Money and Currency in Vietnam

What to Expect, How to Manage Money, and Tips for Avoiding Scams

Using Money in Vietnam
Photo by Greg Rodgers

Managing money in Vietnam can be a little trickier and comes with a few more caveats than in other Southeast Asian countries.

Vietnamese Dong or US Dollars?

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.

ATMs in Vietnam

Western-networked ATMs are available in all major tourist areas and dispense Vietnamese dong. The most commonly accepted cards are MasterCard, Visa, Maestro, and Cirrus. Local transaction fees are reasonable, however, they are in addition to whatever fees your bank already charges for international transactions.

Using ATMs attached to bank offices is slightly safer for avoiding card-scanning devices attached to the card slot -- a problematic, high-tech scam in Southeast Asia. Also, you stand a better chance of getting your card back if it is captured by the machine.

Tip: Find ATMs that give smaller denominations. Large banknotes (100,000-dong notes) can be tricky to break sometimes. The limit per transaction is usually 2,000,000 dong (approximately US $95).

Changing Money in Vietnam

While ATMs are typically the best way to access travel funds, you can exchange currency at banks, hotels, kiosks, and freelance 'black market' money changers. Stick to exchanging money at proper banks or reputable hotels, but always check the rate on offer. Exchanging money on the street comes with all the obvious risks and then some: 'fixed' calculators have even been created to aid in the scam!

Travelers' checks can only be cashed at banks in major cities; you'll be charged up to 5% commission per check. Don't expect to be able to use travelers' checks to pay for daily costs -- they'll need to be cashed for local currency. You will need you passport for the transaction.

Never accept torn or damaged banknotes; they are often pawned off onto tourists because they are difficult to spend.

Interestingly, US two-dollar bills from the 1970s are still in circulation in Vietnam; they are kept in wallets to bring prosperity!

Credit Cards

As with the rest of Southeast Asia, credit cards are of little use for anything more than booking flights or possibly paying for tours or diving. Paying with plastic means that you'll be charged a steep commission; using cash is always best.

The most commonly accepted credit cards are Visa and MasterCard. Fraud is a serious problem in Vietnam, so you'll need to notify the card issuer in advance to avoid having your card deactivated the first time that you use it.

Bargaining, Tipping, and Scams

You'll encounter more than your fair share of daily scams in Vietnam, even more so than in other countries. The first price quoted is often at least three times more than the fair price. Stand your ground and bargain hard -- it's expected in the local culture and a part of daily life.

Tipping in Vietnam

Tipping is not expected in Vietnam and a service charge of between 5% - 10% is often already added to hotel and food bills. Nevertheless, if a local guide or private driver has provided excellent service, a small tip will certainly make them happy.

Don't allow anyone to grab your bags at the hotel or in transportation hubs unless you are willing to tip them. Taxi drivers commonly round up fares and keep the difference as tips.