“Mac Qua!”: Why We Bargain in Vietnam
Bargaining might seem like a strange custom to first time visitors to Vietnam. Most of us are used to the fixed price system in supermarkets and malls, so it may be perplexing to walk into Ben Thanh Market, one of the oldest and largest markets in Saigon, and bargain your way down to half the initial price to get a simple souvenir.
There’s a history behind that.
The Old System
Before the introduction of the price tag, the only way to learn the price of an item was to ask the seller. It was entirely up to the seller to say whatever price they wanted as an invitation to bargain, and the buyer, having a general idea of what it should cost or a benchmark in mind, would adjust their offer accordingly.
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The conversation would and still does go on for as long as one has the patience for it. Some sellers are more firm than others about their pricing strategy, and steadfast buyers can simply walk away when they don’t get the price they want. Sometimes this will make the seller think twice–—they’d rather make a sale for a lesser price than let a competitor get the sale.
Ask the Locals
If you want to learn how to bargain properly and effectively, ask an older Vietnamese person. Bargaining creates an opportunity for personal interaction, as opposed to a more convenient yet more impersonal purchase at a supermarket. This is why Vietnamese people from older generations still enjoy bargaining as a part of their life.
“You can haggle at almost every local store. It’s a common practice”, said Tran Van, a pensioner in his sixties. “For example, when I want to buy a chair I look up the price on the Internet, and then I go to a nearby store and they name a higher price. I’ll haggle until they give me a reasonable price.”
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“Even when there is a price tag on the clothes, I still ask for a lower price to see if they give in”, Le Phuong, a middle-aged housewife added.
Meanwhile, younger people who’ve grown up with fixed prices already commonplace in many stores are more hesitant to bargain.
A group of office girls in their twenties who spoke to #iAMHCMC for this piece said they usually bargain only when going to the market. They feel that haggling in other places is uncomfortable and unwelcome, and they’d rather leave the store in peace. Saving face is more important than saving a few thousand dong, is an apt summary of what these young women shared.
Live Like a Local
Olia Raphaeleva, a young artist from Moscow said she has developed a rough idea of how things are priced after two years living in Vietnam. And with a basic command of Vietnamese phrases—“Bao nhieu?” (“How much”) and “Mac qua!” (“Too expensive!”)—she has become familiar with the process.
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“If the price is not fixed, I can talk about price”, she said with confidence. “As soon as I speak some Vietnamese in a friendly way, and show that I’m interested in buying it, only the price makes me hesitated [sic]. They will give me a lower price.”
When asked what she’d do if the seller refuses to give in, she replied, “I just walk away. They will run after me and tap on my shoulder and I’ll go back and get what I want.”
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Raphaeleva lives in a Hanoi neighborhood unfrequented by tourists. She has a few favorite stores that she often goes to for clothes, groceries and art supplies, and she usually gets a discount from the owner for being a friendly loyal customer.
“I always go to this hairdresser and once she just gave me a free haircut. And this morning, when I walked by the grocery store near my home, the owner bought me a beer. This has happened many times before.”
She noted that wherever she went, in Vietnam or India or Thailand, people tend to assume foreigners are rich, so they are surprised to learn that she also needs to save money and haggle to buy reasonably priced stuff. But since she lives among local people and gets acquainted with them, they start treating her more like a special friend than a foreigner.
It seems that no matter where you come from, you can learn new skills and appreciate different customs, and bargaining is one of those. It is part of life in Vietnam, so don’t be shy and embrace the experience.
Video source: Collin Abroadcast
A Super Brief History of Ben Thanh Market
Ben Thanh Market was first created as an informal gathering of street vendors near Ben Nghe River, now called Saigon River.
The name Ben Thanh came from the location of the market between a river port (“ben”) and Saigon’s ancient citadel (“thanh”), Gia Dinh, which was destroyed by the occupying French in a military struggle that preceded the establishment of the French colony Cochinchina. After the French colonial powers demolished the Gia Dinh citadel in 1859, they formally established Ben Thanh Market, and moved it to the current building in 1912.
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