Friday, May 26, 2006

You never know if the price is right
(But haggle, haggle, haggle, oi, oi, oi!)

Price fighter
Teddy de Burca Jnr. admires the competitive sport of haggling, which is part and parcel of everyday life in Vietnam

I came to Asia wearing sandals, but hanging out in the Bangkok markets I learnt that you had to have your haggle boots on in this fair continent.

The first experiences can be humiliating, in hindsight. You know you looked too keen, “oh my!” you gasped to your partner, “That’s such a cool shirt” she agreed. “How much?” you squeaked. The ‘been-here-seen-this all before’ trader sized you up in an instant and after analysing your enthusiasm, place in the demographic pool, nationality, dress sense, naïve expression and sunburnt nose, he coolly charged you probably about four times the price.
I thought I was smart by saying “oh no you don’t” and knocking a few dollars off the initial quoted price but I still ended up buying it for at least double. After I left there was no high five with his family. He’d seen me coming a mile away and novice western-hagglers are easy pickings.

On arriving in Vietnam, I soon learnt bartering or haggling is a way of life here. At first it seems you get to fight for everything: fruit, xe om fares, rent, electricity bills with your landlord – why I even haggled for oil at a petrol station once; the pump attendant was wearing a handkerchief mask, but I could tell she was smiling when she tried to charge me three times the normal price.
Living here “dat qua” are often the first words you learn, until a Vietnamese friend tells you to say “I’m not a chicken” in Vietnamese, and although you suspect it’s a practical joke and feel pretty stupid saying it in the market, it seems to work.

The locals, if you watch them, are fond of the ‘put the price on the table first’ trick. You might see them pick up a cap then ask how much it is before answering their own question: “VND20,000, phai khong?” for example. This way you’re controlling the haggle, or throwing the first punch, so to speak. The “walk away and expect them to come running after you” trick never really worked for me. It seems invariably sellers are like patient fishermen, she or he knows the big fish will come, sooner or later – sure isn’t one born every minute?

One foreign friend of mine is fond of acting out an entire dialogue. He picks a price he thinks is right, say VND70,000 for a shirt, then he begins, “I’ll give you 35,000 for this”, before answering to himself, “VND35,000? Are you mad? I have a wife and family to feed, it costs VND100,000!”, “VND100,000?” he continues. “You should be wearing a mask you barefaced bandit! I’ll give you VND40,000 and that’s my final offer”, and so on, until he ends by slapping down VND70,000 on the table. Admittedly his success ration is well below 50 per cent, but worth a shot if you don’t mind making a complete spectacle of yourself.

Another foreigner told me he decided to take a Vietnamese colleague along to the cloth market, Cho Hom, on Pho Hue street - just presuming she would know the price, as if all Vietnamese women were born with a price list of fruit, shoes and clothes, swimming around their happy heads. It ended in disaster. He knew he was being overcharged but the Vietnamese colleague foolishly agreed on a price with the trader. He stormed off thinking she was right behind him. When he found her 10 minutes later she was in tears holding the large bag of cloth that he had been haggling for. After he had fled the sellers had – she said – bullied her into buying it.

But despite this sob story (not to mention all the times you were taken to the cleaners) haggling is an art form and a battle to be admired: The opening gambits. The outrageous first price. Your insulting offer in reply. The glowering looks. That feeling of the begrudging respect from the trader as you play hardball. The nods of approval from passers by when you finally score a kilo of mangoes (even though you only wanted one single fruit) for roughly the right price (but not necessarily the right weight).

Despite this, I must admit, increasingly, I find myself hanging around supermarkets and staring at fixed price tags on market streets, but years from now, I hope I can still pull off the gloves and do my “Marvelous Marvin Haggler” routine because sometimes, as we all know, there’s a thrill in not knowing if the price is right.

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