I was coming out of the Ho Chi Minh museum and the 40-ish Asian lady asked me where I was from. I answered “Hoa Kỳ” as I always to do to street hawkers; their surprise at a white man’s saying he is American in Vietnamese gives me a few precious seconds to get out of pestering range.
“That is America, right?” The woman didn’t sound Vietnamese at all.
“Yes. I live in California.”
“My niece Maria is moving to Torrance. You know Torrance?”
I did, vaguely, and the woman didn’t seem like a vendor, so I decided to chat with her. She said her name was Susanna and she was from Manila, in Saigon to visit her brother, who lived here with his Vietnamese wife. Her sister Anna, slightly older, also came over. We sat on the half-wall next to the sidewalk and it was somehow decided I should go to their brother’s house for lunch.
Now I’m not a complete naïf. Anna and Susanna were charming in their middle-aged-Filipina-lady way, but I had to figure this was some kind of scam. Maybe some kind of advance-fee con or just a phony charity. I’d keep my eyes open — and my mind. You never know, maybe they just, as they claimed, wanted me to meet their niece, tell her about California.
We cabbed a ways through the usual HCMC labyrinth and ended up at a surprisingly nice tiled house. The brother Tony was already there, and his wife’s perfectly rotund little sister Milla. His wife, Tony told me, was visiting her and Milla’s mother in the hospital, where she was recovering from a heart attack. As the women prepared lunch, I sat on the couch and talked with Tony about his job, which was, he said, a dealer at casinos here and in Phnom Penh. He showed me a brochure for the Cambodian place, the first truly false note, though I missed it at the time: who keeps a brochure for their employer, especially a worn and dog-eared one, on their own coffee table, and who shows it to visitors?
We had lunch, a simple meal of boiled chicken, fried tilapia, and rice. Tony complained about a customer, a woman from the Sultanate of Brunei who had hired him to deal at a private game, promised him a tip of 5%, and then when she won $80,000, stiffed him of all but $400!
We went back to the couch and Tony had a business proposition. He was, he claimed, a card mechanic of reliable skill. He knew who had what cards in any game he dealt. All he needed was a confederate, someone to sit at the table with Tony’s money, read Tony’s signals, and scam the other players. My cut would be a third.
At this point, I wasn’t sure whether I was the mark or whether he was a legit mechanic in need of a shill. I of course played like I believed him but was unwilling to brave Cambodian prisons (which is the absolute truth).
“I would not be in this business if there was any risk at all,” he told me, and he would repeat that phrase word-for-word several times over the afternoon. Actually, he had a handful of set sentences he used letter-perfect over and over, a giveaway that he had played this scene many times before.
Also, in candor, I told him I was curious how his scheme worked. We went upstairs, where he had a small table set up, and he went over how it worked.
The game was an odd variant of two-handed blackjack where one player acted as banker and took the dealer’s hand, and the two players had a round of betting, poker-style, before asking for additional cards.
I was disappointed to see Tony was not a professional dealer. He handled the cards like an experienced player, perhaps, but not with the miraculous precision of a casino dealer.
Which meant, by process of elimination, that I was the mark in a short con.
They say there’s a sucker at every table and if you don’t know who the sucker is, it’s you. But I knew I was the sucker and that, I hoped, would keep me safe.
Another disappointment: Tony had a system of hand signals, but ones so obvious, Stevie Wonder could have called him out. Maybe I just look stupid. Maybe after you swindled as many people as Tony has, everyone starts to looks stupid to you.
Finally, he proposed that his sister Susanna come to the casino as my date. This was so laughable it was insulting. The scam was supposed to be I was a confederate who didn’t seem connected to him, the dealer. Susanna really was his sister, she was the spitting image of him. Stevie Wonder’s dog would make her as a dummy. Besides, if Susanna could pass, why can’t she be the shill, instead of having to split the take with some guy off the street? It was a strange move on his part, proposing such a transparently foolish step.
The other sister called up from downstairs in Tagalog. Surprise, surprise, there was a visitor and surprise, surprise, it was the rich Bruneian who had stiffed him the other night. Susanna went down to usher her up and Tony set the hook: this was perfect, we could practice on her, get the money she owed him. Susanna came back with the supposed pigeon, a nicely dressed woman about 50 who, to her credit, looked more Bruneian than, say, I do. Maybe not by much but you do what you can.
Tony proposed that his new guest and I play blackjack, giving me a huge cartoon wink. He must have thought I was thick as pig shit.
I was having fun still but it was time to fold the grift. As soon as a card hit the table, I was guilty of whatever the Vietnamese equivalents are of conspiracy, illegal gaming, scheme to defraud, who knows. If Tony’s payments to the Saigon Police Benevolent Fund were up-to-date, no amount of squawking about con artists would help me — and nor would the US consulate.
I made a regretful excuse, warmly expressed to the Bruneian my enjoyment of having met her, and walked out of the room.
Susanna and Tony ran after me, stopped me on the stairs. Tony tried a new and clever tack: help him with his scam because his mother-in-law was sick and he needed the money to pay for her care. I told Tony, sincerely, that I would pray for her. Whoever said that sincerity is the most important thing — and that if you can fake sincerity, you have it made — spoke the truth. I again expressed my regrets and Susanna was kind enough to call me a taxi-moto and I zoomed away from that one-act David Mamet play.
I don’t know exactly how it would have played out. Perhaps he had another confederate, a pretended or real policeman who would bust in at that right moment, cuff me, threaten me with years in a Third-World prison, then escort me back to my hotel or an ATM for cash alternative. That’s my only guess but then, I don’t spend as much time on either side of con-games as I’d like.
Update: Sadly, this is a common scheme, you can even see mugshots of Tony and Susanna. Tony is upper right in the block of photos and Susanna was the woman in the two street photos. Funny, in the mugshots they look like, as they are, criminals; in real life, they all seemed very pleasant. I guess that’s why they’re called confidence artists. My experience was nothing special, except to me. I don’t know why, but I’m disappointed my grifters cribbed so many details from earlier artists but I am. Seriously, how hard would it have been to invent a new reason to need the money or a different excuse to talk to me?
And some of my friends scolded me for talking such a risk, but you know where’s safe? My house. It’s safe as houses, you might say.
But I left that house and came to South-east Asia, where, at any minute, I might fall prey to scammers, spammers, cutthroats, murderers, Anopheles, desperadoes, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, katoeys, vipers, snipers, con men, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswogglers, bike thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass-kickers, shit-kickers, and Buddhists. But I’m here.
Besides, you know what they say: if you’re born to hang, you won’t drown.