Editor’s note: Stivi Cooke is an Australian who lives in Hoi An in central Vietnam. He recounted his experiences with banking in Vietnam, which are his own opinions.
I love those green Vietcombank ATM booths – it’s fun to just leave my motorbike gloves on top of the machine for a moment while enjoying the air-con. Icy cold gloves in the ocean of traffic are heaven.
To me, it’s one of the few upsides to local banking for tourists and expats. Banking here is pure comedy and at other times a nightmare.
For seven years, with an account at Vietcombank I would still get asked for my passport for I.D., even when the manager smiled because he knew me. So I opened an account at Sacombank, where the most brilliant bank teller in the world would do my transactions in less than a minute – no waiting, no passport.
It’s part of a traveller’s war stories. Here banking is often kooky, very funny, unpredictable or brilliant. It depends on the day you go, the mood of the bank teller and the government rules for foreigners and probably the color of your shirt - seriously.
Then the wicked witch of Vietnam changed the rules at Sacombank and my genius bank teller got promoted.
The new teller told me the bank would take 30 percent of my deposit transactions when it’s actually 3 percent. I spent a pleasant half hour with pen and paper explaining how to use English for banking but she seemed mathematically challenged. Another teller who sets up online accounts refused to fix her error in my online password. I haven’t been back for three months or maybe I should buy a new shirt. Red is always lucky for me.
I have a US dollar account connected to a VND account which does not give me interest but I can’t close it because I’d have to close the other account and start over. I can’t seem to buy US dollars in Hoi An at a bank but 5,000 gold shops in Vietnam will do that. I can transfer money into Vietnam but sending it out is nearly impossible despite hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese parents sending out tons of US dollars to support their kids studying aboard.
One time I went to a bank and an old man came in with a big, crumpled old bag. The tellers flocked to him, sitting next to this guy as he waited to go upstairs – we ordinary people had to wait... I was told later the old guy was depositing a quarter of a million dollars; true or not – it seems to fit the legend of Vietnamese banking.
The latest marvel of innovation is to demand my passport for a current visa – yet they don’t take a copy of it. I didn’t know that the banks are part-time border guards. I’m lucky they don’t stamp the passport – I’m running out of pages already.
Finding an ATM that gives out the most currency is a good game too. There’s lots of advice that becomes out-of-date floating around on Facebook. However the fun part is asking the ATM for five million dong and then trying to stuff the 50,000 dong notes into your old, torn wallet. Getting big currency notes inside a bank gets even funnier. Once the teller said the bank had no 500,000 dong notes left. I should have gotten to the bank before the bank robber. Thinking quickly, I walked to the teller at the far end of the bank and asked her. “Sure” she grinned, “how much do you want?”
Security is amusing too. Another time the teller had a pile of 100,000 notes stacked like bricks next to her paperwork. As I sat in front of her watching her work, my left hand started shaking and I fought hard the temptation to see what would happen if I touched the pile of cash that I could reach through the window gap. Guess I’ll never know...
ATMs were my biggest problem when I first arrived in Vietnam. My banking students frequently ask me how to explain ATMs to confused customers. Those lessons usually take two hours. I often forget that you have five seconds to grab your card and cash from the ATM. Oh, the tears I cried as I begged the staff at 11.25 am to get my card out of the machine or I had to race home, find my passport and return before 4:00 pm. Years later I sit in the bank waiting my turn and secretly smiling to myself as tourists howl in rage and tears at the sneaky ATMs because now I know the magic spell.
Tuesday mornings and Thursday afternoons work best for me. Still, competition is a good thing. If it goes horribly wrong at one bank, you can always walk over the next bank where the day is sunny, there’s money in the safe, the ATMs and everyone’s in a good mood.
Just make sure the color of your shirt is right...