Many travellers have a paranoid fear of getting ripped off – so much so they insult the locals and get horribly stressed out in pursuit of paying what they think is a fair price. Don Morgan offers some insight into bargaining and acceptance in Vietnam that can make life easier for everyone
I’m in Hue, on a sultry summer day. Bia Hoi (cheap draught beer) is just the thing to cool down in the evening. Luckily my new friend Tam has invited me for a drink and some ‘moi.’ The word means ‘bait,’ or ‘invite,’ and to the Vietnamese, it means something you eat in order to coax the alcohol into your stomach amicably. As a result of this tradition, bia hoi joints have some of the most coaxingly delicious, and unusual food in the country. The menus are rarely in English, so I get out my dictionary and try to unravel the mysteries.
And, just to be clear, Tam is Vietnamese and he has ‘invited’ me. In this context, that means he pays, no question about it. “I invite,” means, “My treat.”
But the evening is being spoiled a bit by a guy causing a ruckus in the back. I’m embarrassed to say he’s an American. He and his friend drank two litres of beer, and when the bill came, he flipped his lid. He even came over to my table and asked me how much I would pay. I told him, and he didn’t believe me. I assured him that this was, in fact, the real price. I know this for sure because Tam and I have been here before, Tam paid, and that’s what he paid. But my fellow American snorts and walks away. “I don’t buy it,” he says.
I suddenly feel ashamed about my country of origin.
I hear his friend trying to convince him that I’m probably telling the truth. But, the guy is stubborn. Eventually his friend gives up on him and leaves. The guy just sits at his table, refusing to pay. For over an hour.
The amount in dispute: 14,000 VND for two litres of beer. Less than a dollar.
It’s not like it’s the first time I’ve seen a traveller having a mental meltdown in Vietnam over the issue of prices. This guy happened to be completely wrong, but under most circumstances, it’s actually reasonable for foreigners to assume they are being overcharged. It does happen. A lot. I won’t deny that.
But I also know that it is tragically, utterly stupid to let it effect your experience here. And yet, I see people do it all the time. I sit through interminable evenings, listening to people complain about how they overpaid for this or were lied to about that. They get so paranoid, they start to think they’re being ripped off, even when they’re not–like the guy in Hue.
Meanwhile, they could be having a lot more fun: meeting locals, talking about life, learning the language and the culture, trying out some of the amazing food.
I sympathize. It’s a disconcerting situation for a foreigner. Prices are seldom marked on items. You have to know what something is worth, in Vietnamese dong, before you buy. And here’s the problem: you just don’t know. You may think 8,000 VND (0.50 USD) is a fine price to pay for a big fat baguette. Sorry, the going rate is 1,000 VND (0.06 USD).
Many western cultures have a strong emphasis on ‘getting a good price.’ And when we subsequently learn we paid ‘too much,’ we feel cheated and embarrassed. But let me put your mind at ease. At first, you’re going to pay too much. There’s no way around it. And even after you’ve been here for a while, you’re still going to pay more than locals, more often than not.
Given enough time, you will, eventually, learn the real prices of everything. But it takes time. More time than most tourists have on their hands.
I’ve seen some travellers try to solve this problem by bargaining hard for every single thing they buy. But they end up bargaining so hard, they insult the seller, and wind up not being able to buy the item at any price.
Bargaining is expected in most contexts where prices are not posted. But there is a right and a wrong way to go about it.
The biggest mistake I see foreigners make is adopting a strident, cocky tone. This does not work in Vietnam. A cocky person is not looking for a discount, does not need a discount, doesn’t deserve a discount.. In the Vietnamese mind, such people are being obnoxiously haughty and superior. It is well worth the loss of a sale to tell such a person to screw off.
It may surprise some tourists to hear this, but to me, the Vietnamese are incredibly generous. A lot of travellers go from one tourist hot spot to another and come to the conclusion that all Vietnamese people are only after their money, and will lie, cheat and steal to get it. But that is only really true within the tourist industry itself, and even then, it’s not nearly as pervasive as people make out. The typical Vietnamese is curious about foreigners, eager to get to know them, and feels honoured to treat them while they are here. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve had gifts, meals, places to stay offered to me – and not by people in the tourist industry who knew I was a travel writer. Just by regular people who took me for a traveller who might need something.
