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US Dollars, Vietnamese Dong or Credit Cards?

Vietnamese Dong

Update November 2010:  $1 = 21,000VND at gold shops, only 19,500VND at Banks.

I’ve seen a lot of questions on travel boards about the best way to pay for things when traveling to Vietnam.  Although you can use traveler’s checks and/or credit cards at many of the bigger hotels, restaurants and other tourist destinations, I don’t recommend it…you will usually end up paying 3%-8% more for the privilege of using your credit cards and very few places accept traveler’s checks.  The most common charge you will incur when using your credit cards are the foreign transaction fees which can range from 0%-3%.  This is the fee that your financial institution charges to convert the local currency back into US Dollars.  It doesn’t matter if the price of the item you purchased is listed in dollars…if the transaction occurs overseas you will have to pay the fee.  Many local establishments will tack on an additional 3-4% per transaction…so before you know it your $100 purchase could end up costing you $108.

One of the few major credit card companies that does not charge a fee for overseas usage is Capital One.  I used to have a Capital One card awhile back, but I ended up canceling it since their customer service was notably worse than at my other credit card companies.  However, I reapplied for a Capital One Card right before I came to Vietnam just to have a card to use in case of emergencies.  Be sure to call and notify their customer service department before you leave or you might have your purchases flagged for possible fraud.

Never use your credit card for cash advances at an ATM overseas if you can help it.  Not only will you most likely be charged a fee (or two if your bank doesn’t have a relationship to the bank ATM you are using) to use the ATM…you will also have to pay a 3% currency conversion fee, possibly a cash advance fee, not to mention your credit card company will IMMEDIATELY start charging you interest on the cash you take out.

If you need cash then use an ATM card…but you will only be able to withdraw VND.  None of the banks or ATMs will allow you to withdraw USD unless you open an account from within Vietnam and deposit in Dollars.  As with credit cards…you will most likely be charged a set fee to use an ATM and the 3% currency conversion fee…so to save on fees…take out as much cash as is allowed each time you use an ATM.  HSBC is one of the few large international banks  in Vietnam that will not charge you a fee to use one of their ATMs.  You will still be charged a 3% currency conversion fee however.  I have only seen a couple of HSBC branches in Saigon, but there are a decent amount of ATMs dispersed about the city.  You don’t have to have an HSBC location in the city you live to open an account.  I opened an account online and just wired money from my other bank into HSBC.

You can also use US Dollars (USD) pretty much anywhere in Vietnam…but since most places list things in Vietnamese Dong (VND) you will be a the mercy of the retailer to determine the exchange rate.   As of today, February 5, 2010, the foreign exchange market (Forex) lists $1 US Dollar to be valued at 18,678 VND.  I have heard that some recent travelers to Vietnam have been receiving as little as 16,000 VND for $1 when making purchases.  Don’t use the money exchangers at the airport or the banks either….you will most likely get the lower of whatever exchange rate they’re using from the past few days…not to mention the fee they will charge for the exchange.

Although it is frowned on by the Vietnamese Government…you can exchange your Dollars at the numerous Gold shops in Vietnam.  You can get close to 19,500 VND for each dollar at these places.  Inflation is running so high in Vietnam (20-25% a year) that there is a lot of demand for US Dollars as an inflation hedge.  The gold shops act as the defacto black market for US Dollars since most people don’t have access to Forex…that is why the gold shops can offer so much more Dong for your Dollars.  It is the law that every establishment in Vietnam must accept VND…so don’t let anyone tell you that they can only accept Dollars as payment.

In conclusion, by allowing someone else to determine the exchange rate for your dollar you could be paying 10%-20% more per purchase.  It  is also much harder to negotiate the price of smaller purchases with the dollar since most retailers will not be willing to lower the price in whole dollar amounts….whereas there are much smaller denominations available in VND.  Traveler’s from the U.S. can bring in as much as $7,000 U.S. Dollars without having to declare it through customs in Vietnam.  To get the best exchange rate make sure that you only exchange $100 Dollar Bills….and the bills must be pristine with no tears or writing on them.  Many money exchangers will not accept torn or otherwise damaged Dollars.  If you feel safe carrying a lot of cash then bringing US Dollars and exchanging it at gold shops is definitely the way to get the most bang for your buck in Vietnam…otherwise use an ATM machine.

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20 comments to US Dollars, Vietnamese Dong or Credit Cards?

  • Khanh

    I love your blog. This particular one is very helpful as I’m thinking of going to Vietnam this summer. Keep it coming!

  • Benny

    Very informative post!! Keep it up dude. So, we have gone from bathroom to motorbike to the almighty buck meets the black market in a jewelry store. It sounds like you are getting very comfortable over there which is great because it’s cold in both San Antonio and Indiana. Go, Colts!!

