sources of finance that people use," Tran Viet Trung, deputy head of the Anti-social Vices Department, told the BBC's Vietnamese service.

Of course, for most people, the amount of money that changes hands is nothing like the $2.4m which senior official Bui Tien Dung is thought to have bet in just two months.

The state-controlled Vietnamese press calculated that Mr Dung, a senior director at the Ministry of Transport, could only have earned that much if he had saved a full 158 years of wages.

Mr Trung said the case was not only gambling but "corruption of a serious extent".

Mr Dung is far from alone in being accused of graft. Corruption is thought to be rife among Vietnamese officials, and a Communist Party survey last year found that a third of government employees admitted they would take a bribe if offered one.

The sports industry appears to be inflicted with a similar problem.

More than 20 referees, coaches and officials were already facing match-fixing charges, even before the arrest of four members of the national team in December.


But of course, corruption is not confined to people who are involved in gambling.

Gambling on a street in Hanoi
Gambling is virtually a national pastime
It happens in all sectors of Vietnamese society, and is a day-to-day experience for many ordinary citizens trying to go about their daily lives.

But the recent series of high-profile cases have emphasised that the two vices are often found together.

There are increasing calls for Vietnam's authorities to admit defeat and legalise small-scale gambling, then at least they might have more success in controlling it and preventing more serious abuses.

"It's impossible to eradicate it, so the government should legalise it instead. Maybe they could have something like an official sports lotto," suggested Vu Huyen, an artist based in Hanoi.

And as Tran Vu Hai, a lawyer from Hanoi Bar Association, pointed out, the ban is also losing the Vietnamese government much needed revenue.

"I personally know people who bet directly with companies abroad," he said. "It is allowed overseas, so they aren't really doing anything illegal. Yet the government here doesn't generate any income from them."

He said that the authorities should focus their resources instead on co-operating with foreign betting companies.

Tony Foster, the head of the Vietnam branch of law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, was more cautious.

"I can see advantages and disadvantages of legalising gambling. If you legalise it, are you just making it easier for people to do something they cannot really afford to do?"

But one factor everyone seems to agree on is that, whether they are allowed to or not, the Vietnamese will never lose their enthusiasm for having a quick flutter on a sports match or a quick impromptu game on a street corner.

"Gambling is a reality," said Tran Vu Hai. "No matter how many cases we expose, people will continue gambling."

Vietnam football stars arrested
21 Dec 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Vietnam
01 Oct 05 |  Country profiles

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