Using Credit Card in Vietnam

Few days ago I wrote a post about our experience using cash as method of payment when visiting Hanoi, Vietnam. This time I’m writing about our experience using credit card during our travel there.

Using credit card is very convenient as it reduces the needs to carry cash around. It also provides extra security / protection as only the card holder should be able to authorize the purchase, and if the credit card is lost, you can get the card canceled and the account blocked to prevent fraudulent use of the card. For me, it’s also convenient to keep track of my spending as I would be able to see all of the transactions in my statement at the end of the statement period.

When traveling overseas with credit card, some planning could help you save and avoid extra charge or dealing with unpleasant experience. Some credit cards charge extra foreign transaction fee when you use the card overseas. I learned this the hard way during the planning for this trip when we purchased our airline tickets for Vietnam Airlines online. It turned out that the credit card I used added the foreign transaction fee (3% of the purchase amount) since essentially the card was used to make a purchase in Vietnam. After that, I got another credit card that was specifically designed for travelers (and explicitly mentioned the ‘no foreign transaction fee’ in its key features). I used this new credit card when booking for a tour through a Vietnamese-based tour agency. This time there was no extra fee charged, and we got our tour conveniently booked and pre-paid.

Another lesson learned was to know which of the credit card payment network is more widely available in your destination country. Usually it’s pretty safe to use either Visa or MasterCard as they are very widely used around the world. In United States, you also find people using American Express and Discover. I think American Express might also be accepted especially at multi-national travel-related companies (e.g., hotels, restaurants). Discover is probably the least available among these.

After walking around Hanoi for some time, we went back to our hotel, Hanoi Serenity Hotel, to rest a little bit. Though technically we already checked out in the morning, the hotel staff was nice enough to let us hang out at their breakfast area that was located near the front desk. While we were sitting there, we observed an interesting conversation between the front desk staff and an American guest.

The conversation started with the American guest who seemed to be in his first visit to Hanoi/Vietnam asking about options for sightseeing trips. The hotel provided a service to arrange tours for its guests, so the front desk lady started providing him some options for day trip. All went great, and the guest decided to go with the recommendation for a couple of day trips to take during his visit there. Then it’s time for him to pay for the trips, and he gave her his credit card. It was a Discover Card. In the United States, some people like to use Discover Card because it gives pretty generous cash back for the purchases they make. So this gentleman apparently was hoping that he could get quite a good amount of cashbacks from his purchases during the travel. This turned out to be a problem because the credit card machine at the hotel could only take either Visa or Mastercard. The front desk lady tried to explain that to the guest, but the guest didn’t want to accept the explanation and said there must be something wrong with the hotel’s credit card machine for not taking his credit card. Eventually he decided to cancel his trip bookings and went out to look for an ATM machine somewhere to get cash (it was a Sunday, so I’m not sure how difficult it was for him to find one — especially a place that accepts his Discover Card).

So, I think from that experience I learned to carry both my Visa and Mastercard credit cards with me (now I have one from each network that does not charge foreign transaction fee), and still have some cash as back up. It’s always good to have some cash in local currency, especially in small bills. And remember that you’re in a different country where the expectation about credit card usage might be different than what you’re used to.

The photo below was taken in the Old Quarter area of Hanoi. It was a restaurant that very likely would accept credit card as method of payment, and it’s recognizeable from its logo even though the name was translated to Vietnamese, Gà rán Kentucky (Kentucky Fried Chicken).

KFC in Hanoi

First Visit to Angkor Wat

So you plan to visit one of the world’s famous monuments like Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and now you’re finally there… now what? I think for most first-time visitors coming to Angkor Wat, what they’re expecting to see is something that’s big, grandeur, magnificent, as that’s what you read about or even see in travel programs featuring the place. But just like many other iconic places like that in the world (the Grand Canyon and Statue of Liberty came to mind), you really need to come and see it in person to be able to put your own words on the experience. And I think a combination of having done some homework to learn about the place, having a knowledgeable guide to accompany you experiencing the place, and being observant of what you’re seeing around you (the details, other visitors’ take on the experience, the locals, etc.) would enhance your experience there.

For me, prior to coming to Angkor Wat, I had done some cursory readings of guidebooks on Cambodia (the ones from Lonely Planet and National Geographic Traveler are quite good) and watched a couple of travel programs on TV on Angkor Wat / Cambodia. So in my mind, I had quite an expectation of seeing something ‘grand’ and ‘large in scale’. As I mentioned yesterday, the initial approach to Angkor Wat was not what I expected. After getting our entrance pass to visit the temples, we continued our drive, and we saw what looked like a lake or river on the side of the road. I asked Vanna our tour guide if that was a lake, and he said, ‘No, that’s the moat that surrounds Angkor Wat. You’re looking at Angkor Wat across the moat.’ From the distance, we only saw trees in a forest across the moat; there were no magnificent temples to see from the ground level. But few minutes after, we approached the west side of the complex where the entrance gate and bridge was located, and then I saw the outer part of the magnificent temple complex for the first time.

