Black Jack Poker

Ho Chi Minh City, population 5.38 million people.  Located in the south of Vietnam, I arrived exhausted, with no plans of staying.

Ho Chi Minh City

Cities are places to spend one day in.  See the sights in half a day and organise the next leg of your travels in the other half a day.  After almost 19 days spent in small beach town or villages up in the mountains, the prospect of hanging in the city did not appeal to me at all.  When you are single, female and walking around a place like HCMC, you are a perfect target.  When you are overtired, you don’t think straight.  It’s this combination that found me in some upstairs room of someone’s house, somewhere in this huge city of 5.38 million people, playing Black Jack Poker.

Now for all of you out there who know even a tiny bit about gambling or card games, I’d imagine you’re scratching your head and thinking there is no such thing as Black Jack Poker and you’d be correct.  But after two bus trips, totalling 18 hours of travel, the day before, starting at 1am heading in one direction and ending at 7pm heading back in the other direction and only 4-5 hours sleep the night after the bus trips, I was feeling a little disorientated in such a huge city.  My plan was to head to the Mekong Delta and make my way up to Cambodia.  Five minutes later and my bus was booked for the following morning leaving at 7am.  I now had the rest of the day to explore the former city of Saigon.

Jade Emperor Pagoda

I found an xe om and haggled out a price.  I quite enjoy haggling.  It’s a fun game to play and the locals appreciate it when you get involved.  As an outsider to their country you will always pay more than is necessary.  But just how much more, depends entirely on your ability to know the rules of the haggling game.  The price was based on driving me from Ben Thanh Market, in the Dong Khoi area, to the Jade Emperor

Photo from the War Remnants Museum display"

Pagoda, then back to the War Remnants Museum.  From there I could walk to the Reunification Palace and back to the hostel.  After the first 400 temples/pagodas, the novelty wears off a little.  The War Remnants Museum on the other hand, WOW.  Knowing so very little about the war in Vietnam, I was close to tears over some of the photos on display.  Exposure to harsh chemicals, even whilst in the womb, had such devastating effects on children and grown adults.  Retardation, deformation of limbs, amputations, the photos were filled with images of sadness and agony as a result of defoliants used in the war.

Feeling rather numb after my visit at the War Remnants Museum, I headed back to the hostel.  Walking around outside was helping me process all my thoughts and feeling, so I ventured into the streets around my hostel, to pass the afternoon.  I was approached by a man on the street, asking where I got my necklace pendant from (I wear a worn metal life circle pendant I found in a market in Essaouira, Morocco a few years ago, on a piece of black string around my neck) as he sells them in Thailand.  We got talking about them and he asked me to join him and his sister and sister in-law, who were sitting near by.  They were in Vietnam visiting as their mother was ill in hospital and their other sister was getting ready to move to Australia to start working as an Occupational Therapist at a hospital in Brisbane… the Royal Children’s Hospital, did I know it?  Of course I knew of it, I lived down the road from it (although I had not mentioned until this point in the conversation where in Australia I was from).  They were quite excited by this and the bombardment of questions began.  What is it like?  Will our sister like living there?  Would you be able to come and talk to our sister now and tell her all about living in Australia?  Sure, I had a few hours to kill, so I would be happy to go and have a chat with her.  The sister, sister in-law and I farewelled the brother and hailed a taxi.  The onslaught of questions about life in Australia, what was I doing travelling by myself, why did I not have a boyfriend or husband travelling with me (so all the important questions in life according to anyone in Asia) continued.  A few turns here and there and across one or two mains roads and we pulled up halfway along a smaller lane way, between rows of houses.  I was ushered inside to meet the rest of the family.  The sister moving to Australia was still at the hospital, but another brother, Mr Leic, arrived home shortly after and I was invited to eat with them.  Mr Leic was a VIP dealer in the casinos.  He had travelled to Australia a few times to supervise or for other work related purposes.  Had I ever played poker?  No.  I don’t even put more than five dollars in the pokies!  Would I like to learn?  He could teach me while we waited for the other sister to arrive home.

In a normal person warning sirens would be blaring in their head.  But I was curious and there was no money involved, so no harm could be done.  Right?

