Tourists visiting Vietnam love to joke about walking away from the moneychangers as “instant millionaires.” The Vietnamese dong (VND), Vietnam’s official currency, come in polymerized notes with multiple zeroes: VND 10,000 is the smallest bill you’ll find on the street these days (coins of as low as VND 200 have long been phased out), with the upper limit hit by the VND 500,000 bill.
At the present exchange rate (between 22,000-23,000 VND per US dollar), changing a fifty-buck note gets you 1.150 million dong.
Getting a grip on all those zeroes can be challenging for the first-time visitor to Vietnam. With a little time and practice, buying and spending Vietnamese dong becomes second nature to the Vietnam visitor.
Where to Change Your Money in Vietnam?
Major currencies can be exchanged practically anywhere in Vietnam, but not all exchange facilities are created equal. Banks and airport moneychangers can change your money at a high cost relative to a jewelry shop in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, so it pays to ask around before trading dollars for dong.
Currency exchange booths at the airport. It is supposed that the most convenient place for this practice is currency exchange booths at the Noi Bai airport because you will need some money for taxi services in case you arrive at night. Just go through the terminal, come to the arrival hall and you will see the exchange booth. Just ask the staff that you want to exchange money and they will help. Be aware that there is no problem with the exchange rate here, but they will charge you a large transaction fee.
Local Banks. The government-operation Vietcombank can exchange dong for US dollars, Euros, British Pounds, Japanese Yen, Thai Baht, and Singapore dollars. Banks in major cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City will let you change foreign currencies and most travelers’ checks. You’ll be charged a commission rate of between 0.5 to 2 percent for the latter.
Always bring new notes; any damaged or dirty notes will be charged an additional two percent of the note’s face value.
Hotels. Your mileage may vary with hotels: larger hotels can offer rates competitive with banks’, but smaller hotels (like those in the Old Quarter of Hanoi) may tack on an additional fee for the service.
Gold and jewelry shops. The rates in these mom and pop establishments can be surprisingly fair, with no fees (unlike those in hotels and airport bureaux de change). Shops in Hanoi’s Old Quarter—particularly Hang Bo and Ha Trung streets—offer better deals, as do gold and jewelry shops in Ho Chi Minh City’s Nguyen An Ninh Street (near Ben Thanh Market).
Finding and Using ATMs
You’re certain to find an ATM to withdraw from in any of Vietnam’s major cities, but smaller towns have also begun to bring their A-game. That’s not guaranteed, though, so it still makes more sense to withdraw in the cities before making your way out to the boondocks of, say, Ninh Binh.
Are ATMs better than changing dollars at the airport? It really depends who you ask.
If you’re spending more than a few days in Vietnam, changing all your money to Vietnam dong increases the risk of theft: one robbery and you’ll be broke till the end of your trip.
Some will say that the peace of mind that comes with just withdrawing every couple of days from an ATM is worth the withdrawal fees charged.
Fees and charges vary: ATMs near backpacker districts like Pham Ngu Lao in Saigonreportedly charge an extortionate rate of three percent on top of your usual bank charges.
More reasonable fees may hover down to about 1-1.5 percent per transaction.
Banks allow a maximum withdrawal of between VND four million to VND nine million, dispensing 50k- and 100k-dong notes. As millions of dong can add up to a thick wad of cash, be careful when withdrawing large amounts from an ATM.
Using Credit Cards
Cash rules in Vietnam, though credit cards are accepted in many restaurants, hotels, and shops in Vietnam’s big cities. Visa, Master Card, JBC and American Express are the most common credit cards honored in Vietnam.
You can use ATMs to get cash advances on your credit cards; in a pinch, you can visit Vietcombank to get an advance over the counter.
For credit card transactions, you may be charged an addition 3-4 percent per transaction.
Can US Dollars Be Used?
Vietnam runs on two currencies: Vietnamese dong and US dollars. Despite the government’s push to get away from using foreign currency, US dollars are still used in some instances.
Many prices for hotels, tours, or other services are presented in US dollars. Prices for food, drinks, and souvenirs past security in Saigon’s airport are all in US dollars.
Using two different currencies increases the potential for miscommunication and getting ripped off. If a price is listed in US dollars and you choose to pay in Vietnamese dong, the proprietor or vendor can make up the exchange rate on the spot, usually rounding in their own favor.
Because the Vietnamese dong is weak and prices come as large numbers, sometimes locals simplify prices to the 1,000s of dong. For instance, someone telling you that the price is “5” can mean either 5,000 dong or US $5 — big difference! Switching currencies on tourists is an old scam in Vietnam; always verify before you agree to a price.
