When traveling in much of the developing world, having money in small denominations is important. Even when traveling in the so-called “First World,” having small denominations is helpful for tips and such. But in Vietnam, as Triporati expert Richard Sterling reports, having small money is essential. Without it, getting the simplest things done becomes a chore.

Richard moved to Vietnam last year and sent this dispatch about life in his Saigon neighborhood.

The View From 608

Life as I see it from apartment 608 on Ngo Tat To (”No Tattoo”) Street, Saigon

By Richard Sterling


You’ve always got to have “small money” in your pocket. In Vietnam or any other “Third World” country, any poor country, you need small money. There are too many persons who simply can’t or won’t break a five. Or a six, as the case may be. Here in Vietnam, for example, we have the 50,000 Dong note. A laughably big number for a sum that amounts to a three dollar bill. Years ago I asked a beggar here, when he pressed me for alms, for change of a 50,000 Dong note. More the fool I. The poor old sod had maybe one one hundredth of that in his krinkly, wrinkled hands. Then there was the time in Mexico when I was pulled over by a traffic cop. I earnestly tried to convince him that the stop sign was hidden by the tree (so providently placed), and so I couldn’t see it. He politely responded, “It’s not much money, Señor.” The smallest I had was a tenner. I asked him if he had change. He might have had a pocket full of ones and fives, but the answer was, of course, a smiling “Sorry, Señor.” I ponied up the ten-spot. Lesson learned. Carry small money. Always, carry small money.

I need small money every day. Even at home in apartment 608 in “suburban” Saigon. I tip the beer delivery guy 60 cents. Bills don’t come in the mail; somebody rings your doorbell and collects. Water, electricity and internet are not big but not small. But the guy who sweeps the halls collects 25 cents per apartment per month. The elevators operate as a concession: buck and a quarter per head per month. In the event of a power outage (which happens about once a month) we are dunned a few pennies for the emergency generator that keeps the elevator concession operating. That’s another ring of the bell and the need for small money. Processing the receipts I require can cost more than the fees collected, so they write them out by hand on scraps of note paper that has already been used on the other side.

Out on the town it’s the beggars, the street vendors who offer sandwiches at 30 cents apiece, candy money for neighborhood kids, a dime’s worth of dong for the newspaper girl, an errand run by some one with no other useful labor to perform, and the motorbike taxi drivers. They are known as “xe om” (zay awm) drivers and they usually drive a small 100cc bike. I need these guys every day. They are quicker than a taxi, as they can split lanes, and they tend to know the streets better. You often have to wait for a taxi, but on any busy intersection a clutch of xe om drivers are sitting astride (or some times napping on) their idle bikes waiting patiently (or resignedly) for a fare. And they are cheaper than a taxi. They zip me across town for 20,000 dong, about a dollar and a dime. Small money.

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Filed Under Adventure Travel, Feature, Saigon, Travel, United States, Vietnam


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