Sapa Change, Spend And Save Money When Travel
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 on 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 Saigon reportedly 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.
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 is 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.