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How to Play Tien Len: Vietnam’s Card Game

Many card games are played in Vietnam, but if you ask anyone what the most popular is, they’ll tell you about Tien Len.

I learned how to play Tien Len from a Vietnamese local who was teaching me all about Vietnamese card games, and we concentrated a lot on this game in particular, 1. Because it was his favorite game, and 2. Because it’s the national card game of Vietnam.

The name means “Go Forward,” and it is also a popular card game in America, which I believe is because of the closeness in cultures the two countries shared during the American-Vietnam war.

Tien Len is a card-shedding card game played with a standard deck of cards. It’s usually played with four players, though there are now some other versions that are played slightly differently. I, however, will be telling you about the most traditional method of play, the one I learned in Vietnam and the one that is most commonly known.

What You’ll Need to Play Tien Len?

What You'll Need to Play Tien Len

To play Tien Len, you will need your average American/Anglo-Saxon card deck, such as these black and gold waterproof playing cards. I am a bit of a collector when it comes to decks of cards, and I’ve had a set of these for a while. They’ve stood the test of time and handled a lot of action. They’re also waterproof, so you can travel with them without the risk of weather damage, which is especially helpful if you’re a keen camper.

On Sale Black Waterproof Playing Cards

Other than that, all you need is your players. As I mentioned before, I am only going to be discussing the four-player version of the game. However, a second deck of cards will be needed if you want to play with five or more people.

How to Play Tien Len?

How to Play Tien Len

Before I tell you how to play Tien Len, firstly, let’s take a quick look at the card ranking. This way, you’re clear on what the rules are from the get-go.

The ranking of value starts with two being the highest, then Ace, King, Queen, Jack, ten, and so on. However, in Tien Len, the suits are also ranked in the following order:

  • Hearts (Highest)
  • Diamonds
  • Clubs
  • Spades (Lowest)


Now we’ve got the ranking out of the way, let’s get started with the deal.

In the first round, you can pick who will be the dealer at random. I always like to choose the person whose birthday is next in line, but you could also pick the oldest person or pick a card to see who gets the highest. After the first round, the loser of the previous game will be the dealer.

The deal is done clockwise, and each player is given 13 cards. The rest of the cards are discarded and won’t be needed for the rest of the game. However, if you only have three players in your game, each player would be given 17 cards.


Whichever player has the three spades takes the first turn, and if nobody has it, then the turn should be taken by the player with the lowest-ranking card. After the first round, winners of the previous round take the first go.

The game aims to play down a card that beats the previous players. If you can’t achieve this, you must pass your turn and are subsequently banished from the game.

The turns move around the table and continue in this manner until nobody can beat a card or combination that has been played. At this point, all the cards are set down, and the winner begins the game again by playing down another card or combination, which can be any of the following:

  • Single Card: The lowest single card can be played is the three spades, and the highest is the two of hearts.
  • Triple: Two equally ranking cards, for example, two nines or two Kings.
  • Four of a Kind: Three equally ranking cards
  • A Sequence: Three or more consecutive cards of rank, such as four, five, and six, which have to be of the same suit.
  • Double Sequence: Three or more pairs that are in consecutive order, for example, two sevens, two eights, and two nines.

Combinations can only be beaten by combinations of equal cards so that a triple can be beaten by another triple, and a single card can only be beaten by another single card. You could not play down four of a kind after someone has just played a triple, for instance.

Of course, when combinations are made, the higher combinations are that which consist of higher-ranking cards.

Bombs and Chops

In some circumstances, bombs and chops can be used to beat the highest rankest cards, but only combinations include twos. For example, four of a kind can wipe out a pair of twos, and a sequence of three can cancel out a single two. If you are lucky enough to land yourself a sequence of five pairs, then this beats a set of three twos.

Ending the Game

As the game comes to an end, players will be running out of cards, and some will have had to drop out of the game altogether as they’ve already played all the cards in their hands. When you reach a point where only one person has cards left, the game ends, and this player is declared the loser and must pay the penalty to the other players. So basically, the quicker you get rid of all of your cards, the better.

Other Variations

When I was learning about Tien Len, I found it amusing that certain aspects, which would often be considered cheating in most games, are allowed. For instance, it’s okay to peek at your opponent’s cards. It’s also acceptable for you to play down cards when it’s not even your turn if you get the chance.

There is another variant of Tien Len, which is mainly played in the United States, and it’s called Viet Cong, or VC. The rules are mostly the same as the version I’ve just told you about, with two exceptions:

  • You automatically win the game if you’re dealt four twos in your first hand.
  • Bombs are instead known as slams and mean slightly different things. For example, if someone plays down a single two, it can be slammed with a triple, four-of-a-kind, or a sequence.

That’s How You Play Tien Len?

I bet you didn’t think it would be that simple, did you? I know when I first started learning how to play, I began by watching a couple of locals play the game. It looked so complicated I simply couldn’t get my head around it, which is why I requested a one-on-one lesson, and then it all became clear.

So, I hope my step-by-step guide to the rules has made it a little clearer for everyone else to understand.

If you want to learn how to play more games from other cultures, then check out some of my other broken-down instruction guides, such as how to play Mahjong. Or learn how to play the popular French card game, Faro.

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