Tip: Carrying a small calculator or using the calculator on your mobile phone is a great way to avoid miscommunication, calculate exchange rates, and haggle prices.
Spend all of your Vietnamese dong before exiting the country; it is very difficult to get rid of outside Vietnam! Vietcombank is one of the very few banks that will exchange dong back into foreign currency.
Besides, paying in Vietnamese dong gets you better value than paying in dollars. Better to spend day-to-day using VND, while keeping a stash of dollars around for emergency purposes only.
Tipping in Vietnam
Most of big hotels & restaurants in Vietnam add a 5% service charge to bills, so you can choose not to tip at these places. Elsewhere, small tips are always a good thing. Waiters, hired drivers, and guides should be tipped.
Follow the guidelines below for calculating tips:
- Restaurants and bars: Many restaurants don’t require tipping, as a 10% service charge is already tacked onto your bill.
- Porters: A tip with American coins will be greatly appreciated.
- Hotel Services: Government-run hotels will add a 10% service charge on your bill.
- Taxi: Tips aren’t necessary, but a small gratuity will be greatly appreciated.
When to Haggle
There’s one golden rule to shopping in Vietnam: bargain, and bargain harder.
“Fixed prices” at most tourist shops aren’t really fixed at all; the listed prices are about 300% higher than the last price you can pay if you dicker long enough. Bargaining is an exacting discipline, and quite exasperating for the novice traveler who’s not used to the grueling back and forth.
And Vietnamese sellers aren’t exactly the most cheerful bargainers. In areas with high tourist traffic, sellers sometimes refuse any attempts at bargaining down, knowing that there will always be another tourist willing to pay the prices they quote. So, in Ho Chi Minh City, sellers at Ben Thanh Market (high tourist traffic) will gouge you hard, while their counterparts at Russian Market (low to middling tourist traffic) will give you some leeway.
It all boils down to: you’re a tourist, pay tourist prices. The only effective way of avoiding the “foreigner tax” is to get a Vietnamese friend to haggle on your behalf.
How Much to Budget Per Day in Vietnam?
Budget travelers in Vietnam can expect to spend up to $25 a day on food and lodging. Middle-budget spenders can enjoy good restaurant food, hire cabs, and stay comfortably in good hotels for about $35-65 a day.
Regular hotel rate in Vietnam:
• Boutique & character hotels : from $50-$80 USD per room/ per night
• Comfort = 3 star hotels from US$ 40 – US$ 60 per room/ per night
• Superior = 4 star hotels from US$ 80 – US$ 110 per room/ per night
• Deluxe = 5 star hotels from US$120 – US$ 190++ per room/ per night
• High-end = Best of the best hotels fr om US$ 250++ per room/ per night.
To keep costs down, eat street food for every meal; it’s not just good money sense, it’s an experience you shouldn’t miss when in Vietnam. Street food in Hanoi is exquisite, worthy of Presidents and international TV hosts, at a surprisingly low cost.
Domestic air travel has become significantly cheaper, with the advent of VietJetAir (Vietnam’s only budget airline) competing with full-service airlines like Vietnam Airlines and the “Reunification Express” train service.
Taxi fare in Vietnam
Taxi rates are very reasonable in Vietnam, as long as you get a reputable company and the meter is used. Normally, the largest and most reliable taxi companies such as Mai Linh or Vinasun have meters that start automatically after the car move about 5 m. Always choose your taxi carefully, because scams are everywhere, targeting especially foreign tourists.
Most taxi companies charge around 13,000 – 14,000 VND per km travel (65-70 cents). A 10-15 minute trip in the city, without traffic, should not cost you more than 50,000 VND (or $2.5).
You can also use Grab or Uber which I find the most reliable and convenience applications to get around the cities. However, you should be careful when booking in rush hours or in the rain as you may pay for surge pricing for the convenience.
More Vietnam Money Hacks
Don’t mistake one bill for another. As if the multiple zeroes aren’t confusing enough, some VND denominations can look very similar to the untrained eye. Many tourists have overpaid with VND 100,000 bills, mistaking them for the similarly greenish VND 10,000. Also be careful with VND 20,000 and VND 500,000, especially in the dark because they are in the same colors.
Warning: polymer notes stick. The Vietnam dong are made of long-lasting polymer, not paper: and these plastic notes can stick together, presenting another risk you’ll overpay for your goods. Flick or peel your notes carefully when paying for a purchase.
Avoid paying in high-denomination bills. Very few vendors will willingly change your VND 500,000, so make sure you’re carrying smaller bills when going shopping.
Don’t change your currencies on the black market. The legal exchange rate beats black market rates any time; claims of better rates are probably just the lead-up to a scam.
When visiting a pagoda, leave a small donation just before you leave.
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