Lao Cai Province, Vietnam is just across the Red River from south China's Yunnan Province. Many Chinese cross the river for a short visit without a visa by paying a small fee. The lion’s share of these people are Chinese looking to gamble.

They normally just have to pay 15 yuan on each side of the river if they've made prior arrangements. When one young man arrived for a spontaneous trip though, a Vietnamese officer in army fatigue stopped him and said in a Yunnan accent, "This river doesn’t belong to China. Why do you think you can just come across like that?"

However, when the officer realized the young man was coming to gamble, he shifted his tone. The officer said he would let the Chinese man go for 200 yuan. This was bargained down to 100 yuan and the man hopped on the next ferry.

Meaningless Border

Though business across Sino-Vietnamese border isn't booming like it once was, the area is still humming as many Chinese cross.

Jiang Jian (姜建) from Guizhou Province married a Vietnamese woman and settled in Hekou County (河口县), Yunnan Province. With a multiple-entry visa to Vietnam, he's very familiar with the situation along the border. He said besides a few tourists, most Chinese go to gamble.

A separate unnamed source who's been bringing Chinese people to Vietnamese casinos for several years told an EO reporter that lots of Chinese go to Vietnam without a legal visa. "90 percent of them go for gambling," he said. "Tourists only account for a small portion."

In Lao Cai, Chinese don't need to show their passport to check into a hotel. Their Chinese ID card will work just fine and using RMB is a must. As long as they contact the right person before setting off, the trip is simple and comfortable. They'll be picked up on the Chinese riverside and taken to the opposite pier. When they arrive in Lao Cai, the casino will pick them up. All the services, food and accommodation are free.

When an EO reporter spoke with one Vietnamese fixer, he said that he'd already brought over 300 Chinese that day. Some days that number is as high as 500.

A Golden Black Hole

The scene in Lao Cai is no different from an ordinary Chinese town. Its side of the river is nearly identical to Hekou County's bank. The casino is the only difference.

The hall of the Lao Cai International Club hotel sports a 600-square meter gaming-room. It's said that it was co-founded by Vietnamese investors and the head of the Genting Highlands Casino - Malaysia's only legal casino. More than ten Baccarat tables and several lines of slot machines adorn the hall. It's pretty small by Macao standards, but it's quite a site in Lao Cai.

EO reporters observed that, besides a few VIP areas, nearly all the tables were surrounded by gamblers. They numbered in the several hundred and, judging from their accent, about half were from Yunnan, with the rest from south and northeast China.

The casino forbids Vietnamese guests though. Jiang Jian brought his wife to eat in the casino once, and though she's a good Chinese speaker, she was told to leave.

A worker at the casino said that the business is planning to expand, buy more facilities and recruit more workers to accommodate the increasing number of guests. A Chinese man, who said he's a jade trader from Yunnan, told the EO that he and his friends are frequent visitors. Sometimes they win, sometimes lose. Either way, it's usually only "a few hundred thousand yuan," but sometimes it reaches several million.

A young man surnamed Wang has been working for the casino for over four years. He said, as small as it might be, the casino makes an astounding amount of money from Chinese gamblers each year. He went on to say that the casino is so successful because, aside from many small-time gamblers, there are also Chinese coal, jade and tea entrepreneurs who are seriously heavy-rollers.

"The biggest different between the casino here and those in other places is that there's no formalities," Wang said. "You leave no trace. That's what makes it so appealing."

Going on a one-day trip to Vietnam on a legal visa can be time-consuming and expensive (450 yuan). People on this visa are only allowed to stay in Vietnam for half a day and can only visit certain sites like Lao Cai Park and the Great Hall. They're prohibited from leaving the tour group or staying overnight. This means no casino.

"If a tourist steps into the casino, the travel agency won’t be allowed to enter Vietnam," said a man with a travel agency in Hekou County.

That leaves people wanting to gamble with little choice but to enter without a legal visa.

In 2009, the Honghe Zhou (红河州) and Lao Cai governments signed an agreement to crack down on cross-border gambling by Chinese citizens. The agreement obviously hasn’t done much.

By Yang Xingyun - The Economic Observer (.cn) - August 17, 2012