    Qs: what do you do to occupy your time? You can’t be looking for a clean W.C. or bike-riding all day. How is the job market for a semi-literate VK over there?

    Chúc m?ng n?m m?i v?n s? an khang.

  • odgnut

    Hey Benny…you forgot to mention all the time I spend searching for American junk food. 🙂

    To be honest…I haven’t really considered getting a job yet so I really don’t know what the job market over here is like. I spend most of my time reading…researching orphanages I can go teach at, and my relatives also have been requesting a lot of my time. I pretty much have been playing each day by ear. In a few months I should have a better idea of what my longer term plans are.

    Not sure how I should take the “semi-literate” comment…even if it is true. 😛

    Happy new year to you too!

  • Benny

    Clarification – Semi-literate applies to me!!

    I’m considering packing my bag and “b?i ??i” in VN for a little while in a few years. I am definitely not looking to make a fortune in VN, but to be reasonably paid to teach English and/or law. Sounds like a couple can live on a grand monthly, so that’s not bad. Your blog is very enjoyable for me b/c (1) you’re a VK (regardless of any connotation one attributes to that term), and (2) painstakingly describes daily life in VN from a VK’s perspective.

    Junk food – What’s junk to you may be ambrosia to me. I tried KFC in Saigon and the chicken is tough, chewy and lean. It looks like the chicken atrophied or suffered consumptive dieseases prior to slaughter. That’s a disappointment for a Yankee “gourmet”. I live in TX and we’re “damn” proud of our fried chicken with biscuits and gravy, sir. My pizza experience was slightly better. Cheese can be expensive in Nam, so the pizza cook tends to skim on the mozzarella. Anyway, I went to those places b/c my nephews wanted American “junk” food.

    Take care, dude.

    • odgnut

      I don’t know what your definition of “reasonably paid” is in Vietnam….but it probably won’t look like anything what you’re used to in the States. From conversations I’ve had with expat teachers in VN…and information I have derived from reading the ESL forums….it seems that the average pay for an English teacher in VN is about $15/hour….with the high end being low $20s and the low around $10. There does seem to be a bit of racism in a lot of schools…which would much prefer to hire a not so good blond haired, blue eyed male teacher over a much more qualified VK teacher.

      Most schools require some kind of TEFL certificate….with the CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) being the most desired. With your law degree and experience I would try to apply to RMIT, a foreign owned University with campuses in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. RMIT has a history of hiring VK teachers…and the pay there is by far the best….mid 20 to 30 thousand/year…..which is an enormous salary in VN. And at RMIT you can actually teach Law instead of basic English.

      As for junk food…I was referring to chocolate, chips, etc. I just discovered the local Sieu Thi had some Oreo’s hidden on a back shelf. Made my day. I do miss Church’s Fried Chicken though….never was much of a Kentucky man.

      btw…sorry about the Colts………………………………..not.

  • Benny

    Everyone has a bad day. The Colts just had a BAD Super Bowl Day. Anyway, New Orleans needs some excitement after Katrina, so a first-time ever championship seems very exciting.

    It’s kinda funny. We suffer some discrimination in the States, then receive similar treatment in VN. It must be our deodorant. I was not really looking for a paycheck by teaching ESL or law. I was aspiring to do some good. The compensation, if any, is icing on the proverbial cake. If I have to make money in VN, then I’d rather get on welfare in the US. However, if my own brethren thinks that my professional knowledge and/or skills are not good as the babbling blue-eyed blond Ken doll, then I’ll just stay my behind in the Lone Star state and collect my retirement.

    I’ll bring a few Oreos when I go over there in April. Do you remember Popeye’s fried chicken? Church’s came out with a kicked-up spicy version last year, and it’s really not bad. Since you lived in San Antonio, have you found a decent Mexican restaurant over there?

    The one thing I have been wanting to do since 1975 is to spend T?t over there. I could never find the time to do it because of my job, and now leaving the school-age kids on their own during school year. So, enjoy your assumedly first T?t over there, post your experience on the blog.

    Chào or ciao!!

    • odgnut

      Aside from some teasing about my name when I was a kid….I never really experienced much racism in The States. And although it does bother me when I hear about the reverse discrimination in VN….I can somewhat understand why they do treat VK teachers differently. The schools are just responding to market forces…and the Vietnamese parents who are shelling out big bucks to educate their kids assume that they are getting a more “authentic” education from Caucasians…and therefore the demand for “white” teachers is much greater. These schools are out there to make money….education is only a secondary factor.

      If I were to go look for a Taekwondo teacher….I would much rather be taught by a Korean black belt…than perhaps Master “Billy Bob”….or if I wanted to eat authentic Vietnamese food I would go to a restaurant run by a Vietnamese family instead of a “Pei Wei” style ripoff. These are rather poor analogies…and it doesn’t excuse the basic issue….but I as I said…there are schools that will hire VK….so if you have a problem at one place; there are many other options.

