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.
READ MORE: HOW TO CROSS THE ROAD IN VIETNAM
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.
READ MORE: CHECK OUT OUR SMALL GROUP ADVENTURES IN VIETNAM
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.
Wow! Thank you so much for this content. I’ve been in HCMC, Can Tho, and Da Lat for the past six weeks, and I struggle with the idea and practice of haggling when I already have so much more money and privileges than Vietnamese local sellers. I have another two months in Vietnam. I am going to try to not pay exorbitant prices, but I will pay a little extra for something that I like since I can obviously afford it. I am comforted by your post. Thank you again!
It is important to remember that small sums to us are huge to the sellers; however, paying the inflated prices can have the unintended consequence of making goods and services less accessible to locals as sellers will only deal with tourists or expect locals to pay tourist prices. As in all things, there needs to be balance.
We were caught out by the known departures fee by the taxi driver (its only applicable for arrivals at HCMC). There was a warning in Lonely Planet from memory. Half way through arguing the issue with the driver, i realised it was over $2. I then came to remember that he needs it far more than I do, and I am always willing to support the wonderful and happy Vietnamese people. I gave him his money with a smile and said our good byes.
Well written article. I enjoy reading articles that are down to earth. Looking forward to visi Vietnam and understanding the culture- having fun and knowing the people.
Always smile when haggling, it is a sign of weakness to get angry. Enjoy it
On our recent visit to Vietnam we didn’t haggle at all, we were careful to not be ripped off and I am sure we mostly paid more than the locals but then we have so much more than they do…What is it to us to pay 1€ more for lunch or a taxi fare? It adds up but then it gives me a peace of mind that the lady in the streets selling her fruit might have something she can feed her children with.
Bad policy-see above.
Thank you for good content
I think it is always good to haggle, but as the author says, do it with a smile. Try not to pay over the top, it just leads to locals looking at tourists as mugs and encourages even higher prices.
However a lot of these people are poor. If you really want to help though, overpaying for something is not the way to go. Intrepid has the Intrepid Foundation which helps at the grass roots levels in many countries and there are many wonderful charities around the world. To make a real difference, give them and haggle hard.
I learned to haggle in ‘Nam in 1968. Anyone who didn’t was considered a fool.Twenty years later,I was told in Athens,”we don’t haggle anymore,we have set prices”.So to a cheaper place I went,which is haggling with the feet instead of mouth.
Absolutely agree, I’m the worlds worst haggler and gave up years ago. No one likes being ripped off but who cares if you pay a bit more for something you really like, five dollars means nothing to me but might make some sellers day.
Not to be a hater but Intrepid blog posts differ very much from the reality of going on an Intrepid tour. Local tour guides will elaborately tell you how to haggle. One guide has definitely been involved with groups of locals to squeeze out money from us perpetually without preparation. This includes children selling to us and if you‘re not comfortable with haggling (like me) you quickly lose a lot more money than expected. I like Intrepid. More good experiences than bad, but practice what you preach, guys.