I hate to haggle. I don’t think “haggle” should be confused with “bargain” or “negotiate”, though it may be more closely synonymous with bargain. I rarely, if ever, shop flea markets and bargain basement stores. I prefer fair quality at a fair price… for everyday items. This shouldn’t be mistaken for negotiating. I certainly don’t mind a worthy negotiation for things worth bargaining for.

I guess determining what’s worth bargaining for is strictly a matter of perspective. My bargaining power (and patience) was generally measured by my reluctance to part with money (potential savings) divided by time spent waving hand gestures, lip reading, and spewing broken English back to the Vietnamese speaking broken English to me, squared. It follows the inverse square law. If it’s less than 1, I usually lost the haggle.

For me, retail consumables shouldn’t require bargaining. But I come from a wholesale-to-retail society, where retail buyers negotiate with vendors at a large scale for me. I pay a markup for the convenience of this service on the retail side.

But in Vietnam, to haggle is normal, and is essential for tourists to avoid paying wildly inflated prices. For some, haggle is sport; these people would thoroughly enjoy Vietnam’s markets.

To put this into perspective for Westerners, 50,000 Dong (or VND) is worth about US$2.25 as of this post. So what is 50,000VND good for?

  • A mighty fine street meal… with a soft drink or beer of your choice. Most street food in Vietnam, especially Hanoi and Hoi An, is renowned. Much if it is based on rice, either in noodle, grain, or paper form; and most of it includes either pork or prawn and some kind of broth. Mix and match these ingredients, and you’ll find most of the street food in Vietnam. The difference is they’ve been cooking this for generations, so it’s usually all good. My personal favorite was the xoi xeo, sticky rice with shaved mung bean, fried shallot, and liquid fat drizzled on top. I got mine with a side of braised pork for 50k from Xoi Yen. I later got a banana leaf full (minus the pork) for breakfast from a street vendor for 10k, which was 5k more than the local paid just before me.
Sticky rice with mung bean

Sticky rice with mung bean, fried shallots, and braised pork

  • An (expensive) tourist fisherman’s hat. No, not the bamboo-woven, wide-based-cone, traditional Vietnam headwear (those sadly don’t fold down into a day pack), but the tacky safari-looking, wide-brimmed, textile buckets with “Vietnam” and the yellow star embroidered on it. Not that a local would ever buy this, but based on what I’ve heard, a local typically pays 1/3 to 1/2 of what a tourist will get quoted. And a tourist will likely pay 3/4 of what was quoted after making a deal. So this hat likely would have cost a local 25-30,000VND. I was presented with an initial price tag of 60k. I countered with 40k, and we landed on 50k. I was proud that I bargained at all, but i probably still overpaid, even for a tourist. The general rule I’ve heard is to counter with 1/2 and meet in the middle. As illustrated in the value of the Dong for eating a street meal, that 10k the merchant won back is quite meaningful. The comedy of the whole bit (for a Westerner) is that in USD, the conversation would have gone like this:

“I’ll sell you this cheeseball tourist hat for US$2.65.”

“No, I’ll pay US$1.75.”

“How about US$2.25?”

“Ok.”

  • Three Vietnamese coffees, or one ridiculously amazing Vietnamese coffee with coconut milk, which is really coconut sorbet (or ice cream), from the ultra-touristy, kitschy communist themed Cong Caphe in Hanoi. Vietnamese coffee is amazing. The grinding and brewing process is very similar to espresso (fine grind, metal filter with perforations, tamped puck), but the difference is the water is gravity fed through a two-chamber pot rather than being pressurized and forced through the coffee. 80/20 Robusta/Arabica seems to be the traditional blend. The result is a strong, smooth (albeit bitter) brew.  Add in the traditional condensed milk to counter the bitterness from the Robusta, and you have a delightful treat. Add “coconut milk” from Cong, and you get a short-lived addiction.

  • Admission into just about any museum in a major city, plus or minus 10k. Typical admission fees are 40k. I found this to be true just about everywhere I went (Ho Chi Minh museum in Hanoi, Women’s museum in Hanoi,  War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, etc.) Admission to Hoi An downtown was slightly more, but it was good for my entire visit and offered entry into 5 attractions in Old Town.

Ho Chi Minh Museum

  • A 150cl bottle of water, if you refuse to haggle! A fellow traveler told me someone actually tried to pull the wool over his eyes and sell him a “big bottle” of water for 50k. To put the atrocity of the 50k price tag into perspective, guesthouse room price for a big bottle is 10k. He quickly countered with 10k and was granted the bottle for what’s probably still a high price.
  • Completely ripped off (if you’re me) for some of the least inspiring street food I had the misfortune of tasting… Sadly, the street corn and root veg (which ended up being tapioca I think) were both simply steamed and lacked any flavor. Most street corn is delicious when cooked husk on, especially when grilled. The sugar from the husk imparts on the kernal and makes for great eating. Not so on this occasion, and somehow she got me for 50k (20k per kg for the root veg + 10k for the corn). Completely duped and not proud to broadcast it.

Maybe tapioca

  • Not to your hostel. A busload of Cat Ba adventurers paid an extra 50k over another transit option to be chauffeured directly to their hostel doors. When the Hanoi Old Quarter closed bus access to rehearse for Obama’s visit (no lie… like this wasn’t planned), they just stopped the bus and had us exit. They didn’t even offer to pay for a taxi to get us to our hostels, which would have cost about the difference in fare over the other transit option… 50k. Nor did they offer a refund. Good thing I needed a 20 minute Frogger hike through Scooterville in 100F weather with 22kgs strapped to my back. I was just thinking I hadn’t sweated enough in the last 4 weeks.

Haggling aside, everyone seemed to be trying to squeeze every possible penny out of tourists. Some tourists are oblivious and unprepared and will pay the quoted price. Other times people will not get the service they paid for (like the bus ride) and are simply out of luck since there is 1) usually a massive language barrier, either real or advantageously feigned by the local (the conversation started fine, then suddenly they couldn’t understand), and 2) no management chain—the network of travel agencies, hostels, hotels, and service providers is heavily layered. Odds are you will never deal with the actual provider, so good luck getting a refund if you don’t think you’ve received what was paid for.

At the end of the day, I didn’t have much to haggle for. There were a few necessities that I needed, and I countered as a tourist should to receive a small discount. I don’t have the luxury of empty luggage space for souvenir shopping, but if markets were my destination, and I was dropping bank bags of moolah, I would have certainly put my haggling pants on.

I usually just ended up seeking markets and restaurants that had prices posted. If prices weren’t posted, I tried to see how much locals were paying. Even if I was paying too much, I knew how much to expect to pay before I went in. Generally, it’s not a bad experience, but not what I would personally classify as fun either. For the bargain shoppers and deal-finders of the world, haggle on… Vietnam (and SE Asia) is your wonderland.

Check out this post (coming soon) to read up on budgeting time and money.