Mr Leic can count cards.  He knew every hand what I would have.  Whether I would win, lose, should take another card or fold.  He showed me a series of signals that he would do to let me know what my next move should be.  How exciting!  I felt like I was in a movie, all this covert signalling and adventure in the back streets of Saigon.  Next thing the Singaporean business women he dealt a private game for the night before, shows up wanting to play.  She throws $30000 USD on the table to buy chips and he throws in $10000 USD for chips for me.  It’s at this point I start to freak out a little.  But the game begins and I follow his signals and we are doing very well.  The signal to finish is shown and I announce that after this hand I’m done.  I’m about to win $30000 USD… for Mr Leic.  Stop!  Do not go pass go, do not collect $200!  Before we turn over cards, she says, I need to see the rest of your money, because if I win, I want to have my winnings to collect.  Ok, sure, no problems… Shit!!  Mr Leic, rummages through some draws and finds another couple of thousand.  He will need to go and get the rest, am I able to get a few thousand as he doesn’t have the total amount.  I can’t withdraw more than $1000 on my card at any one time.  No problems, she says, I’ll accept gold too.  Now Mr Leic, you have one hour, we will meet back here and I want some collateral from the girl.  The camera will do.

What is going on!!!!  The sister and sister in-law whisk me away in a taxi to a mall that is entirely made up of gold shops on the bottom floor.  Mr Leic has hopped on a motorbike to visit a friend to collect more money.  Who in their right mind buys gold in Vietnam to put into a black jack poker game in some back street house, somewhere in Ho Chi Minh City… I do.  My body had gone numb by this stage of the evening.  I wanted to run, but I had 2 sisters minding me and I wasn’t really sure where I was or what weird alternative universe I had found myself in.  An hour later we arrive back at the house, $3000 short.  It’s agreed we play six more games then.  Flipped the cards, I win.  That was lucky, she says.  Not really, we now have six more hands to play.  I’m getting tired, I’m stressing out, I want to throw up, but at the same time adrenalin is pushing me on.  Hand three of six and I can’t read his signals.  He taps his middle finger.  I make a call.  Wait the panicked look on his face and he does the signal again, this time it is slightly different.  Oh, shit, oh shit, oh shit, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.  I make a call, we flip cards.  I lose a hand I should have won.  Mr Leic and I step out of the room for a moment to have words.  How could I stuff that one up?  I couldn’t understand what you were doing it was confusing.  We go back into the room.  She has decided that she has had enough of playing at his house.  We will finish off the game at the private dealers room at the Sheraton where she is staying.  She will meet us there in half an hour.  The cash and gold is locked in a box.  She carries the key and leaves.  The sister has the locked box for safe keeping.  I am put on the back of a motorbike to go and get changed into long pants, Mr Leic is going to pick up some more money and will meet me at 11.00pm at my hostel.  I ask for his mobile number so I can call him.  They write it on a card.

I’m now left standing on the side of D Pham Ngu Lao (the main road, which mini hotel alley is off of).  Racing back to my hostel I run upstairs, put on my long fisherman’s pants, as they are the only long pants I brought to Vietnam and then wait.  11pm ticks by.  At 11.10pm I call Mr Leic’s mobile.  He is still trying to get some more money, he will be back for me soon.  I call again at 11.30pm. The phone is turned off.   SHIT!  You silly, silly women.  You’ve been had.  I turned the TV on, the movie Australia, starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman has just started.  2am and I call Mr Leic’s phone again.  It is still turned off.  3.30am I make the call, I didn’t want to make.  It’s 6.30am at home and mum answers.  “Mum, it’s me.  I have to come home.  Yep everything is ok, I’m fine.  I just got scammed and now it’s time to come home.  I should have enough left to get a plane ticket back to Bangkok and pick up my big pack, but I will need some money to get from Bangkok back to Australia, can you please help me.  Thank you I love you and I’ll call you when I get to Bangkok.”  It’s at this point that I finally passed out from exhaustion.

I quickly packed my few belongings into my little blue backpack and said my good byes to the family that run the hostel.  By 7 am I’m sharing a taxi to the airport with another traveller I met five minutes early out the front of a travel shop.  There are still seats available on the 9.45am flight to Bangkok and for just over $100 USD I have a ticket and am my journey back home begins.

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