      Yes I know Popeye’s well. I never could find a Church’s in Indiana and had to settle for Popeye’s. I hated it initially…it was dry and the chicken always seemed burnt. Turns out that if you buy the regular chicken instead of the spicy version….it is very similar to Church’s. Funny thing is….only a few places up north seems to carry Jalapenos….and I cannot eat fried chicken without Jalapenos. I would have to run out to the grocery store to get some Jalapeno peppers just so I can eat my chicken.

      As for Mexican food…ugh….I hate it. The only Mexican food I actually like is Fajitas….and the best Fajitas I’ve eaten anywhere is at Taco Cabana. It’s all in the pico di gallo. If your pico sucks…the fajitas suck….and TC has the best pico.

      Have been invited to a bunch of Tet events….not sure if I’m going to go. Trying to get over a cold the past few days and just not feeling up to snuff. Might force myself to go out for a bit and take some pictures.

  • Benny

    My two little boys can eat Fuddrucker’s every day. It’s shame that I cannot post pictures because I really want to post picture of a Fuddrucker’s cheeseburger.

    What about B-B-Q? Don’t tell me. You don’t care for that either. 🙁

    Right now, I really crave a cholesterol-laden bánh ch?ng!!

    • odgnut

      haha…rub it in.

      I love BBQ…however it depends on the place. Most restaurants make their BBQ sauce way too sweet. There was a place in SA called Tom’s Ribs that had the best BBQ in the world bar none. 10-15 years ago there were queues out the door with people waiting to get in. I saw a lot of San Antonio Spurs players there. Then the owner got greedy and expanded from 1 location to 4 in a year’s time….and the quality of the food suffered. When the economy collapsed….Tom’s Ribs went under. I never found a new place that could ever compare.

      I hate banh feet. 🙂

  • Gazle

    Thanks for the blog re currency. Ive been reading frequently that the gold shops are the way to go for exchanging our USD (or AUD)
    Can you tell me if these shops are “obvious”. Do they money exchange boards out front etc?
    We will be staying in Hotel Elegance2 in Hanoi’s Old Quarter – do you know if there is a gold shop handy to there?
    cheers

    • odgnut

      Yes…the stores are in plain sight. Look for a sign that says “Tiem Vang” (Tiem = store, Vang = Gold). Usually you will see a lot of gold trinkets and plaques displayed….some stores show the exchange rate on a sign right in front. I haven’t been to Hanoi so I can’t recommend a gold shop up there….but Taxis and Xe Om will know where they are. You probably would see a bunch just walking around. Just walk up to a couple of shops and ask what the current exchange rate is….they should quote you similar rates. Remember that the bigger bills exchange at a higher rate….and the crispness of the bills matter.

  • Sher

    Very useful information. I wish I had seen your blog before I left for Vietnam. About HSBC, you are saying that you opened a Vietnamese HSBC account online and then were able to get US dollars wired into it? Do I understand that correctly?

    • odgnut

      No, I opened up a HSBC account in the U.S. and I can withdraw money from the ATM over here. Many of the local banks won’t let you open up a bank account in VN unless you have a work permit or you’re a resident.

  • Claude

    Thanks for your blog. I enjoy reading about your adventures.
    I often use the ATM with no fees at Vietin bank. However, they only allow 2,000,000 vnd at a time. So, I re submit my card several times.
    I also use my brokerage card (charles Schwab Bank)that doesn’t charge me any fees and reimburses me for any other bank’s fees.
    Thanks for the info on HSBC.

  • Claude

    Is the withdrawal at AZN fee free? Citi bank ATM at Sunwah building district 1 allows 8,000,000 vnd at a time for 20,000 vnd fee.

  • This a great blog and the comments bring more clarity to my thoughts. Arriving in Saigon Feb 14 from Chicago and am looking to enjoy an extended visit. Thanks much. Will be checking out HSBC and a Capital One Card now.
    Sincerely, Bud-Chicago

  • juan

    Hi. I plan to visit Vietnam in winter this year. What is worring me is about this atm withdrawals outside the main cities. For example if I am in Hue, Da Lat, Nha trang..etc, can I withdraw from the atm at least 400 dollars, like 8,000,000 dongs at once or I have to do it few times?? every time I take money out it cost me here in my bank in Canada 5 dollars plus what ever they charge in Vietnam…
    Thanks

  • Claude

    Juan, a few ideas: If you look up the ATM locations for Citibank, you can get 8,000,000.vnd. Or, ABC bank will charge your debit card inside their bank for almost any amount. I have taken out as much as 2,000 usd at a time in Can Tho at ABC Bank (inside with my debit card)
    I also use an investment account debit card from Charles Schwab which doesn’t chatge me any extra in the USA….unlike Bank of America for which I terminated my accounts.

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