The first currency of Vietnam is the dong, which is abbreviated to ‘d’ or "VND". Banknotes come in denominations of 500d, 1 000d, 2 000d, 5 000d, 10 000d, 20 000d, 50 000d, 100 000d, 200 000d and 500 000d.
Now that Ho Chi Minh has been canonised (against his wishes), his picture is on every banknote. Coins are also in circulation, although they are more common in the cities, including 500d, 1 000d, 2 000 and 5 000d. The second currency is the US dollar and that needs no introduction.
The dong has experienced its ups and downs. The late 1990s Asian economic crisis, which wreaked severe havoc on the regional currencies, caused the dong to lose about 15% of its US-dollar value.
Where prices are quoted in dong, we quote them here as dong. Likewise, when prices are quoted in dollars, we follow suit. While this may seem inconsistent, this is the way it’s done in Vietnam and the sooner you get used to thinking comparatively in dong and dollars, the easier your travels will be.
It used to be just a couple of foreign banks in Hanoi and HCMC that offered ATMs, but Vietnamese banks have now got into this game in a big way. Vietcombank has the best network in the country, including most of the major tourist destinations and all the big cities. Every branch stocks a useful leaflet with a list of their nationwide ATMs. Withdrawals are issued in dong, and there is a single withdrawal limit of 2 000 000d (about US$125). However, you can do multiple withdrawals until you hit your own account limit. ANZ offers 4 000 000d withdrawals per transaction. Most banks charge 20 000d per transaction. Cash advances for larger amounts of dong, as well as US dollars, can be arranged over the counter during office hours.
Most major currencies can be exchanged at leading banks in Vietnam, but away from the tourist centres the US dollar remains king. Vietcombank is the most organised of the local banks for changing cash and can deal with euros, pounds and pretty much anything else you are packing. The US dollar exchange rate worsens the further you get from the tourist trail, so stock up on dong if you are heading into remote areas. In small towns it can be difficult to get change for the larger notes, so keep a stack of smaller bills handy. Changing US$100 will make you an instant millionaire!
It’s a good idea to check that any big dollar bills you take do not have any small tears or look too tatty, as no-one will want to touch them in Vietnam.
You cannot legally take the dong out of Vietnam but you can reconvert reasonable amounts of it into US dollars on departure.
Visa, MasterCard and JCB cards are now widely acceptable in all major cities and many tourist centres. However, a 3% commission charge on every transaction is pretty common; check first, as some charge higher commissions than others. Some merchants also accept Amex, but the surcharge is typically 4%. Better hotels and restaurants do not usually slap on an additional charge.
Getting a cash advance from Visa, Master Card and JCB is possible at Vietcombank in most cities, as well as at some foreign banks in HCMC and Hanoi. Banks generally charge a 3% commission for this service. This is handy if you want to get out large sums, as the ATMs have low daily limits.
It is wise not to rely entirely on travellers cheques by keeping a reasonable stash of US dollars to hand. Travellers cheques can only be exchanged at authorised foreign-exchange banks, but these aren’t found throughout Vietnam. Strangely, there are no banks at most of the land border crossings. The only way to change money at these places is on the black market.
If you only have travellers cheques, stock up on US dollars at a bank, which will usually charge anywhere from 0.5% to 2% commission to change them into cash. Vietcombank charges no commission for exchanging Amex travellers cheques; a reasonable 0.5% for other types.
If your travellers cheques are in currencies other than US dollars, they may be useless beyond the major cities. Hefty commissions are the norm if they can be exchanged at all.
Tipping is not expected in Vietnam, but it is enormously appreciated. For a person who earns US$100 per month, a US$1 tip is significant. Upmarket hotels and some restaurants may levy a 5% service charge, but this may not make it to the staff. If you stay a couple of days in the same hotel, try and remember to tip the staff who clean your room.
You should also consider tipping drivers and guides – after all, the time they spend on the road with you means time away from home and family. Typically, travellers on minibus tours will pool together to collect a communal tip to be split between the guide and driver.
It is considered proper to make a small donation at the end of a visit to a pagoda, especially if a monk has shown you around; most pagodas have contribution boxes for this purpose.