Simplifying Currency Challenges in Vietnam

My husband, Billy, and I have recently arrived in Saigon, Vietnam. With 8 million residents, it's quite a bit different from Antigua or the sleepy town of Panajachel in Guatemala, where we lived previously. When traffic lights switch from red to green, it's like the starting point in a race. There is no single file, and swarms of motorcyclists make turns at once. If you want to cross the street, you simply walk into traffic with your arm raised up to alert the drivers that you are moving into the flow. Traffic moves at a crawling pace like a choreographed dance of metal.

There is a lot to get used to here -- for example, the change in weather, the contrast between Latin and Asian cuisine, the difference in language, and the faster pace of life here. But the biggest challenge we face is figuring out the exchange rate of the U.S. dollar to the Vietnamese dong.

One U.S. dollar equals a little more than 21,000 dong at current exchange rates. There are lots of zeros printed on the currency, and to make the numbers easier to comprehend, the first thing we did was lop off three of them (not literally, but in our minds!). This makes it easier to figure out pricing in our head and eliminates some punches on our calculators. For our purposes, we say that 20 (thousand) equals $1, 40 (thousand) dong equals $2, 60 (thousand) dong equals $3, and so on.

However, prices are not always that convenient. For example, one (thousand) dong equals $0.05, 10 (thousand) dong equals $0.50, 100 (thousand) equals $5, and 500 (thousand) equals $25.

Are you confused yet? This system is supposed to make it a snap!

Without so many zeros, we find it simpler to navigate most daily purchases. The bills come in a variety of colors (which don't mean much to us yet), and different denominations are also different sizes. So our wallets contain wads of colorful pieces of money -- sort of like Monopoly money.

Given the language barrier, everyone hugs their calculators, which are a form of communication we all understand. Touch an object, and the vendor brings out his handheld number machine and begins pounding away. Step back or shake your head "no," and the price drops right away. Touch another item, and the process begins all over again.

Popular grocery stores called coops have prices marked clearly. Again, we simply lop three zeroes off the amount and begin our system to understand what we are paying. A 12-pack of yogurt cups, for example, costs 56,000 dong, or less than $3.

Taxi drivers use a meter here with the number 12 as the beginning fare. This, of course, means 12,000 dong, but they trim three zeroes off as well for simplicity. A 5-minute ride costs 27,000 dong, or less than $1.50.

Compass Living provides us with a private driver as a translator for when we go shopping, but we're the do-it-yourself type. I'm sure it will all get more familiar with time, but for now we have this short system in place, and it seems to be working just fine.

About the Authors
Billy and Akaisha Kaderli are recognized retirement experts and internationally published authors on topics of finance and world travel. With the wealth of information they share on their website, they have been helping people achieve their own retirement dreams since 1991. They wrote the books The Adventurer's Guide to Early Retirement and Your Retirement Dream IS Possible.

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