The Hanoian Haggle: Learning to Bargain in Vietnam

Expats Abroad, Vietnam — By on July 2, 2012 at 11:00 am

By Samantha Laufer

This expat author tells a story about learning to assimilate with one of the most important and pervasive aspects of Southeast Asian culture: the art of the bargain.

Bargaining in VietnamToday, I spent a few minutes arguing (or, shall I say, “bargaining”) with the woman at the local market for a bushel of bananas. She wanted 20,000 dong (Vietnamese currency is called the dong–yes, insert sexual joke here–and is abbreviated as VND). I didn’t want to pay that price. No—I usually pay 17,000 dong for my bushel of bananas. How dare she overcharge me; it was outrageous, egregious. Eventually, she won, as I have yet to amplify my bargaining skills with many actual Vietnamese words (I am relegated to head shaking and eye rolling–quite ineffective). I gave in, gave her the money, and walked away, irked.

How much did she charge me, exactly? Well, 20,000 vnd is roughly a dollar (a bit less), and 17,000 vnd—about 85 cents. This, may I add, was for a bundle of approximately 16 bananas.

It dawned on me then: Have I become a penny pincher? A cheapskate? A Miser? Have I lost my perspective on value?

Perhaps. Or, maybe, I am just getting closer and closer to calling Hanoi home.

It’s amazing how quickly you acclimate to the cost of living in this city. Despite often being charged “foreigner prices” for food and taxis and whatever else costs money (sometimes double or triple the local price), life here is cheap. I can easily find some pho for 30,000vnd (about $1.50), a ride across town on a xe om costs about the same, and a 450ml bottle of Ha Noi Beer can be purchased for somewhere between $0.75 – $1 at a local café.

It really did not take me long to readjust my internal price evaluator. Just a few weeks ago, in fact, I was quite careless with my money. I had a “come on, it’s only a dollar” attitude most times I had to cough up an extra 20,000 or 30,000 dong. I took metered cabs around the city, ate at the western restaurants (“hey, it’s cheaper than home”), and shopped at the grocery store near our house that caters to Japanese and Korean expats. While I still occasionally indulge in these things, my perspective has changed drastically. I am learning to fight to the death with anyone and everyone for every last dong.

Bargaining in VietnamAnd, sometimes, that fight is heated. Many goods and services here do not have set prices and purchases require at least some level of negotiation and deal making. There is head shaking, grumbling, mumbling, anger. It is a game–I have competitors–and I must learn how to play. The rules are simple: the xe om driver, the woman at the vegetable stand, the guy selling helmets–they give you a price. Usually that price is exorbitantly high. Then, you suggest your own. They will counter, you will counter, and so on. Because everything here is relatively cheap, the amount of money you are typically bargaining over is small–often a dollar or less. But still, you want to win. Unfortunately (for me), I rarely come out on top. While I have unquestionably improved during my short time here, my Vietnamese bargaining skills could use some definite work in order to maximize my haggling success rate.  After some thought, I have come up with a few distinct areas for improvement.

First, I must significantly expand my Vietnamese money grubbing vocabulary. While I know how to say “How much?” I constantly struggle with “too expensive!” (or any other phrase of disagreement) which decreases my credibility in the eye of the merchant/driver/clerk.  No matter how disgusted you appear about a price, not knowing the vernacular to disagree is quite damaging to your side. Over and over, I look up the phrase: Đắt quá, Đắt quá, Đắt quá. Too expensive.

Another fundamental problem for me is that I am just too slow. I can’t interpret the Vietnamese quickly enough on my feet.  This slowness is most notable with numbers—significant when you are bargaining over one thing alone: prices. While I have learned to count from 1-99 (100 is still a bit difficult for me…), it takes me some time. I must think, “okay, ba is three. Mui is ten. Three…and then ten…thirty!” It’s quite a process and, when I am told a price, I must pause to think about exactly how outraged I should be. The lag time is a handicap. It gives them time to read me—to test me. They can sense my inexperience. Worse, when I try to respond too quickly, I often end up hurting my cause, either by listing a price that is far too high, or by offending my competition with a price far too low. (For example, nam (5) mui (10) is 50, whereas mui (10) nam (5) is 15). Saying one price and meaning another is common for me. And quite problematic.

Finally, I need to learn to stick to my guns and, for lack of a better phrase, grow a pair. Typically, I go into a situation determined and convinced that the price will be right. I state my number, I look the man or woman in the eye, and then…I crumble. Their eyes are just so mean—their faces so stubborn. I usually try the nonchalant walk away approach, turning my back on the vendor or driver, acting like I can find a cheaper price elsewhere. Either they let me walk away (complete failure), or they call after me (potential for success). The problem is, when they call after me and I return to them…the price is rarely different. It’s like being in an abusive relationship. I leave, they get me back, and then they tear me down again. They still think they can fool me and squeeze every last dong from my wallet. And usually — they are right. I just can’t say no to their convincingly pleading eyes. But now, I am determined: I will learn to look them in their stony faces, tell them my price, and stick to my guns.

While the amounts that I am fighting for may appear insignificant to the untrained eye—25 or 50 cent price differentials—it is the principal of the matter that really counts.  I live in Hanoi now and I will learn to do it like it should be done. I will fight for every last banana.

Samantha quit her job to move to Hanoi last October. She enjoys telling stories about her not-always-graceful quest to adapt to life in Vietnam. You can check out her tales at vietsam.wordpress.com.

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    3 Comments

  • It truly is an art..

    How long have you been in Hanoi? Do you have a Vietnamese language instructor, or are you teaching yourself?

  • Samantha says:

    It really is!

    I’ve been in Hanoi since October of 2011 although I (embarrassingly) only began official language lessons a couple of months ago. I wrote this during my early days in VN though–just a few weeks after I arrived.

  • These are great tips! I’ve found personally (having been based in South Korea for several years) that learning the local language really helps in terms of the respect factor and ability to negotiate.