Our driver dropped us near the bridge, and after showing our newly-printed entrance pass to an official who checked that near the bridge, we walked across the bridge just like hundreds of other visitors to enter the temple complex. Honestly, at that moment, with so many visitors who are clearly tourists (a large number of them came as part of large tour groups in big tour buses), it felt more like walking in from parking lot to the entrance of an amusement park. Fortunately we didn’t have to wait for a long time to go through the gopura (gate) to get to the pathway towards the main temple building. This was where you could hear the ‘oooh’ and ‘aaah’ from the visitors and they saw the panoramic view of the magnificent temple building for the first time.

The next thing I noticed was that there were a lot of tourists there. We came to visit towards the end of the year where it was somewhat of a ‘high tourist season’ there, so that was somewhat expected. But there were a LOT of them… So we had to work our way around large tour groups as we walked into and toured the interior of the temple building.

We spent about three hours walking around the temple interior. Vanna turned out to be quite knowledgeable about the history and the details of the temple — I could tell he’s done his own study on the topic, and had done the tours many times before). He gave us an overview of the history of the Khmer Empire around the time when Angkor Wat was built. King Suryawarman II built the temple as his state temple and capital, and since he dedicated the temple to the Hindu god Vishnu, some said that was the reason why Angkor Wat complex is oriented to the west, contrary to most of other temples in the area that had eastward orientation.

Around the temple interior visitors can observe the galleries of bas-reliefs that depicted stories from Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata and one section depicting King Suryawarman II and the life in the Khmer kingdom at the time. As we went through these galleries, Vanna gave pretty good overview of the scenes/stories that were depicted on the wall. I tried to follow along, but honestly there were so many details that after a while things kind of blurred together in my head, so I thought I’d just remember the main themes, and focus on taking detailed photographs of parts of the bas-reliefs that seemed to be good representatives of the story, and moved on. I think that’s probably similar case for most of the visitors who came there — they didn’t spend as much time looking for the details because they were part of large tour group that had to keep moving on, or they didn’t care as much learning about the details. If you really want to take in as much as you can and appreciate what you’re seeing there, I think it’s probably best if you allocate at least a day of your visit to be go there on your own and just take your time to observe the details.

The photo below was taken as we toured the interior of the temple. This was one of around 3,000 apsara (celestial dancer) figures that were carved on the temple walls. This particular one looked like she was looking from behind the wall of carving, and the afternoon light came through at an interesting angle from the left.

Apsara behind the wall

Money Matters

One thing important to learn before traveling to a foreign country is about the local customs when dealing with monetary matters. Things like currency used, preferred method of payment, gratuity expectations, sales tax, customs, etc. To learn about these, you could start with reading travel guides like Lonely Planet’s, Fodor’s, National Geographic Travelers, etc. which very likely have sections that discuss this topic. The important thing to note is to not assume that your normal way of conducting transaction at home is accepted the same way in the country you’re visiting. For example, in the United States using credit cards and sometimes even personal checks are acceptable as methods of payment when you go to stores. You take the same credit card to a foreign country, it may not be accepted there because the local merchants may be more used with cash payment, and even if they have credit card as an optional method of payment, it’s actually not preferred because of the extra cost that has to be paid to the credit card company for the convenience. Another thing to check with credit cards is whether there is foreign transaction fee charged every time you use your credit card for transaction outside your home country — this could amount to as much as 3-5% of the transaction amount.

When we went to Cambodia, we already had the travel logistics (hotels, transportation, and tour guide) arranged in advance, so by the time we arrived in Phnom Penh, we didn’t think much about the money aspects. The first time we had to think about this however was very shortly after our arrival. We had a driver with a car hired by our tour company coming to pick us up at the airport to take us to our hotel. The actual car pick up was already paid for through the tour company, but then during the ride Kristi and I had a discussion on gratuity for the driver. We were trying to figure out what was acceptable to give as gratuity once we arrive to the hotel. On one hand, I remembered reading in a guidebook that gratuity was not part of what’s expected in the culture, but lately with more foreign tourists coming to Cambodia, it became more widely expected. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure what would be the proper amount to give that wouldn’t be considered as insulting if it’s too low, or too much. We also didn’t know how much the actual cost for the car pick-up from the airport. As far as currency, I knew that US dollars were widely accepted as currency; the problem was that I only had a $5 bill and the rest of the USD cash we carried were of larger denominations ($20 and $100). So it would be kind of awkward giving a large bill and asking for change to return when giving gratuity. I finally just gave the $5 to the driver as a tip. I think that turned out to be pretty good amount, and he seemed to be pretty happy to receive it, so we felt good with that decision.

