The last two years have seen a surge in the popularity of tabletop gaming in Vietnam. This comes during an age of ultra-advanced video games and with toddlers learning to use smartphones or tablets before they reach kindergarten, making it all the more amazing.
Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City now both host a selection of board game cafés, with specialist locations devoted to popular tabletop game Warhammer 40,000 and old school role-playing favourite Dungeons and Dragons.
The Games Master
The Cube has been Hanoi’s go-to board game café for over a year.
“I wanted to have a place for people to come and have a coffee, play their favourite games and learn about new ones,” says manager Tran Tuan Anh. “But we also sell games, for people to take home and play.”
Board games only came to Vietnam in any meaningful way around five or six years ago, so one of The Cube’s biggest challenges is making people aware of them.
“Most people play games with more simple rules, as they’re quick to learn,” says Anh. “But we have many customers who love to play role-playing or battle games such as Battlelore, or more hard-core games with complicated rules, such as Pandemic Legacy.”
The Cube has dozens of games, all of which are free to use; although the unwritten rule that customers buy drinks may be enforced on any over-thrifty visitors.
The most important employees at The Cube are known as games masters; it’s their job to explain the rules of the games to customers, and encourage them to look after the box and all contents.
Find it at 168A Tran Vu, Ba Dinh, Hanoi. Open daily from 9am until 11pm. For more information click on facebook.com/thecubevn
The Dungeon Master
At just three months old, The Nest is one of the newest spaces for playing board games in Hanoi.
“It’s often so boring when people go to cafés; they just hold their phones, check in on Facebook, and don’t talk much,” says owner, Hoang Dinh. “I opened a board game café, so everyone would put down their phones and socialise.”
The Nest is a bright and spacious café, with a huge selection of board games to play, some for free, others for a small fee. However, the most recent development has seen it play host to weekly sessions of the legendary role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons.
“I knew about D&D for a while, but had never played before,” says Hoang. “I hope it gets more popular here; it helps people open up and develop their imaginations.”
The social side of board game cafés is the area Hoang enjoys dabbling in the most. A group of eight excitable employees sit on the floor; they’re testing a new game, Hoang says.
“We need to know the rules. Games like Werewolves attract groups of 10 to 12 people to one game; they help to cultivate a very social atmosphere.”
Find it on the second floor at 4A Trang Thi, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi. Open daily from 9am until 10.30pm. For more information, call 01236 487633 or visit facebook.com/TheNestTrangThi
Playing boardgames at The Nest in Hanoi
Play Your Cards Right
If D&D is considered obscure to Vietnamese gamers, then early 1990s trading card game Magic: The Gathering (MTG) could be considered almost completely unknown.
“I only found out about it when I visited Hong Kong,” says MTG player Vu Dinh Tuan. “I’ve introduced all of my friends to it; but it’s such a deep game, with so many rules to learn, so only a few of them still play.”
Both The Cube and The Nest have many card games available to use, such as Exploding Kittens, Cards Against Humanity and Uno; but neither stock MTG cards. “MTG cards can become really expensive,” says Tuan, “if people really get into collecting them.”
That’s not to say trading card games are without any local fans; Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokémon are both popular with local gamers, Tuan says, especially in schools, where card trades can dominate break times.
For the adult players, however, popular pub Red River Tea Room has a selection of board games and big tables to use, while trendy new bar Chávez hosts games nights every Sunday.
A number if different cafes in Hanoi are now focused on the boardgame community
Passion for Gaming
When Irishman Eoghan Quinn moved to Saigon four years ago, he brought his passion for board games with him, playing with his friends around the city.
“The tables were too small,” says Eoghan, “and the light was never quite right.”
He eventually plucked the courage to set up a games café in District 1, which opened in April 2016.
Board Game Station is a light and airy café, complete with sound proofing, and has over 100 games for the players to choose from. At VND56,000 for three hours of gaming with a free drink, customers can take advantage of a comfortable, relaxing environment.
The tables are larger than usual with plenty of room for four people. If you are ever struggling with the rules, or perhaps having a disagreement with a fellow player, a member of staff can step in and guide you along the way.
“We encourage our staff to learn new games whenever they can,” says Eoghan. “Most of the players are local, in their mid- to-late 20s.”
Social deduction games such as Werewolves prove most popular. Such is the success of his first branch in District 1, Eoghan decided to open a second branch a few months ago, located at 140/1 Nguyen Van Linh, Q7.
Find it a 21 Trinh Van Can, Q1, HCMC. Open Monday to Thursday from 11am to 10.30pm, and Friday to Sunday from 9am to 10.30pm. For info, call 0909 361556 or visit facebook.com/bgs.21trinhvancan
Vesta Bookstore originally opened just as a bookstore in April 2016, but game-loving owner Duc Nguyen decided to open a games section within the store in May this year.
“I was introduced to Monopoly by a Belgian teacher,” says Duc.
After further developing his interest in games while studying in the US, the entrepreneur decided to turn his hobby into a business.
Located in the heart of the expat community in Thao Dien, it is little surprise the majority of customers are foreigners hankering after a small piece of home.
“The board game community in Vietnam is growing,” Duc says. “I met my best friend through gaming.”
Duc believes that games are a fun way to learn life’s lessons. Vesta Bookstore offers a relaxed and peaceful environment to embrace that philosophy; until one player takes the game a little too seriously. Tables for four can be rented at VND80,000 an hour.
Find it at 37 Xuan Thuy, Thao Dien, Q2, HCMC. Open daily from 9am to 9pm. For more information, call 01696 249650 or visit facebook.com/vestabooks
There Is Only War
Warhammer 40,000 (W40K), a staple hobby for many young people across the world, is making a splash in Vietnam.
Founded by Ha Nguyen on his return from studying in America, Empire Capital opened in April 2017. Just four months later and they planning a move to a new, specially designed premises (16 Quach Van Tuan, Tan Binh) to cope with demand.
“W40K is a game where the future is at all-out war,” explains Ha. “It’s a dark, extreme universe where humanity is fighting with aliens and with each other.”
Despite having such a dark storyline, the gamers are remarkably jovial and Ha reassures us that the W40K community is very open and welcoming to new members.
“I’m a hobbyist,” says Ha, “so it’s been an interesting experience connecting with people through a shared passion.”
He estimates the W40K community in Vietnam only stands at between 50- 70 people, mostly in their mid to late twenties.
“Not all enthusiasts actually play,” Ha says. “Some simply enjoy collecting and painting the figures, to place on their shelves at home.”
With the impending move to their new shop, Ha is very confident the market will continue to grow.
Find it at 609/12 Cach Mang Thang Tam, Q10, HCMC. Open Tuesday to Friday from 10am to 5pm, and on Saturday and Sunday from 11am to 6pm. For info, call 0933 774883 or visit facebook.com/warcapitalshop
Photos by Sasha Arefieva and Bao Zoan