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Adventures in Vietnam Banking

The benefit of being around the ex-pat community in any country is, ostensibly, that we all have to overcome the same hurdles such as visas and work permits. When you are confronted with a problem, you probably aren’t the first person to have faced it. And you can get good advice from people who have already overcome the same problems as you.

Often, however, the advice you get is downright stupid. It makes you wonder how these people survived over here, or somewhere else for that matter.

Recently, I received email from a guy who was planning to go to Cambodia and put an ad in the paper advertising himself as a bodyguard. This incredibly stupid suggestion was given to him by his friend who had been living in Phnom Penh for years and years, and should have known better. First off, if you don’t speak Khmer, how could you possibly understand or work for your Khmer employer? Next, foreigners are not allowed to carry or possess weapons in Cambodia. So, how could you protect your principle? Another point is the role of the bodyguard. In Cambodia, nearly all bodyguards are licensed police officers. Their role is to work as leg-breaking thugs, enforcers for their bosses. Or, if they are high ranking police, they are there to keep the other cops off your back and to make sure the pay-offs make into the right hands.

Once again, a foreigner couldn’t do any of this, particularly one who doesn’t speak Khmer or know anything about Cambodia. If a foreigner moved to Cambodia, and hung-out a shingle, advertising himself as a bodyguard, he would probably be dead or in jail in a week.

That was one of the worst pieces of advice I had ever heard of. When I shot down this guy’s dream of being the first foreign bodyguard in Cambodia, he wrote back saying he would apply for a job in a hotel. And this was, once again, on the recommendation of his other friend who had been in Cambodia for five years.

Hotel jobs in Cambodia pay $120 a month. And the odds of them hiring a foreigner are less than zero.

I don’t know where this terribly misinformed advice comes from, but it is not limited to Cambodia. It goes all over Southeast Asia. This week, I was involved in two really stupid pieces of advice, related to banking in Vietnam.

When you have a bank account in Vietnam you can’t just deposit money or receive money from anywhere. You have to basically register your employer with the bank, tell the bank who you are working for, and give them a copy of the employment contract so they know where the money is coming from. Most companies include bank account forms in the stack of paperwork you fill out when you start working for them.

Mail is not terribly safe in Vietnam, so banks ask you to come in and collect your ATM card and other important information. When I went in to get my ATM card, I asked if it could be used internationally. And, of course, it couldn’t. So, I had to fill out more papers, so I could receive a separate card for travel. After years of living in Asia, I learned you always have to ask about the international card.

There was a young American couple also picking up their ATM cards, so I went over to warn them. “If you want to be able to use your card outside of Vietnam, you have to get a separate card,” I said.

The guy gave me a dirty look and smarted off.  “We looked into that card, and they charge 6% for withdrawals outside of Vietnam. We don’t need it.”

I backed off, none of my business. I’m a New Yorker and I don’t want to get involved.  But, let’s analyze this logic for a minute. Nearly everyone who works in Vietnam, or in Asia in general, is here because they want to see the world. And, on average, they will travel to another country at least twice per year. If you don’t have an international ATM card, it means before your holiday, you have to calculate the exact amount of money you need for your trip. Then you need to go buy that quantity of dollars on the black market, at a crap rate, and then fly with all of your cash to your vacation country. Then you have to buy vacation country currency, and pay commissions. Then, during your entire holiday, you have to keep this amount of cash under your pillow.

Isn’t this sounding like a fun vacation? I love going to dinner and leaving $2,500 of cash in my room or on a blanket on the beach. In fact, I don’t even see how this strategy could lead to disaster.

And, without the international ATM card, if your money gets lost, stolen, or you just over-spend, you have no way of drawing on your account in Vietnam.

Finally, when you fly back to Vietnam, you have to convert your leftover holiday money back into dollars or Vietnam Dong, and pay commissions.

Yes, this strategy is much better than just paying 6% to draw the money out while you are in a foreign country.

