by aengelson | April 4th, 2011
Tourists and expats quickly learn to do math with a lot of zeroes in Vietnam. The currency here is extremely devalued, and $1 gets you about 21,000 dong. Whether you’re requesting cash from ATMs, totaling up the bill at a restaurant or buying a motorcycle, you’ve got to know your hundreds of thousands, millions, and billions.
About the smallest bill you’ll see is a 500-dong note, although they’re not common. I’ve found a 200 and joke around with the xe om motorcycle taxi drivers with it. Actually, it’s probably worth much more than its face value as a rare novelty.
Inflation has been hitting Vietnam hard recently. Most costs have been jumping, including state-driven increases in fuel and electricity. But long before, the currency has been weak, and as a result, a lot of Vietnamese like to deal in dollars for big purchases or if they’re saving money. This is technically illegal, although plenty of gold shops throughout Hanoi will give you dollars for dong.
Even though it’s tough to sort through all those zeroes sometimes, there are two things I really like about Vietnam’s money. First, those bills with large denominations (100,000–about five bucks, and 500,000–about 25 dollars) are made from plastic. They last forever, and you don’t have to worry about drippy Hanoi humidity wilting your cash. The second thing I like is that there are almost no coins left in Vietnam. This is fantastic. In the states, I would accumulate piles of coins, and never get rid of them. They’d fill jars, waiting until a trip to the bank or the CoinStar machine (which would take a commission). An all-paper cash system is efficient: it fits in your wallet, and you eventually spend it all. You don’t have stupid things like the “penny dish” at a cash register.
I think they should eliminate the penny in the US. It’s completely worthless, and we spend more resources making the coins than they’re actually worth. Heck, while they’re at it, just introduce a bunch of plastic bills as change: maybe quarter dollars and dimes, and then forget the rest of the coins….but I suppose the numismatic lobby would shut that down in an instant…