A real estate agent recently asked me how I found living in Hanoi. I told him it was certainly an interesting place, but I found bargaining difficult: I was just not used to doing it. I was all at sea in the land of no fixed prices.
He smiled. In Vietnam when you buy something, he told me, you get the highest starting price if you show up in a four-wheel-driver, less if you arrive on a motorbike, less if it’s a bicycle and less again if you walk to the business.
It’s so different from what I am used to in Australia, where just about everything has a set price. You know what things cost because the price is attached to the product on a sticker or a tag. You shop around if you want to by comparing those prices, not by bidding down the price in each transaction. The fact that prices are attached to most products also mean they don‘t vary too much between businesses. So easy.
Not in Vietnam. For example, the price I have been charged for paracetamol has ranged from 6000 to 20,000 dong – in pharmacies, by pharmacists or their assistants wearing their white-coat trappings of respectability.
Apart from the few supermarkets, most businesses don’t have even nominal price tags on their wares.
The real-estate agent’s rule of thumb probably does not apply to westerners either, who are all assumed to be rich. We are likely to be given the “four-wheel-drive” price even if we show up on foot. Indeed westerners are pretty well all rich in a country where US$200 a month is a good wage, and many earn US$100 or less. And the westerners living here on western wages are fantastically wealthy by local standards.
Not only does the asking price vary, and is often higher for westerners, but also, because price tags are so few and far between, it’s hard to gain an idea of the price for which a vendor is prepared to sell his or her goods or services.
Some vendors, particularly of fruit or vegetables, can be quite aggressive too, in an effort to sell more of the product to me, which adds another wrinkle to a process that is so seamless at home. Not only do you negotiate over price but also amount.
From my point of view this is tiresome, but I can also see the point of view of the vendors, particularly the ones who work on the streets. Each works in all weather, plying her wares from the two heavy baskets suspended from a bamboo pole slung over her shoulder, and would make very little money each day. According to an online exhibition at the Women’s Museum in Hanoi these women are working on the street because they can’t get jobs in their village or because earnings there are so low.
If I agree to buy a kilo of oranges for more than the price a street vendor needs to make a profit, she tries very hard to sell me two kilos. This may mean, I think, that she can afford some meat for dinner, for example.
I also think sometimes, when buying from a tenacious trader, that it’s no surprise that this country has seen off so many foreign armed forces. There’s a steely persistence here in many daily pursuits!
Not all drive such a hard bargain though. I once even had a shopkeeper knock down the price for me. I had agreed to pay the 180,000 dong she asked for a bag – that’s about $10.50, and the bag would have cost me $40 or more in Australia. I didn’t bargain, and after the deal was closed the shopkeeper reduced the price herself by 10,000 dong. She must have taken pity on me.
Although I am still a hopeless bargainer I have developed a few shopping strategies.
My approach where the price varies so much for a standard product, such as the paracetamol in those pharmacies, is simply not to return to the places that charge more.
I do bargain sometimes, and think of it as practice for times when there’s more of an imperative to haggle over the price, such as if I need to buy a big ticket item, and for the weekly shop for fruit and vegetables when I don’t want to regularly pay too much over the odds. The other day, for example, I bought a length of 150-centimetre wide silk with a beautiful 1950s-retro pattern for 80,000 dong a metre rather than the 90,000 asked for. Not much of a reduction but I got in some practice – and even at the higher price it’s all of $A5.50 metre.
I have also taken enough motorbike taxis to have an idea of prices and bargain if I know the price is way too high. I still pay more than a local person, but by only a dollar or so. I don’t want to spend the time getting the price down further – and that dollar means a lot more to the driver than it does to me.
Even if I was a better bargainer, that awareness of the value of a dollar to the vendor would make me reluctant to get too serious about regular bargaining. The cobbler who works near my office, on a stretch of roadside pavement under an offcut of tarpaulin amid heat, dust and petrol fumes, charges me 50,000 dong to re-heel a pair of shoes. I suspect that this is double what he charges other customers – I have seen 25,000 dong change hands. However, it would be a hard life working on a city pavement so I don’t mind throwing some extra money his way – and after all, for expert repairs I am paying all of $3 rather than $1.50.
I also take note of a very good piece of advice I heard recently: “If the price seems reasonable to you, forget what others are paying.”
However bargaining is a story that’s different for everyone, and it doesn’t have any particular conclusion. There are more views in these two discussions on the New Hanoian website: