Story: Tran Huyen
Photo: Hoang Hai, Diep Bao Tan

Discover a classic card game from Central Vietnam. Bài chòi is a popular game in Central Vietnam, typically played during the Lunar New Year. The name translates as “a deck of cards and a bamboo hut”.

This game is played differently in each locality, reflecting the local culture. Players aren’t out to gamble, but merely to test their luck at the start of the year and enjoy the game’s fun, carnival atmosphere, created by witty musical phrases, delighted laughter, and hopes for victory.

Cards in bài chòi

A game of bài chòi uses 28 of the 30 pairs of cards in a deck of bài tới cards. A bài chòi  deck consists of three sets, called pho in Vietnamese: pho văn, pho vạn and pho sách. There are also three pairs of bài yêu (spirit cards):  ông ầm, thái tử, bạch tuyết.

The cards are printed in the style of woodblock prints on pieces of paper that are 12 cm long and 3 cm wide. The images are glued onto red or blue cardboard backings. The names and figures displayed on these cards are mysterious and bizarre, evoking magical spells and showing influences from Champa culture and a blend of artistic styles typical of the ethnic minorities living in the Annamite Range.

When spring is in the air, people set up 11 bamboo huts in a village courtyard or at a countryside market. The central hut, chòi trung ương, is reserved for the game’s organizers. On both sides, 10 smaller huts are built, where the players will sit and play.

The success of the game depends on the host - Anh hieu

To begin the game, anh hiệu, one of the organizers, who acts as the host, beats a drum and speaks loudly, inviting the players to the huts. At the same time, the band, comprising a trumpet, a drum, a đàn nhị (a Vietnamese bowed string instrument) and castanets, begins to play.

Following the drum roll, anh hiệu brings out 10 cash flags (cờ ngân), each worth one bet in the game, and sells them to the players. Next, two other members of the organizing board take containers full of bamboo cards to each hut and ask the players to pick any five cards. The paper cards are now attached to bamboo tablets with a wide, flat top, and a small, round bottom. Each hut, including the central one, selects five cards. The 56th card is used by anh hiệu as the shopping card (con bài đi chợ), to start the game.

A card flag is delivered to the winner

After all cards have been distributed, anh hiệu begins to sing: “Hai bên lẳng lặng mà nghe con bài đi chợ, là con…” (Everyone, please keep silent and listen to the name of the shopping card, which is…). He reveals the name of the 56th card with a long phrase, amid the buzzing sounds of the musical instruments. Whoever is holding the other card of the pair should sing its name out loud, then give it to anh hiệu along with another card picked from those in their hand. Anh hiệu receives the two cards, and puts the shopping card and its pair in the bamboo container placed in front of the central hut. He then finds the match for the other card with a new musical phrase.

A woman checks her cards

The game proceeds this way, with musical phrases corresponding to the names of the cards sung one after the other. When a player taps on the bamboo tocsin by their hut and shouts “Tới rồi! Tới rồi!” to alert everyone that the card just named by anh hiệu and the last card in their hand are a pair, the game is over. That player is the winner.

Without delay, anh hiệu brings the winner a cash flag and hangs it on top of their hut, where it flutters in the warm spring breeze. The host then starts another round.

Eleven cash flags are sold in a game of bài chòi, but only 10 rounds are played. The 11th flag is the organizers’ profit. At the end of the game, the players take the cash flags they have won to the central hut and exchange them for money. One flag means you break even. Having two or more flags at the end of the game is considered good luck for the New Year.

The charm of bài chòi lies in the singing voice of anh hiệu and his gestures. More than a host, he is a performer. His quick mind and sense of humor keep the game under control and make it entertaining.

For this reason, every time a game of bài chòi is played, laughter, music and drum rolls can be heard in every corner of a village, luring everyone over, regardless of gender or age.