Later on I asked our hotel front desk about public transportation to get around the city, and they suggested the best way to get around is to take one of the tuk-tuks (or also known as remorque) from outside the hotel. There was usually at least one of these tuk-tuk drivers waiting there to take hotel guests elsewhere. They said you need to bargain with the tuk-tuk driver, but typically you can get about anywhere within Phnom Penh from the hotel for $2.

When we were ready to go to a restaurant we selected from the guidebook for dinner, we went outside the hotel and we were met by one of these tuk-tuk drivers who offered his service. I showed him the name and address of the restaurant; he nodded his head and motioned to us to get into the passenger seat of his tuk-tuk. We followed that, and off we went… Then few minutes later, Kristi asked me about the pricing… oops, it happened so fast, I forgot that we were supposed to ask for the expected price and bargain first with the driver before agreeing to go with him.

We ended up getting to the restaurant, and the tuk-tuk driver asked me if we wanted him to come back again later to pick us up and bring us back to the hotel. I said yes, and before I had a chance to talk about the pricing, he said he’ll be back in two hours, and we can pay him later when we get back to our hotel.

Two hours later, after we finished our dinner, we went outside the restaurant, and sure enough, the tuk-tuk was waiting for us to bring us back to the hotel. We got back to the hotel, and I asked the driver how much the ride was. He said $5. Remembering what the hotel staff said, I said, no, it should be $4. He smiled and said okay. But then I thought, you know it’s only $1 difference, not much from my perspective, but in a country where in 2010 the GDP per capita was $810 (compared to $47,000 in the United States), $1 probably made a big difference to this driver. So I ended up giving him $5 and letting him keep the extra $1.

I think that’s one aspect that is somewhat up for discussion among foreign visitors from wealthier countries… do you tip or not, and how much do you bargain. You don’t want to be taken advantage of, but at the same time, I think you don’t want to be carried away with the bargaining part. I feel that in the end it’s better to be more generous to the locals especially if they did provide good service and you have the means to give extra. You never know how much of a blessing that could be for those who receive it, and sometimes it doesn’t take much to do that.

The photo below was taken from the passenger seat during that tuk-tuk ride to the restaurant, as we took in the night scenery around and familiarized ourselves with the area close to our hotel.

Tuk-tuk ride

The 252

The 252 is a boutique hotel in downtown Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The hotel is owned and run by French/Swiss managers, but purposefully they tried to put some touch of Khmer tradition in the decor, so the hotel and its rooms were quite nicely decorated with a mix of modern and traditional interior design. The hotel is located on the 252nd street in Phnom Penh (thus the name of the hotel). It’s located a bit further out from many of the tourist hotels that are located closer to the Sisowath Quay (the area near the river that’s popular with tourists — similar to Khao San Road in Bangkok, Thailand), but it’s close enough that you can just take tuk-tuk for about USD $2 to get there or pretty much all major tourist attractions in the city.

We found out about The 252 when we looked for hotel to stay at in Phnom Penh on TripAdvisor. The 252 was ranked pretty high for hotels in Phnom Penh, and many reviewers gave it nice comments about their stay there. In some cases where there were complaints or negative experience, the hotel management actually provided response — I thought that was nice that they actually cared about the feedback/reviews that people gave. The price for the room was a bit higher than some others that we also looked at, but it was still quite reasonable.

When we arrived at The 252, the first thing we noticed was that the hotel was somewhat low key and hidden behind tall walls from outside. When we opened the front gate and came in, we saw immediately the pool with chairs around and the shaded outdoor seating for the hotel’s restaurant. It’s a nice, somewhat secluded oasis in there, quite a contrast from the hustle and bustle of the city you just right outside its wall.

Our room was one of the 19 rooms the hotel had, and we were situated on the third floor of the hotel. It was a nicely-decorated room; somewhat minimalist in style. We had good night sleep for both of the nights we stayed there, though at times we could hear some noise of construction or simply daily life going on in the neighborhood. They tried to block those with their walls, but we’re right in the middle of an urban city, so I don’t think it’s avoidable. In the morning, we also could smell Khmer cooking from a nearby kitchen — I wasn’t sure if it was the hotel’s kitchen or their neighbors. It gave a unique feel of staying in urban Phnom Penh — though some visitors looking for total isolation / seclusion may not be happy with it.

