The International Writers Magazine: Asia - Money - Comment
Adventures in Vietnam Banking
Tough Regulations & Terrible Advice Abound
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 face 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
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 know 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
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 guys 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
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, that
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. 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
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 seam 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
“Well, no…I don’t think so.” He said, suddenly less sure of himself than
he was before I asked a single follow-up questions. “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
“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.”
© Antonio Graceffo Nov 1st 2010
Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author
living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The
Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts
Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial
arts in various countries.
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Brooklyn Monk fan page
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