The Ho Tram Script

The humongous Ho Tram Strip opens doors of first casinothe-ho-tram-script-1162613-ho-tram-450

The Grand-Ho Tram Strip-the first in a series of six giant hotel-casino complexes opened last Friday on a two-kilometer beach in Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province. Gambling remains illegal for Vietnamese citizens. Photo by Calvin Godfrey

Halfway through my free US$90 cigar, I began to wonder if it was all too much.

On July 26, Vietnam’s first major casino invited every big shot and fat man in the country — from Chinese millionaires to penniless me — to a night of gorging and gambling.

Gruff Ghuangzhou high-rollers had been helicoptered in from Tan Son Nhat International Airport that morning followed shortly by the white-shoed Phillip Falcone of Harbinger Capital, who had brought his wife and kids in from New York City to marvel at what his millions had wrought.

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Models caked in gold makeup posed in long hallways clutching styrofoam lyres. Buxom young women in sequined bikinis and feather headdresses stood grinning as bashful men stood next to them for cell-phone shots. In the glimmering casino, a team stood ready at 90 gaming tables for the flood of money.

After a series of gushing speeches and an elaborate ribbon-cutting ceremony involving a series of silver platters and gold shears, everything in the hotel suddenly became free.

Tables overflowed with roasted meats and handmade truffles and champagne. There was Chinese roast pork and sushi and rainbow-banded platters of macaroni.

This is to say nothing of all the drink. I became a Noah’s Ark of booze, taking two of every kind through the flood.

Toward the end of the night, I forgot that money existed or that there was even such a thing as too much. “Vegas in Vietnam,” said one slick suit to another.

And then it all went blank.

In the morning, there was a lot of thinking to do. The idea of building what one PR flak described as a “monstrous monolith” on a serene beach two hours from Ho Chi Minh City seemed bad enough.

But The Grand is only a small piece in what will be six monoliths standing all in a row — the Ho Tram Strip.

The first tower alone has four restaurants, swimming pools, a kid’s center, a teen center, and a full service spa. A second tower will double the Grand’s hotel capacity—from 541 to 1,000 in the next two years.

Aside from the construction equipment carving a range of majestic dunes into a Greg Norman golf course, the Strip sits on a rather glorious stretch of beach.

If you’ve got money to spend and you need to escape HCMC for a few nights, Ho Tram is probably your best option. The rooms cost roughly $90 until the end of August after which the price basically doubles.

Because Vietnamese still cannot legally gamble, the “Ho Tram Script,” is to pay Chinese “gaming agents” (e.g. travel agents who plan gambling sprees) a higher commission than casinos in Macau and Singapore to send suckers their way.

As a patriotic temporary resident of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, milking Chinese gamblers certainly sounds like a fine idea to generate revenue.

But no one knows if this is actually going to work and some are highly skeptical that it will.

There are so few cheap flights connecting China and HCMC that many of the agents are reportedly chartering flights.

And then there’s another leg of the ride to the casino itself: your choice between a three-hour haul in a bus or a custom Mercedes Sprinter outfitted with TVs and big chairs —depending on how much money you plan on leaving in Ho Tram.

Millionaires will enjoy a quick run in a government-owned helicopter, cutting the travel time to a four-hour run from Guangzhou to Ho Tram. Even this seems like a hard sell for a filthy rich gambler accustomed to hopping over to Macau.

But that’s the Strip’s problem.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to have to wake up every Sunday to the sounds of cockfights in my alley. I’ll continue watching wives gamble away whatever money they’ve received during Tet on the floor of a relative’s kitchen. I’ll keep reading stories about delta farmers paying outrageous ransoms to get their relatives out of hock from the mafias that run the Cambodian border casinos.

And I’ll wonder if it isn’t such a bad idea for Vietnam to put its gambling all in one place, regulate it, and make money off of it.

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