A few readers have asked me to share how we managed financial matters while traveling in Vietnam. This included paying bills in the US as well as getting money into Vietnam. I can’t speak to “best practices” but this is what we did and what worked for us.
Notify The Bank
We contacted our bank to inform them of our travel plans. Since we visited my parents in Michigan for a month and a half before heading to Vietnam, we also added our parents’ home address as a ‘delivery’ destination to our credit cards. This allowed us to order things on Amazon, for example, and get it delivered to my parents’ home while we were there.
By informing the bank of our travel plans in Vietnam, they didn’t decline hotel charges or ATM withdrawals. We didn’t charge anything to our credit cards because in Vietnam, the customer paid for the transaction fee, which was about 3%. Another point to note was you couldn’t use credit cards for online purchases such as airline tickets for travel in Vietnam because it required a local billing address.
Straight Cash Homey
As of August 2010, the cash allowance that travelers could bring into Vietnam without declaring was $7,000 USD. We weren’t comfortable carrying that much money around so our cash stash was significantly less. However, when bringing US money, only bring crisp, near mint condition $100 bills. This will reduce some hassle when converting it to VND at the bank or jewelers. Jewelers were everywhere and you just walked up to them and they would convert it for you, typically without any fees. It was easy. However, I always felt weird doing this because it seemed like a perfect way to laundered money.
Instead of bringing tons of cash to Vietnam, we chose to use ATMs to get funds. Yes, there was a 20K VND ATM fee (~$1 USD) from the local bank as well as another $1 USD fee from our US bank for each withdrawal. In spite of the hefty fees, we felt that was safer and more convenient than carrying large amounts of USD around.
One thing to remember was to check the expiration dates on the ATM cards. We brought two cards and one of them expired without our notice so when the ATM machine ate it (kept it), we were a bit worried. Then we remembered we had the second card that was still good.
Additionally, we had to try ATMs from numerous banks to determine which ones would allow the transaction to our US bank. It took us an afternoon of trying different ATMs before determining that AgriBank and VietCom Bank were best for us (lower fees and higher withdrawal limits). For example, Agribank allowed us to withdraw 5,000,000 VND (~$250 USD) per day for 20K VND transaction fee. That may not seem like a lot of money but honestly, unless I was paying rent, I was hard-pressed to spend 5,000,000 VND per day.
HSBC Made It Local
We also created an HSBC account in Vietnam shortly after we arrived. This allowed us to transfer money from US accounts to Vietnam, for a $35 USD fee per transaction. HSBC accounts had two subaccounts – one for USD and one for VND. If I transferred USD, it would go into the USD subaccount. If I transferred or deposited in VND, it would go into the VND subaccount. Whichever way I added funds, when withdrawing from the ATM in Vietnam, I would always get the money in VND. If I must have USD, I would go to the bank and withdraw it from there but the bank would tack on an additional fee.
Say No to American Express Traveler’s Cheques
We thought it would be a good idea to bring over some American Express Traveler’s Cheques but quickly found them to be more trouble than they were worth. We couldn’t use them anywhere and only a few banks would even convert them to USD or VND. VietCom Bank accepted them but we had to get a number, waited and then filled out numerous paperwork and then waited some more before we could get the money. It was just too much work for no real benefits other than thieves wouldn’t touch them even if they found these cheques laying on the ground.
For most fixed-cost recurring bills, we continued to use our bank’s electronic payments. These were existing scheduled payments, such as for the car, so we just monitored it as needed. For other non fixed-cost recurring payments we relied on my father-in-law, which meant we forwarded all our bills to him. He opened them and emailed us the amount and we again, scheduled electronic payments. In actuality, we didn’t have many of those.
A note about internet security when making payments online. Never do it on public computers since Vietnam was infested with viruses and malware. This applied to connecting to unsecured public WiFi offered by hotels, restaurants or internet cafes when doing any kind of financial related activities. Your bank or other online entities may notice that you’re connecting from outside the US. They may put up additional security checks to ensure your account hasn’t been hijacked or compromised.
Additionally, if we were on a network we didn’t trust, we also had a dedicated machine running in the US that we could securely VPN into and remote access to do anything in a safe manner. This also had the benefit of us appearing as if we were connecting from the US, which helped a lot in some situations.
Like our bill payments, managing investments were mostly done online and also through our accountant. Vietnam being 12 hours ahead of US Central time zone required some planning but for the most part, email, phone and Skype worked well. When our signatures were required for documents, we would get them electronically, completed and printed out at the local internet cafes. Then, we took photos of the signed documents and either fax or email them from our laptops.
Just Because We’re Tourists Don’t Make Us Saps/Shmucks
With the exception of luxury Western items such as iPhones and other electronics, when the ‘tourist’ tax was applied, most things in Vietnam were still affordable. However, just because we could afford them didn’t mean we should pay the jacked up prices. If we got an all English menu or a menu without prices at all at a restaurant, we knew we were paying the tourist tax. At times, we felt like fish in a barrel when it came to being victims of price gouging. However, with experience, we got better at estimating how much things should cost and haggled gracefully or learned to just walk away; which was an effective negotiating device in itself.
I wanted to add that Vietnam was surprisingly connected. We had cellular signal on remote mountain tops as well as in the valley of mountain basins or while lounging around on the beach on an island paradise. In terms of internet access, it varied widely but for the most part, if you must get online, you typically could either from your hotel, restaurant nearby or internet cafés. Granted, internet access was not as prevalent for those families in the country tending to their rice paddies but even some of those people had internet too. So, unless you were looking for 100% 3/4G coverage for the iPhone or WhisperNet for your Kindle, you’ll do alright in Vietnam.
Due to relatively good connectivity in Vietnam, we were able to keep in touch with most of our families and friends in the US and abroad. We posted stories of our adventures and shared them via this blog. We also posted near-daily updates to our Facebook page for more real-time interactions as well as videos on YouTube.
With my family, we used Xbox Live’s video chat via Kinect to keep in touch as well as Skype video conferencing. Skype was really nice because we could call from any WiFi hotspot without additional cost with their unlimited plan. We used Live Mesh to keep our photos, videos and other media synched between our laptops as well as backing them up in the cloud on SkyDrive. With SkyDrive, we were able to share certain photos and experiences with family members that we didn’t share with the general public.
In terms of business related stuff, we migrated from Microsoft Online Services to Office 365 (beta) with Exchange, SharePoint and Lync (~Skype). We liked it. Other tools we used were Yammer for general communications, services such as GitHub for source code management and Windows Azure for hosting.
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