Dollar Days – Shopping in Saigon on the Cheap

Times are hard everywhere. I had proof the other day when the woman ahead of me in line at the grocery store paid for her groceries all in change. I am not joking.

She had a bagful of VND 500 and 200 coins. With 20,000 Vietnamese dong to the USD 1, some of her coins were worth less than a penny. While I was shooting her death looks, I got to wondering where she got all that change from.

Vending machines haven’t made it to Vietnam. Neither have coin-operated laundromats. Really, the only places that dispense coins are the supermarkets themselves. (Paper money starts at VND 1,000 [equivalent to USD five cents] and while there are coins valued at VND 1,000, VND 2,000 and VND 5,000, I hardly ever see them used).

While there is a large middle to upper class here driving around on USD 2,000 – 3,000 motorbikes, the bulk of the population lives on an average salary of USD 250-300 a month.

While I’m holding out for the perfect part-time job (I’m thinking 1-2 days a week, doing editing, writing or corporate training), I’m watching what I spend. (I was happy last month when I only spent $300, not including rent and a weekend trip to Phnom Penh…) And I’ve become a master at ferreting out good deals.

Like an unlimited data plan for my phone for less than USD 2 a month.

Or this awesome meal of banh xeo, literally “sizzling pancakes”, a concoction of rice flour and water with a teeny bit of turmeric for color and taste. There’s this place near my house that sells them. The boy making them has about 10 going at the same time. Swipe a bit of lard into the cast iron skillets over a raging charcoal fire. Ladle in the mixture and add some shrimp and pork. Cook until golden brown and crispy.

Wrap them up in large lettuce leaves with a handful of Vietnamese herbs and dip into a spicy fish sauce.

Cost per pancake? 17 cents. Last time I bought 5 and they threw in a free one and it made for a very filling meal.

Another awesome deal is a bunch of 10 roses for USD 72 cents. Now only if I had someone to give roses to…

Vietnam is blessed with a ton of variety when it comes to fruit. Every time I go to the market, I drool over the delicious bing cherries, but at more than USD 20 per kilo, I sadly bypass them while making slurping sounds, and head over to the tropical fruits like the riotously fuchsia dragon fruit with firm white flesh or the juicy longans that are perfectly bite sized. Lately, I’ve also been doing avocados which are in season (~ USD 1 per kilo) and having them for breakfast on toast with a drizzle of honey.

For a cheap thrill, try out the ear cleaning service available at all the local barber shops for a dollar. It is truly hilarious to see the barber strap on a coal miner’s light and dig away into your ear canals with a handful of tools in a valiant attempt to remove compacted ear wax (fun fact: in Vietnamese, the word for ear wax is cut tai which is literally, “ear poop”). I’ve never tried this procedure probably because I’ve been indoctrinated by Q-Tips propaganda for so long that I get really queasy when anything comes near my ears. But judging by the moans of pleasure, ear cleaning is da bomb.

If a fast wilting bouquet of roses isn’t practical enough for you, simply pick up a flowering orchid which lasts weeks for just about a dollar. Tuck it into a pretty pot and you’re good to go.

For more amazing items available around Saigon for less than a dollar, check out my latest collaboration, “The Buck Stops Here”, in this month’s issue of Word HCMC. (Warning, it’s a big file with lots of photos, so it may take awhile to load. Be productive. Leave a comment while you wait!)

What about you? What’s a great deal in the city where you live?

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20 thoughts on “Dollar Days – Shopping in Saigon on the Cheap

    1. James Post author

      Thanks, Jen! I just googled “bao zi” to see what they look like and the Vietnamese have the same thing, called “banh bao”. However, the Chinese version is way cheaper! One big one here (with a filling of minced pork, tree ear fungus, vermicelli and a quail egg) costs about $0.50.
      James recently posted..Saigon Cooking Class – Food As ArtMy Profile

  1. Mike Montross

    It’s definitely NOT gasoline at $4.09 a gallon! However, one can relax and get a back rub (machine style) in a spa chair while getting a “Medi-pedi” (combo medicure/pedicure) for $25.00. Purchased separately, you would pay $25.00 for spa pedicure and $10 water pedicure. The only things under a dollar can be purchased from the $.99 cent store where everything is $.9999 which they round up to a dollar when you buy it!
    The children can take a ride on the little kid rides outside the grocery stores…usually they are $.50 to $.75 each little ride around on the little toy horse. Wish we had your prices here:)

    1. James Post author

      Hi Philip:
      If you’re in Vietnam, it’s through Vinaphone. It’s the “MAX” page. Here’s the site:

      Just text “MAX” to their number and that signs you up! I never had the need for an iphone in Cambodia because internet was expensive and there weren’t that many wifi hotspots. But here? It’s too cheap NOT to have internet wherever you go… Now if only I could use the GPS function while driving without fearing someone’s going to grab my phone…
      James recently posted..Photo of the Week – Vietnamese EmbroideryMy Profile

  2. David Rorke

    An alternative to cứt tai = ráy tai (ear-wax, cerumen) . At least in (perhaps) more sophisticated “northern” Vietnamese. Keep the other stuff down where it belongs.

  3. Dyanne@TravelnLass

    Uh, I kindly gave you a quick tour of geocaching, James. In return, I think you need to give me a tour of some of the (many!) delish street foods you manage to unearth here in HCMC. Just sayin’…

    Great cheapo tips (though I hafta laugh, your post title would seem a tad redundant. i.e. shopping for ANYTHING here in Asia is ALREADY “Shopping on the Cheap” compared to where we come from, no?) 😉

    Indeed, my favorite “cheapo” anecdote here in HCMC is the dentist: a primo modern clinic here in District 1 where my ex-ray cost a SINGLE dollar!
    Dyanne@TravelnLass recently posted..It’s a Mongolian Big Mac Kinda DayMy Profile

    1. James Post author

      Hi Dyanne:
      I’m in need of a teeth cleaning. I may need to hit you up for the location of your modern clinic!

      Some things are definitely a decent bargain here in Asia, but not others. I needed a decent iPad cover and found the good ones were almost the same price as in the US. I also wanted a stylus so I youtubed how to make one from household products. Then I saw one for sale for less than $5. Guess what I did?

      Unfortunately, all of my street food finds are here in Binh Thanh. I’m hardly ever out and about in District 1. For a real street food tour, try Barbara’s (from newly set up Saigon Street Eats (as of now, on Facebook, website to come). She knows her food!
      James recently posted..Geocaching VietnamMy Profile

  4. Nelson

    Great post James, local food here is usually stew and pap (maize porridge), and definitely no flowers. Love the ‘fun in the effort of living’ aspect to your blog!


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