The hotel manager and staff were also very hospitable and helpful during our stay. When we arrived, we had a little problem using the TV and the safety box in our room. I went to the front desk to ask, and the manager actually went with us to our room to help us out. On the second day of our stay, we had a little mishap in our logistics to start the day. The hotel staff helped me contact our tour company to get things straighten out (we booked the two separately, so they didn’t have any relation to our tour itinerary). And on our last day, when we had to leave very early in the morning before the restaurant was open, they prepared carry-out breakfast for us the night before, so we could just come to the front desk and ask for our carry-out breakfast before we left. Overall, it was another excellent stay at a boutique hotel during this trip to Southeast Asia.

The photo below was taken from the seating area near the pool. You can see the nice pool with some seating areas around, and in the background you could see the high walls that completely block the view from the outside in and vice versa.

The 252

AirAsia

AirAsia is the pioneer of regional low-cost airlines in Asia. The Malaysian-based company started taking off as a popular air carrier in the region around 2001, and now it is the largest low-cost airlines in Asia. In addition to their main hub in Kuala Lumpur, AirAsia also has a couple of subsidiaries, Thai AirAsia based out of Bangkok, Thailand, and Indonesia AirAsia based out of Jakarta, Indonesia. They currently provide routes that cover 400 destinations in 25 countries.

My first exposure to AirAsia was during my Southeast Asia trip last year. We were planning on visiting several countries and traveling independently, so low-cost airlines came up as considerations for the travel. Most of the travel segments were pretty short distance (less than four hours), so we didn’t care as much about special in-flight service or extra-comfort (which would be more of a factor if we were traveling long distance). The primary factors considered were safety record, timeliness, and cost. Anyone traveling in Southeast Asia region with these factors considered would include AirAsia as an option. We looked at AirAsia routes for the travel itinerary that we’re planning, and found that it would work for two of the segments (Bangkok – Phnom Penh, and Singapore – Jakarta), but not for the other segments. Primarily because of the scheduling and routing — you get the low cost by traveling AirAsia but you’re paying in terms of longer travel times or inconvenient departure times (some of the routes would require us to transit in Kuala Lumpur in the middle, so a direct flight that would take only 3 hours may end up to be a more than 8 hour-trip). It’s pretty similar to what you find in the US with low-cost airlines like Southwest Airlines. Great service and great price, but at times may be inconvenient travel itinerary.

One interesting planning fact I learned from my cousin Kristi who had used AirAsia to visit several destinations in the region is that you can get ridiculously low fare if you can and are willing to book the flight way in advance (up to one year in advance). They would have limited seats that were deep discounted (more than 75% off), but with condition that you have to do advance purchase, and it’s not refundable/exchangeable. In some cases, the price was low enough that some people would go ahead and purchase the tickets even if it might mean they couldn’t use it and would have to waste it.

Another interesting tip to know is that the price is low because there are many things that are offered as ala-carte options to purchase (like extra luggage weight and in-flight food service). Today many US carriers impose extra luggage fee and charging for in-flight food service, and that received negative feedback from the customers. I guess that’s because people are used to having those services as part of what they’re expecting from air travel that taking those away (or charging extra for those) naturally would cause negative reactions. With AirAsia and other low-cost carriers, the low expectation is set upfront as a consequence of getting the airfare at lower price, so then their customers can opt to pay more to get the extra convenience (e.g., for us we paid a little extra for luggage weight allowance so we didn’t have to worry about getting too close to the standard limit and getting penalized for overweight).

The actual travels on AirAsia were actually quite uneventful. It was interesting to observe that when we checked in, instead of given the boarding pass in the typical ticket-size print outs, ours looked more like a grocery/store receipts. I guess either way it has barcode so it doesn’t really matter — and they don’t have to get specialized printers to print those.

Both our Bangkok – Phnom Penh and Singapore – Jakarta trips left and arrived on-time. The flights were quite normal and somewhat like a typical flight experience for frequent flyers — courteous flight attendants who at a couple of occasions walked the aisle to offer in-flight food service for purchase (we were not allowed to bring our own food items to the flight). There were no in-flight entertainments, though for the short flights, this didn’t really matter.

The photo below was taken at Changi Airport in Singapore before we left for the last leg of our trip. I noticed the AirAsia tagline on the plane’s livery, ‘Now Everyone Can Fly.’ For us, we were fortunate enough that the cost of the air travel really didn’t factor in as much into the planning of our trip. But I could see how this tagline would ring true for many people who previously wouldn’t be able to afford traveling internationally when the choices available were limited to the major international airlines.

Air Asia