U.S. dollars are the preferred currency of exchange, but other major currencies and travelers' checks are easy to exchange at banks, exchange counters, and hotels.
Small businesses in more rural places often can't change 500,000d bills. This can be problematic because many ATMs only give out bills in this denomination. Make sure you have plenty of small change on hand to avoid potentially awkward situations.
ATMs and Banks
Banks and ATMs are easily found in all major cities and towns throughout Vietnam, although they have yet to catch on in rural areas like Phong Nha town, where currently there is only one ATM and it frequently runs out of cash. If you are planning on visiting smaller towns take enough Vietnamese currency to cover your expenses. Despite the easy accessibility of ATMs, the withdrawal limit is low, with most offering a maximum of 2,000,000d per transaction. For limits of 5,000,000d look for ATMs of the major banks, like Donga and HSBC. Transaction charges are set between 20,000d and 55,000d and it's possible to make multiple transactions at a time, although most Western card companies frown upon this behavior and it’s not unusual for the ATM to retain your card after the third attempt. All ATMs have an English-language option and accept Visa, MasterCard, Cirrus, Maestro, Plus, and JCB Network cards.For larger sums you’ll need to go to the counter and show your passport and card. Withdrawals are charged at 2% of the total amount, Western Union has offices throughout the cities if you need to make a withdrawal outside of banking hours.
Be aware that Vietnam has an official dual-pricing system, so foreigners often are expected to pay more than double what locals do for trains, buses, flights, and other goods and services. In 1999 an official decree banned dual pricing at temples and tourist sites, but despite this rule, higher entrance fees for foreigners remain the norm.
It’s standard practice throughout Vietnam for tourist businesses to pay commission to guides, hotel staff, drivers, and anyone who introduces you to their business. In most circumstances the business takes the rap for the fee, but may provide an inferior tour or service because of their outlay in commissions. The worst offenders are in the busiest tourist destinations; the Mekong Delta, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue, and Halong Bay. Before committing, always do your research and take advice from people who have used the company. Hoi An tailors have taken this one step further, and most will pay upward of 30% of your final spend in commission, which is added to your bill. Do not accept invitations to visit a "sisters" shop and make it clear that the business was not recommended to you by anyone before you start bargaining over the price. Similarly, drivers of private cars and tour buses, will park at restaurants or at shops where he has previously arranged commissions, meaning you will pay over the odds. If it’s a tour bus, you are unlikely to have a choice, but with a private car you can ask to be taken elsewhere if you're unhappy with his choice.
Credit cards have yet to catch on as a form of payment in Vietnam, but Visa and MasterCard are accepted at most large international hotels, upscale restaurants, better shops, large tour operators, and airline agencies. Few establishments accept American Express or Diners International cards so it’s best to check beforehand. For all credit card purchases you will be charged a 2%–3% transaction fee, although some restaurants, hotels, and shops sometimes insist on a service charge of up to 5%. Note that travelers' checks are accepted in Vietnam by very few places and especially not in rural areas and small towns.
Currency and Exchange
The official currency is the dong. The largest denomination is 500,000 (approximately $23.50), followed by 200,000, 100,000, 50,000, 20,000 and 10,000, which all come as plastic coated bills. Smaller (paper) bills come in 5,000, 2,000, 1,000, and to a lesser extent 500 denominations.Although bank notes come in various colors and sizes, some are difficult to differentiate. Two good examples of this are the blue 500,000d bill, which looks remarkably similar to the 20,000d, and the red 200,000d, which is easily confused with the 10,000d. Keep these larger bills separate to avoid expensive mistakes.The bank exchange rate remains stable and the dong trades at approximately 21,000d to the U.S. dollar, and although some markets, local shops, hotels, and restaurants accept U.S. dollars, merchants set their own rate, which is usually lower than the bank. Sacom, Donga, or Vietcom Bank, have numerous branches all over the country and give the official government rate. International banks like HSBC have a presence in Vietnam and provide extensive banking services, including currency exchange, cash transfers, and cash advances on credit cards. At currency exchange booths you can exchange money quickly without showing your passport, but rates for smaller bills are not competitive and they will not accept torn or marked notes.
In smaller towns where banks or exchange booths are not an option, you can exchange U.S. dollars to dong in gold shops. However, this practice is technically illegal, exchange rates are usually poor, and it’s not unusual to be short changed, so this should only be considered as a last resort. If there's no alternative, be sure to agree on an acceptable rate and check the currency for torn bills when it is handed over. It's also illegal for many smaller establishments to accept payments in anything but dong, but such rules are widely ignored. U.S. dollars are accepted at almost every private business, but many state enterprises—including trains—only accept dong. It's recommended that you carry both dollars and dong with you at all times.
Google does currency conversion. Just type in the amount you want to convert and an explanation of how you want it converted (e.g., "14 Swiss francs in dollars"), and then voilà. Oanda.com also allows you to print out a handy table with the current day's conversion rates. XE.com is another good currency conversion website.