As I understand it, the Vietnamese approach to money matters is heavily influenced by Confucianism. It was a system of social organization that put a strong emphasis on status. But it also put a strong emphasis on social obligations. That is, the ‘haves’ don’t just lord it over the ‘have nots,’ they are responsible for their welfare, and required to address their needs. If a Vietnamese person is in a jam, they go to someone with money and status for help—the big man would lose face if he said no, so he usually does what he can.
This mindset translates into the attitude we see everyday as foreigners in Vietnam. We suddenly find ourselves being expected to fulfil a social obligation we’re not even aware of. We are the ‘big men.’ We should pay more. Vietnamese with money overpay all the time. When we get all indignant about it, we seem petty. In fact, sellers are a little offended that they have to trick us into doing what we’re supposed to do anyway.
We have an idea in our heads that ‘fixed prices’ are ‘fair.’ In Vietnam, they simply have a different conception. Their way is not better or worse, it’s just based on their culture and history, which is different from ours. It’s not about a fixed price. It’s about, “How much are you able to pay, and how little am I able to accept.” It’s not ‘un-fair’ that prices vary from person to person. Because status relationships differ from person to person. To the Vietnamese, being in a position to pay more is an honour and an obligation. That is a part of their culture, and no mere visitor should be arrogant enough to think they can change that on a two-week visit. In their minds, these differences are important, in fact, they make the world go around, and it would be unthinkable to ignore them.
That’s the irony. Based on what they are charging, even when they are ‘overcharging,’ the prices are fair–a bargain, even–relative to our ability to pay. So what’s fair? That we impose our notion of ‘fixed prices’ on a people who are living on a slim profit margin, or, that we occasionally show up and pay what is perhaps a more ‘fair price’ to people who can’t normally get one?
Oo. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
There’s no easy way to resolve this clash between our ‘individualist’ Western culture and Vietnam’s neo-Confucian socialism. I’m not prepared to say our way is all that much better. I saw a lot more homelessness in New York city than I have in Hanoi or Saigon. Life isn’t always easy here, but the sense of interdependence and reciprocal responsibility ensures that just about everybody gets a place to sleep and a meal of they need one.
In general, the more of the culture you embrace, the cheaper things will be. I often get a slight ‘Vietnamese speaking’ discount. I remember one xe om driver in Nha Trang who wanted 20,000 VND for a trip I knew should be less, but I agreed to it. We chatted in Vietnamese while we rode, and by the time we got to my hotel, he said, “Actually, just give me 10,000.” But you don’t have to learn Vietnamese. If you can dig into a bowl of silk-worm larvae, and drink home-made rice wine from the same glass as everyone else at the table, you’ll find yourself making a transition in their eyes: from ‘just another tourist using the country as a playground,’ to someone they recognize as a part of the social network they live in, not separate from it. Which is not so say I don’t still meet people who are just plain bastards. But that is not a phenomenon unique to Vietnam.
So, this is the thing. If you really, truly are on a tight budget and every dong counts, bargaining is easy. Be nice, be pleasant, be patient. Don’t pay more than you can pay. Walk away if it is too much. If you’re being overcharged, the seller will often chase you down and lower the price. If they don’t, then either they are actually being very greedy, or you’re being too stingy. No way to know for sure, until you move on to the next shop and try again. If you put in the effort, the minimum price will eventually surface. But if you’re just one of those people who has a chip on their shoulder, who just wants to get a cheap price as a matter of pride–yeah, they’ll probably keep screwing with you everywhere until you either pay or give up.
And when you know you’re still ‘paying more’ than a local, think about how much you earn per hour back home. Divide that by four. Is it worth fifteen minutes of ‘work,’ bargaining and shopping around, to buy something for 25 cents less? In the course of a day, you may end up paying out three or four more dollars than a Vietnamese person would. How much did you used to pay for a Venti Moca Frappuccino back home? Or a bottle of beer at a decent bar? Or a slice of chocolate cake at a nice restaurant?
You’ll never convince the entire nation of Vietnam to forget who you are and where you come from. For most travellers in Vietnam, having an enjoyable stay is not so much about mastering the art of bargaining, it’s more about accepting the reality of the situation and letting it go.
Don Morgan is a travel writer for Travelfish. He can be contacted at don [at] travelfish.org