After fourteen years of living outside of the US, I have obviously learned nothing. This young couple, on their first overseas stint clearly knew something I didn’t.

Along the same theme of not being able to deposit cash in a Vietnam bank account, a lot of people come to Vietnam and get a full time job, with a contract and a bank account and possibly a work-permit. But then they get a part time job, which pays cash, and pays about 30% more than a regular job. For most people, they just use the cash as pocket money and it allows them to leave most of their salary in the bank. But, I have known people who wound up with three part time jobs, which paid so well they quit their full time job.

At the end of the first month, they are faced with the problem of what to do with a couple of thousand dollars in cash. If they aren’t complete degenerate drinkers, they save a thousand dollars or more per month. By the end of the year, they could have twelve or more thousand dollars worth of cash, in Vietnam Dong.

Now what can they do? They have a crate full of Vietnam Dong which they can’t convert to dollars and which they can’t deposit in a bank. The answers that most people came up with were to buy a safe for their room, to store the money. Then change it on the black market over a period of weeks. But this didn’t seem very safe to me. It wouldn’t seem advisable to let anyone know, or even suspect that you have tens of thousands of dollars worth of cash in your room. And if you keep going to the same places to change it, someone might notice.

I was discussing this situation with a teacher who had been in Vietnam for years and believed he was giving me advice, to help me out.

“Suitcase it to Singapore,” he said. But he said it with a conspiratory, James Bond air. Like he was speaking from his years of experience as an international man of mystery.

“You mean they will convert Vietnam Dong to US dollars in Singapore?” I asked.

“Well, no…I don’t think so,” he said, suddenly less sure of himself than he was before I asked a single follow-up question. “I think you have to convert the dollars first on the black market in Vietnam.”

OK, so you still had to change on the black market. So, that part of the problem remained the same. But apparently this guy did know something I didn’t. You could deposit the money in Singapore. That sounded better than keeping a year of savings in your room. But you still had to pay money for a flight to Singapore and possibly a hotel stay and all of that. But if it helped you keep your money safe, I guess it was worth it.

Since most people don’t have a Singapore bank account, I asked, “Are you saying that you can open a bank account in Singapore without a work permit?”

“I’m not sure about that either,” he said, looking for a door.

“So, which part of the problem did your suggestion actually solve?” I asked.

“I’m probably not the right person to talk to about this,” he answered, no longer sounding like James Bond.

“I strongly agree with you,” I answered.

Back in Brooklyn, my uncle used to tell me, “Opinions are like butt-holes. Everyone has one, and they all stink.”


About the Author

Antonio Graceffo

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Antonio Graceffo is the author of the Monk from Brooklyn, Warrior Odyssey, and several other books about Asia. He lives in China, where he is a PhD candidate at Shanghai University of Sport. 
  • Helen

    I’ve lived in Vietnam years and have never heard of any of this. Also, wouldn’t that young couple have had a foreign account with the majority of their savings? And used that to travel?
    Also, best bet is not to get a local account but an account with a foreign bank with local branches, such as HSBC or ANZ.
    In four years I have never heard of or seen anyone with thousands in their room. Most of these part time jobs don’t pay enough to bank a lot and those that do bank their dong rarely have problems. An invoice is given if needed.
    As for the kid wanting a hotel job, yeah, stupid. But they pay the pale faces way more anyway. I know a few who’ve done that in Asia and earned about 5OOUSD / month.

  • Kevin

    Don’t know about HSBC Helen but ANZ Vietnam is not a branch of the ANZ in Aust/NZ, however the Commonwealth Bank in Saigon, is. Been here 8 years and have had a good chuckle at this article. Bit like the pot calling the kettle black. I’m not going to attempt to point out the obvious flaws in his story. Suffice to say I don’t have any problems, nor do any of my friends, getting money in and out of Vietnam! And yes Mr Graceffo, I’ve known guys who’ve got jobs as body guards here in Vietnam. Some Vietnamese like having a foriegner as a bodyguard. Its a ”face” thing!