Friday, June 19, 2009


Clearly done with bargaining for the day
I have my first pet peeve. It's not with the traffic or the noise, it's with a recurring conversation I keep having with Vietnamese friends and aquaintances that goes something like this:

Hal: How much should I pay for x?
VN friend: Well, for me it would only cost x. But for you...

Wait, what's with this "for me, for you" crap? I understand the concept of "skin tax" (extra money paid by people with white skin), but that doesn't mean I'm willing to pay it! So stop taking the practice for granted by quoting me two prices!

My friends' instincts, however, are rooted in two basic assumptions, both of which contain a kernal of truth. 

First is the assumption that all Vietnamese merchants hike their prices at the first sight of white skin. This certainly happens often enough - maybe even most of the time. I know when the fruit lady in the market looks at me with dollar signs in her eyes, that I'm about to get a mangosteen up my rear as far as she can shove it. But this is rarely a problem. So long as I have a sense of what an accurate price should be, I'm protected - though there is the occasional vendor who will absolutely refuse to sell me something at local-market rates. I suppose she considers it a matter of principal. No matter; I usually find someone else.

The second assumption is based on the stereotyped view that westerners can't, or are unwilling to, bargain. Like the first assumption, this also contains an element of truth. In my experience, these non-bargaining Westerners fall into two categories: the angry ones, and the indifferent ones.

To understand the angry Westerner, you have to watch a couple of Vietnamese go at it in the local market. They bargain hard - the merchant offering a starting price, the shopper turning the piece of fruit around a few times in her hand, the vendor offering up another sample for the shopper to consider. They may or may not smile, but both parties clearly understand their expected roles, and the transaction is conducted without tension.

Now watch an angry Westerner and a Vietnamese merchant go at it. The Vietnamese fires off the same opening line, but the Westerner, certain she is being ripped off, is tense, wary, possibly even rude. The merchant, who was simply playing a market game, doesn't understand the Westerner's anger. Things escalate, and sadly, an opportunity for cross-cultural bonding, even at a rudimentary level, is lost.

One of the benefits of having traveled and lived in so many so-called "developing" countries is that I long ago learned that bargaining, whether in Vietnam, South Africa, or Peru, is first and foremost a social act. The market is a place where important social relationships are nurtured, and news and gossip exchanged. I remember a young Mayan woman years ago in a Chiapas market, next to a basket with two or three oranges. Thinking I was doing her a favor, I offered to buy them from her, and she refused. She explained to me that if she sold them, she would have to go home. For this young woman, a day at the market had to do with a lot more than selling oranges.

Bargaining is rooted in this sense of the marketplace. The vendor's price is the opening act in a ritualized play that serves a social as well as economic purpose. The proper response is to smile, shake your head, give the merchant or taxi driver a knowing look, as if to say, "Uh uh, buddy, I'm on to you." Come back with a counter-offer. They counter, you counter, eventually you get to a price that leaves both of you smiling. 

The angry Westerner doesn't get this. The indifferent one does. This person understands the cultural value of bargaining, but simply doesn't want to participate in it. These are the people who pay above-market prices with an attitude of, "these twenty cents mean a lot more to the taxi driver than they do to me." Personally, I like these folks more than the Westerners who constantly feel they're being ripped off. But I would argue that they are doing everyone a disservice. 

Foreigners are basically inflationary. Our willingness to pay more for goods and services pushes up the price of those goods for everyone. I've seen Bangkok taxis practically roll over well-dressed middle-class Thais to grab some hippy backpacker on a street corner. I've seen Guatemalan weavers refuse to sell clothing in their local village because they could get more in the travelers' ghetto of Panajachel. In any particular transaction, it's true that twenty cents mean more to the merchant or taxi driver than they do to me, but in the aggregate, overpaying hurts the people whose wages correspond to the local costs. 

This is why I bargain for everything when I travel. I want my Vietnamese friends to understand this, and to tell me the correct local prices for things, so I can go into the marketplace with ammunition. The savings are less important to me than the bonds I form, and the economic footprints I leave behind. 

That's the opinion I'm peddling today. If you don't like the price, make me an offer...


  1. loved your thoughts Hal. I'm usually the angry westerner, knowing there's another price, and irritated they're applying the skin tax--even when I know the language. Sounds like you're having more great experiences.
    -Joel G.

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  3. You're writing is too good to be limited to a small blog audience. If you could tie all these posts together throw in a little more character development maybe add some espionage and an evil villain you just might sell a couple of books.

  4. I also think Vietnam is an extreme example of the hard edge of Vietnamese/Chinese culture. If you're not in the circle somehow, family, town or nation - your out there as a walking target. It is not simply offering over priced fruit at the market, but being short-changed, over-charged, having plates stacked with food you did not order and then being charged, having the currency manipulated to your disadvantage, it goes on and on and on.

    It's the mindset of the common people to the other in their midst. Being double priced, cheated, shortchanged is the norm. In my time in Vietnam - I would say 1/2 of the transactions, the simplest of non bartering transactions, like buying a bowl of soup were questionable. No prices are posted. I'm a pretty seasoned traveler, and I found the place stressful. Sometimes I just wanted to eat lunch and not "bargain" with the owner over the price the price that changed from the time I order to the time the bill arrived.

  5. Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance ... You're at the halfway point!

  6. Excellent incite into the finesse of Vietnamese bartering.