How to Haggle in Saigon in 10 Steps

By: City Pass Guide

Bargaining with anyone can be a daunting prospect, but haggling over cheap, overpriced produce in one of Saigon’s hot and sticky marketplaces completely takes the cake. Southeast Asia is known for its individual traders and their unique, inflated prices. The art of bargaining to a fair trade - without blowing steam out of your ears and losing your ability to speak quietly - is the mark of someone either well-travelled or with the patience of an angel.

Bargaining can be rough, but to the professional negotiator it’s the biggest rush of all. There is a certain pleasure in walking out of Ben Thanh Market with your “I <3 Saigon” top bought for a nice, tidy VND 40,000, and knowing that you are a master of your trade. A cutthroat haggler, a hustler both in earning and in spending money. Head back to good old Bui Vien for a nice, cold beer with all that un-scammed money (and guess what - you deserve it!). Effective bargaining in Saigon is an enviable skill.

But how exactly does one learn this skill? Well here are some tips to get you started...

1. Relax and Play the Game

This is not a battle, it’s an art. An experienced hustler can spot stress from a mile away, so walking into a local market with guns blazing and eyebrows clenched is not the best way to start a positive and fair negotiation. When you come in contact with a product that you want that does not have a fixed price, take a few seconds to relax and get into the zone before making your first move. It’s like poker. You have to play your opponent; tease them, joke with them, distract them, and at the last minute swoop in with a cutthroat offer and a final, determined flick of the nose, and you’ll have them. Easy. Then take your purchase, keep your change, and walk out for that nice cold beer.

Video source: Collin Abroadcast

2. Speak the Lingo

This helps a lot - I’m not talking about fluency here and there is no pressure to pronounce your words like a local, but a few phrases of relevant Vietnamese will help you a ton when bargaining in one of Saigon’s bustling marketplaces. As you approach a stall and start considering its contents, you wait… wait… and just as the stallholder is about to address you, you whip around and fire a nice, tidy “bao nhiêu?” and watch as they register your masterful Vietnamese. Knowing a few words in the local language will seriously help with your haggling ability, and here are a few must-knows to get you started:

a. Bao nhiêu? (baow new) - How much?

b. Mắc quá! (mack wa!) - So expensive!!

c. Rẻ hơn (reh hern) - Cheaper

d. Có màu khác không? (cor mau khack khom?) - Do you have a different colour?

e. Không (khom) - No

f. Dạ (ya) - Yes

g. Được (dooc) - Ok

3. Don't Just Assume You Are Being Scammed

As common as rip-offs are in Saigon, particularly in the local markets, the reality is that not everyone wants to scam you. You can never know if you’re being ripped off unless you already know what the price should be. It can be easy to assume you are being treated unfairly when in reality the stall vendor you are negotiating with is giving you the same price that she charges everyone every single day! The trick is to look around before you buy, to ask other people how much they spent on the same product, or to first find out the local price.

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4. Come Prepared

As mentioned above, it can be so useful to come prepared with a general understanding of local prices and procedures before you go to buy anything in Saigon. There are a few unofficial rules to shopping in this crazy metropolis - some more sociable than others - and knowing how they work will give you an edge in your bargaining.

First, don’t bother with queues. If you wait your turn here you will never get a turn, because the general rule is that if you want to be served you have to push in and bother the stallholder louder than everyone else. If you don’t they simply won’t notice you, or will pretend not to, and you will find yourself waiting politely while the whole world goes before you.

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Another rule is to pay attention to how you exchange money and receive your purchase. In Vietnam there are a few polite traditions that will make purchases that much more amicable. The first is how to give or take an item - using both hands indicates respect for the person you are talking with. The second is how you speak. The words “dạ” and “ừ" both mean yes, but the first indicates respect and the second should only be used with people your age or younger.

5. Don’t Look Like You Want It

If you can manage to look nonchalant and indifferent, maybe even walk away, your vendor is more likely to drop their price. This isn’t always the case - I’ve been in many situations where walking away has lost me both the product I wanted to buy and my dignity - but for the most part, pretending to walk off like you don’t really want it anyway will make your stallholder reconsider their price. If it isn’t working, you either have to pay what they want or hope the same product is being sold elsewhere! Which it probably is. Or else go back the day after with the kind of determination that would knock over a very solid horse.

6. Browse Before You Bargain

Saigon’s markets are like Metro - super chaotic, super useful, full of the most bizarre things and potentially super cheap. But their most defining quality is that many of the stalls sell exactly the same products as the one next to them. Weird huh? But very useful. When you are browsing a market in Saigon, looking to buy something and preparing to bargain like a pro, ask a few different stallholders for their prices before choosing the lowest one. Chances are if that striped bag you have your eye on is VND 50,000 from the lady by the door, it will be VND 40,000 at the next stall. Browse before you bargain.

7. Know When to Quit

Sometimes you’ve just got to accept that the price, though not exactly “right”, is not going to budge. If you’ve haggled, joked, thrown in some sneaky Vietnamese and even walked away like you don’t care anyway and there is STILL no change in price, chances are you’re just going to have to fork out. Don’t be angry, just accept that this is how things work. It’s a game remember? Not a fight!

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8. Don’t Apologise

Don’t say sorry, don’t explain and don’t elaborate unnecessarily. This stallholder doesn’t need (or want) to know why you can’t pay a price, why you need five of that shirt, where you have to go and why you must be quick - all they need to know is that you want this number of this thing at this price and you are not negotiating! Be firm in your demands, though not rude. To show your opponent that you are not afraid to spar, you need to hold your sword with a steady hand. Wobble in your resolve, and you’ve already lost.

9. Look at the Bright Side

Even if you don’t end up getting the price you want, a nice healthy session of vigorous bargaining is still totally worth it. Why? Well, for all those budding linguists out there it is a chance to practise your Vietnamese skills! Not a linguist? Well think about it this way - whether you paid too much or not, you just supported the Saigon economy… No? Ok, well either way you got what you paid for! Right? Still not seeing the bright side? Well, at the end of the day true bargaining finess all comes down to one thing - practise.

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10. Practise

The key to becoming a haggling pro is practise. Treat each bargaining session as a chance to hone your craft. Learn from what happens, and adjust until one day you are so wonderfully manipulative that all you have to do is look at a bag from the corner of your eye for the stall vendor to give it to you at half price. Visit the various markets around Saigon. Ben Thanh is the most famous, a tourist hot spot and perhaps the most cutthroat of all markets in HCMC when it comes to negotiation; Saigon Square is less terrifying and home to a lot of really cute pieces of fashion; then there’s Cho Lon - a more local, authentic marketplace. For some fresh fruit and veg a great little local spot slap bang in the middle of the tourist area is Thai Binh Market on the corner of Pham Ngu Lao and Cong Quynh.

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