How to haggle - bargaining in Vietnam

Women haggling outside Ben Thanh - Photo credit: Lecercle

Living in Vietnam and travelling throughout Asia it is always sad (and occasionally embarrasing) to see travellers ruining their trips by getting too worked up over money. It is a natural reaction, as the way people shop in the West and the East is very different - but it is completely avoidable.

For those of us who have grown up in Western societies with fixed prices and no room for manoeuvre, haggling in a foreign country with unfamiliar people and practices can be an unsettling experience. Some people feel offended that an initial offer is higher than a 'local' price, or get angry when a trader won't budge.

Others go for it guns blazing, unsatisfied unless they can squeeze every last penny off the price - often leading to unpleasant scenes where a rich foreigner bargains ruthlessly with a homeless child for a pack of cigarettes, fighting to the last cent despite clearly being able to pay a fair price.

Either way the outcome is unpleasant for all involved, and can leave a bad taste in the mouth for both parties - the traveller feels they have been ripped off, and the trader can't understand why they are being shouted at in the street or why foreigners have such hot tempers.

Bargaining is a game, not a fight to the death
You should always enter into negotiations in a good frame of mind and a with a sense of humour. If an offer is too high, laugh it off, don't get furious. Make a joke and counter offer; if in turn you are being unreasonable the trader will try to push you in the right direction. Feel free to try again, raising your bid, but keep in mind the real change in value - at the end of the day there is little point negotiating over less than a dollar.

Don't take it personally
A market trader's job is to maximise profits, and fixed prices don't always exist in Vietnam outside supermarkets. It is only natural for a trader to 'have a go' and see what they can get, and it is in no way an affront to you. The attitude in Vietnam is that if you take a higher price they've had a lucky day, and if they take the correct price they didn't lose anything in trying - there is nothing personal about it.

Don't fall into the trap of thinking that everyone is out to overcharge foreigners, either - Vietnamese people are just as likely to be overcharged, at least initially, and some local people can't stand haggling either.

Drink plenty of water
It seems trite but so many travellers lose their patience and temper in Asia for no reason other than dehydration. It is a natural that as your brain dries out you become tired, minor irritations become major annoyances and it is difficult to keep your cool. Whether shopping or exploring, making sure you are drinking enough can dramatically increase your enjoyment.

Don't assume you are being ripped off
Sometimes the price asked is just that - the price everyone else in the country pays. Some travellers get it in their heads that they are persecuted, and end up fighting over the price of a bottle of water, a bus ticket or some other product that has a fixed price - and then act shocked and offended when the vendor won't budge.

Consider the real value of an item
A trader will always try to sell for as much as they can get, usually because they don't earn a great deal and could use the extra money. Most travellers arrive in Vietnam with significant amounts of money in Vietnamese terms, and benefit from the low cost of food, hotels and souvenirs in the country. Take a moment to consider how lucky you are.

Remember that even if a product is 'overpriced' it is still generally cheaper than at home; indeed this may be your only chance to buy it - if you pay a few dollars more than the next man, will you really worry about it in years to come? If the product means something to you and the trader won't budge, perhaps you should just buy it rather than regretting it later. If you don't need it that badly then just walk away.

Walk away
Walking away is one of the most powerful tools a shopper has when bargaining, and the market trader's reaction speaks volumes. If you have offered a fair price and been rejected the trader will normally call you back and agree - if they couldn't care less then it is probably you that is being unreasonable. If you realise you were pushing too hard, don't feel too proud to come back either, there is no shame in paying the correct price!

Know when to quit
If you are quibbling over less than 10,000 VND, stop. If you are beginning to lose your rag, stop. If you are thirsty, go get a drink and come back refreshed. If the trader is obviously just particularly stubborn, walk away - you are bound to find another person selling the same thing not far away.

Let it go
Just met a traveller who said they paid half the price you did? Forget it - or take note for next time. The deal is done, there is no sense getting angry after the fact - it will only spoil your day.

Avoid it all together?
Bargaining is a game and should be fun for both parties. If you're not enjoying it, stop. If you can't bargain without losing your temper, don't - just pay the price requested. Most travellers will have saved $1,000s to visit Vietnam, and yet some will let one disagreement over less than $1 for a motorbike ride ruin their day - a complete waste of their limited time in the country. Pay the price asked - your trip will still be cheap compared to travelling anywhere outside Asia, and you will enjoy yourself an awful lot more.