It's a good idea to start bargaining for basic items such as fruit, before building up to more valuable items.
Shopping is a gateway into Vietnam’s cultural, social and culinary heart. In addition to offering affordable textiles, handicrafts and tailored attire, shopping is an easy way to meet local people, boost language skills and give back to the community. The bargaining process, however, can be difficult and overwhelming to shoppers inexperienced in Vietnam.
The following tips will assist you to engage a shop vendor successfully, whether you intend to buy fresh food from local markets throughout the country or electronic goods at one of the few department stores in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City.
Browse items at fixed price stores
A research excursion to a fixed price store provides the greatest indication of an item’s value range - giving an amateur bargainer the confidence needed to later set a price and stick to it. The tourist hubs of Vietnam’s most popular destinations - Phạm Ngũ Lão in Ho Chi Minh City, Old Town in Hoi An - all have fixed price shops with slightly inflated prices. These stores generally display signs in English at the entrance so you can identify them.
Know the exchange rate, or fake it
Stall vendors can quote the price of an item in either US dollars or Vietnam Dong, so it’s important to get to know exchange rates before shopping - at A$1 to 22,124.42 Vietnam Dong on 30 January 2012, it’s difficult to just wing it. Shopping with local currency is generally cheaper than paying in foreign dollars and it’s useful to carry a range of different notes to provide the correct amount of money agreed on through bargaining. In lieu of carrying a currency exchange phone app for assistance on the road, I often create a business card-sized note that lists the local currency in ascending five or ten Australian dollar denominations. This enables me to quickly identify Vietnamese prices in familiar terms.
Saigon Square in Ho Chi Minh City is a fusion of traditional markets within a modern building.
Learn basic Vietnamese
Communicating in Vietnamese with a shop vendor at the beginning of a conversation sets a positive tone for the negotiation process. In addition, you might just be good enough to fool people into thinking you’re an expat accustomed to local prices and avoid inflated tourist quotes. Simply say “xin chào” (pronounce sin chow) as a greeting, “bao nhiêu” (bow new) to ask “how much?” and use numbers from one to ten, if possible. If you want to give the vendor some tongue ‘n cheek, respond immediately to their starting bid with “đắt quá” which means “too expensive”.
It’s important to remember the Vietnamese language includes six different tones, making it difficult to accurately pronounce words. Even if you fail miserably at speaking Vietnamese properly, keep smiling and trying. Locals often find language mistakes incredibly entertaining!
Pick your time and place, carefully
You should never go shopping in Vietnam during the morning. Vietnamese people believe the sign of the first customer of each day has the power to determine the business’ performance for the rest of the day. For example, if a woman born in the year of the Tiger entered the store of an incompatible man from the year of the Ox, the man could become upset that she has caused his sales to drop. It’s smarter to go shopping after lunch, when most businesses have already received their first order.
Learn from others
One of the best methods for learning anything is to copy the actions of others. If you’re not ready to engage in your own negotiation, watch someone who appears to be good at bargaining - someone who enjoys the process, is confident and pays a fair price. Pay special attention to body language and prices. You will notice that better bargainers approach shopping like a social game and struggling shoppers appear defensive and uncomfortable. The next step is to try bargaining on your own.
Floating markets at Can Tho, Mekong Delta.
Start low, but not too low
It’s a huge misconception that shoppers should offer only a third of the price quoted to them by the store vendor. This is often too low and can cause offense. If you follow all of the previous steps to now, you will be ready to identify an appropriate price for the item you want and have the ability to successfully negotiate to achieve an outcome that will leave both you and the stall vendor happy. Ask the shop owner to set a price and then make your offer in response, starting a fraction lower than what you intend to agree on. The final price is often 10-50% less than the starting value.
Dos and Donts When Travelling in Vietnam
A Taste of Vietnam
About the Author
Marissa Toohey is an Australian writer who enjoys busting her comfort bubble through travel, adventures and volunteering. She enjoys getting off the beaten track and shares her insights at theBubbleBuster Project blog. Follow her on twitter @theBubbleBuster or Facebook.
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