Originally published on May 23, 2008
The Wall Street Journal
By Bruce Stanley

Canadian property developer Michael (‘Mike’) Aymong says Communist Vietnam is set to become the latest country in Asia to embrace Las Vegas-style casinos with $4.5 billion casino-resort project on the nation’s southern coast.

HONG KONG — Communist Vietnam is set to become the latest country in Asia to embrace Las Vegas-style casinos, with a Canadian property developer planning to break ground Saturday on the first phase of a $4.5 billion casino-resort project on the nation’s southern coast.

The project, called Ho Tram, will be the biggest foreign investment to date in Vietnam, said Michael (‘Mike’) Aymong, chairman of Toronto-based Asian Coast Development Ltd., the project’s lead investor, with a 30% stake. Its main partner in the project is New York hedge fund Harbinger Capital LLC, which has a 25% share.

The initial phase will cost $1.3 billion and consist of two five-star hotels with a combined 2,300 rooms and a casino with approximately 90 gambling tables, 500 slot machines and an area for VIP customers. When completed in 2015, the resort will comprise five hotels with 9,000 rooms and a second casino, Mr. Aymong said.

Ho Tram also will target vacationing families, with features including an 18-hole golf course designed by Greg Norman, a Cirque du Soleil theater, and a site for guests to swim with dolphins.

“It’s a needed project in Vietnam” that, in spite of the country’s poor infrastructure, will be able to “effectively compete” with integrated resorts in neighboring China, Malaysia and Singapore, Mr. Aymong said.

Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party has historically been suspicious of U.S.-style casinos, and many Vietnamese consider gambling a social evil on par with drug abuse. Although a few small, tightly controlled casinos have operated in the country for several years, Ho Tram will be several times larger and represent a big, symbolic step for Vietnam into the capitalist mainstream.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said his government “will create favorable conditions” for Canadian investors, but Ho Tram’s casinos will be off-limits to Vietnamese, as are the country’s existing casinos.

The casino business is booming in Asia, led by China’s glitzy enclave of Macau, the world’s No. 1 gambling center in terms of revenue. Singapore is building its own casino-resort complex, and industry players expect Japan and Thailand will soon allow investment in similar projects. Like its neighbors, Vietnam hopes that a luxurious megaresort offering high-stakes gambling will boost tourism and create jobs.

Michael Aymong

Mr. Aymong said he expects Ho Tram to attract at least two-thirds of its customers from China, together with large numbers from South Korea, Japan and Russia.

Ho Tram will occupy more than 500 acres on a 1.9-mile stretch of beach in Xuyen Moc Commune in Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province, a 90-minute drive southeast of Ho Chi Minh City.

Asian Coast Development has letters of intent from “a couple of international hotel chains” that want to manage the hotels at Ho Tram, Mr. Aymong said, though he declined to name them. The company also is talking with about 10 casino operators that have expressed interest in running the resort’s gambling operations, he said, again declining to identify any of these possible partners.

Asian Coast Development is a merchant bank and developer.

Write to Bruce Stanley at bruce.stanley@wsj.com