The Magic Word
“Hey you, handsome boy, you have nice smile! Where you from? You have girlfriend?”
Wow, you may think, are all Vietnamese women so charming?
It’s a fun encounter for all travellers to Vietnam; being approached by the owners of market stalls who want to sell you their wares. While it comes as a shock at first, gradually you can’t help but get sucked in by the Vietnamese charm and cheekiness (and it doesn’t hurt to get a few compliments now and then, does it?).
The stall holder will attempt to connect with you and try to convince you to follow them to take a look at their stall. It’s quite an experience to go with the stall owner through the maze of lanes at the markets; the cacophony of noise, smells and colours lure your senses. On the way, other stall holders beckon you to come to them and take a look at their wares.
There’s an unspoken rule here among the stall owners: If you look at a stall for five seconds, it must mean you definitely want to buy something.
That’s it. From there, the charm and fun begin.
Arriving at the stall, a tailor’s stall, you realise that you don’t need another pair of Vietnamese tailored shorts.
No matter, the stall owner will tell you, your girlfriend might need one.
No? Some new shoes would do you some good. Pick from these shoes here.
The rookie mistake for anyone new to Vietnam: not knowing how to say “no”. If you don’t want one thing, they’ll find something else they think you’ll need. Once they go through a few of their wares, they’ll start offering items persistently at lower and lower prices the more you say “no”.
Because here “no” doesn’t mean no. It means you’re playing a game. You’re actually saying “maybe” but you’re looking for a better deal.
Eventually, you succumb to the charm and pressure and you feel you must buy something that you actually don’t want. Don’t worry; it happens to most travellers here. Think of it as an initiation or a souvenir from your first Vietnamese market visit. Also, you’re helping someone make a living.
How do you get around it you ask?
That’s the tricky thing: You shouldn’t say “no” at all.
Not in English or French anyway. It doesn’t work. The key is to say “no” in Vietnamese: “Kom can” or “no need”. It also helps to hold your hand up at the same time. Be firm and polite.
That’s the weird thing, the minute you say “no” in Vietnamese, the seller walks away. They’ll persist if you say it in English or French, but when you say it in Vietnamese, it works.
It’s almost like magic.
The great thing about travelling in Vietnam is that not only do you get to meet and have great experiences with the charming, cheeky and friendly locals; Vietnam helps you to develop your confidence if you’re lacking it. You will quickly learn to be firm but polite and radiate confidence. Even though learning how to say “no” is the most trivial of things, you’ll feel two inches taller. Otherwise, without confidence you’ll come across more difficulties during your trip.
If you’re actually interested in buying something, you get to haggle! Many people seem to be adverse to this, as I was at first, but it’s so much fun and simple too.
If you want to buy something, a little souvenir Buddha statue for example, take the following steps:
- Ask the owner how much it is. I recommend having an app on your phone to convert Vietnamese dong to your local currency so you know how much you’re spending.
- With the price in mind, have another look at the souvenir to see if its quality matches the price. Usually, it won’t in a market stall (although it’s already very cheap for Westerners, the owner will give you a price that is much more than the item is actually worth).
- Offer the owner a very low price, way lower than you’re actually happy to pay (don’t go too far down). This is part of the game.
- Usually, the owner will try to get you to bring the price up. Keep negotiating and pushing the price up from your original offer until you reach your ideal price.
Normally, it’s quite straight forward at this point and you’ll get that little souvenir Buddha you’ve always wanted. One thing you could do if you go slightly above your ideal price is to introduce another item and try to get a “two for one” deal since you’re paying more.
If the owner still says no to the highest price you’re willing to pay, you will have to bring out the big guns:
5. Take another look at the item, and feign that it’s obviously not worth it. Thank the owner and begin walking away. As a rule, (if you negotiated up to a decent price) the owner will come chasing after you and give you the price you wanted or a better deal. It’s all part of the game.
That’s it! You’ll walk out with that little Buddha statue, which you’ve grown quite attached to in the process, with a grin from ear to ear and a confident strut: Your first successful haggle.
Enjoy the street markets and remember: When you get hit on in Vietnam, it’s not always because of your good looks; the stall holders, or others, are trying to make you feel good and connect with you so that you’ll buy something. There are always exceptions of course. Once, I was eating in a hotel restaurant and the waitress serving my food told me that she found me handsome and stared at me while I was trying to eat. Locals also ask you often if you’re single; they’re not coming on to you it’s just a cultural thing. It’s a very normal question to ask strangers. At the markets please remember that everything is already really, really cheap in Vietnam so don’t be too stingy. The people you’re buying from are trying to earn a living like everyone else. Also keep an eye out that you’re handing over the right amount of money, many of the Vietnamese notes look quite similar. In my experience the locals are usually honest if you make a mistake but you should be careful.
Below you’ll find a list of useful Vietnamese phrases, written out so they’re easy for you to pronounce, that really come in handy in the marketplace:
How much is...?
It's too expensive
Ya (south) / Vang (north)
Excuse me/ I'm sorry