The currency of Vietnam, known as dong or VND, is non-convertible, meaning, in short, it’s a little tricky. Outside the country it’s hard to get a hold of and almost unusable; inside the country, it’s the preferred method of payment, especially off the beaten path.
It used to be that US dollars were accepted throughout Saigon at restaurants, hotels and shops, but this is becoming less and less the case. In fact, if an establishment in town accepts USD, or other foreign currencies, you can almost certainly assume you are going to be getting a terrible exchange rate. Although many places in the city accept credit cards, Saigon is definitely a cash city and you would be much better off with this in hand. Here are some of your options for getting cash while you are in the city.
An easy way to get VND in Saigon is by using the wide network of ATMs. A large majority of these are for local, Vietnamese banks, such as Vietcom Bank, BIVD and Techcombank, but they’ll still dispense currency for foreign ATM cards, but you’ll also find ATMs for some foreign banks, including HSBC, Citibank and ANZ.
Most of these ATMs limit withdrawals to 4,000,000 VND per transaction, but some local banks only allow 2,000,000 VND. If you need more, you can make multiple transactions, but this can be avoided if you use a foreign ATM that is actually attached to a bank branch, where you will find higher withdraw limits. ATM fees are usually around the 20,000–40,000 VND range, in addition to whatever fees your home bank charges. These fees may seem small but they can add up quickly.
If you’re going to use the ATM, be mindful of your surroundings, especially at night. Recently there have been reports of some attacks where someone using an outdoor, enclosed ATM has been locked inside while their motorbike parked outside was stolen. A few easy places to find ATMs downtown are the Vincom Centre and the Asiana Plaza on Hai Ba Trung.
Your other option is to bring cash into the country and get it exchanged into VND at a money exchange. You will see exchanges almost as soon as you hit the ground in HCMC; currently the rate is 20,850 VND to 1 USD. The airport has several booths but they likely won’t have the best rates; you’ll find a much better rate downtown, especially if you’re willing to walk through the ones in the Pham Ngu Lao area, where they have signs outside posted with the rate, or on Mac Thi Buoi Street, where the exchanges look a little more legit. Before you leave the country, don’t forget to return to an exchange and sell your VND for your home currency.
If you are really adventurous, gold and jewellery shops can also be places to exchange your cash with the the bigger, in-better-shape bills earning the better rates. Sometimes the gold shops will give you a much better deal, but it may seem a little more black market.
Once you have the cash, life will be much easier; you can shop and eat without hassle. This isn’t the best part of exchanging money though; the best part is that you will likely become a millionaire. With 1 USD running at 20,850 VND, 100 USD is 2,085,000 VND.
From Sarah Turner, our Hanoi researcher: The information in this post is largely also applicable in Hanoi. ANZ is a good ATM to use if you want to withdraw up to 20,000,000 VND — try the branch at 14 Le Thai To, next to Hoan Kiem Lake. And shop around for exchange rates elsewhere. There are plenty of ATMs and exchange booths at Noi Bai airport as well. Get VND there to pay for the taxi or bus into town.