Everyone in Vietnam is a millionaire. It’s a simple fact that stumped the Vietnamese producers of the game show ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ After all, what do you offer a population that seems to be living the great dream of being dirty rich?*
It sounds too good to be true, but the reality is a million Vietnamese dong (VND is the local currency) is only equal to about USD 44. The average take-home salary of a Vietnamese worker is around USD 150 a month, and often less for Vietnamese who live outside the country’s urban sprawls.
On a recent trip to Hoi An, a bus driver told me that he often cried himself to sleep at night, despairing at his meagre income and how he might support his family. In Ho Chi Minh City, my Intrepid leader explained how people come to the city to sell fruit, clothes, handmade jewellery and more because they can’t earn enough money from their villages in the countryside. Their biggest source of income, she tells me, is the huge crowds of tourists who visit Vietnam each year.
I have to admit, I felt a little guilty when I heard this. Only the day before I’d been haggling over a teapot in nearby Ben Thanh Market, negotiating for the sport of it and because that’s just what you do in Southeast Asia, isn’t it? The Haggling Game: filled with banter, politely broad smiles and over-the-top compliments to try and close the sale. Using the classic pretend-to-walk-away-until-they-drop-the-price manoeuvre. Showing prices on calculators because neither side speaks the same language. Asking for huge discounts because you just know it’s overpriced anyway. Ben Thanh Market was everything I’d heard about haggling in Vietnam come together in one noisy, fluorescent-tinted warehouse.
Catching up with my fellow travellers at the end of the day, I cringed when I heard some of them bragging about how they bargained a man selling an imitation Nike hat from VND 100,000 to VND 30,000 (a difference of USD 3). Granted, the prices in popular tourist areas are often inflated; our leader said it’s not uncommon for sellers to double their prices. But while they were dropping tens of thousands of Dong off the asking price, which was only worth a few dollars in their local currency, they were also unwittingly carving away a chunk of the shop owner’s income.
I’m all for haggling and enjoy the thrill of the chase, but there comes a point where I wonder if eager travellers become a little too bloodthirsty. Asking for discounts that cut into the seller’s bottom line, for the sake of saving a few dollars, is simply not playing fair. At the end of the day, I’d rather play the game and have some fun, but still pay 75% of the asking price, than haggle the locals down to a nub.
After all, we’re privileged enough to travel. We should be willing to spare a bit of extra change.
6 tips for haggling in Vietnam
- Don’t become too attached. Many shops often sell the same things. If you can’t get the price you’re after, be willing to walk away and find it at a neighbouring shop instead.
- Practice your poker face. The trick is to look interested, but not too interested. If it appears you have your heart set on something, the seller will know they can get a higher price. Try to point out superfluous flaws in the product, even if imaginary, to try and disguise your interest.
- Have fun with it. The old saying ‘you win more flies with honey than vinegar’ rings true when haggling. Make jokes, lay down some flattery and don’t forget to smile. Nobody wants to give a good deal to a sourpuss.
- Learn the language. Vietnamese can be a difficult language to master, so while the locals won’t expect you to be able to haggle in numbers (that’s what calculators are for), a simple ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ will go a long way. If all else fails, a well-placed ‘Oi gioi oi’ (‘Oh my Buddha’) can work wonders.
- Gauge your audience. Are you in a tiny market outside Hanoi or a warehouse sale in Ho Chi Minh City? Larger commercial markets have more fat built into their prices for tourists, while smaller markets have less. Look around and compare prices to get a sense of just how much of a discount you should ask for.
- Decide on a fair price. Haggling is a lot of fun once you get used to it, but never lose sight of the fact that this is someone’s livelihood. When shopping at markets, be prepared to ask for big discounts (between 40-50%) and then settle on a final price closer to 65-75% of the asking price.
*Turns out the answer is USD 7,200. The top prize for a Vietnamese contestant.
Now you’ve got the tips, haggle responsibly on your next visit to Vietnam.
Feature image by Sally Johnson.