|Ben Thanh Market is one of the oldest (and most highly valued) buildings in Saigon, and it’s huge, crowded, and fascinating.|
Learning how to haggle successfully has been one of the most infuriatingly difficult obstacles to enjoying Markets. But let me make one thing clear: Markets are the most interesting and reliable places to buy a wide assortment of things, all under one roof.
That means no jetting around on your moto/bike with increasingly heavy loads and/or slowly putt-putting along until you find the one half-hidden shop that you’ve heard has what you need! Meanwhile, central markets will often speak in a little English, and are quite anxious to help you… if they think they can make a profit.
Unwanted touching, a lack of common knowledge, and complicated social interactions outside your native language… there’s a lot for an introvert to dread about going to Market in a new country, but you know what? It’s totally doable. And the more comfortable you become at market, the faster you’ll discover new things, people, situations, and more – Vietnam’s bustling, dense, and outright sunny street culture is nowhere more reflected than in the local market.
At first, market is a hectic, nonsense sea of insanity, with people reaching and grasping like the zombie lake in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and you’re certain you’ll drown in a mass of soggy language difficulties and have no chance of escape.
Yes. You are correct to feel that way. This is precisely what is happening. It’s pretty overwhelming at first (or every time, really).
However, you can mitigate it! You carry unknown, invisible weapons and defenses, and they are remarkably effective! Armed with preparation and knowledge, you, too, can enjoy the market. I promise.
First of all, here’s a map I annotated for Ben Thanh’s layout. This sign is old, but it’s still mostly accurate:
Let me give you the run-down of how I approach market spaces:
1. Don’t Panic
Yes, Douglas Adams’ eternal advice is just as relavant here: don’t panic. Stay calm. They may seem like they’re going to detain you indefinitely, but in reality they are just one thing: remarkably proficient sellers. That’s why they’re here, after all. And engaging you so directly, perhaps even grabbing physically in the process, is a remarkably successful sales technique for tongue-tied foreigners entering what might be their first-ever Marketplace. If you’re not into touching, shrug it off and move on. Everyone knows what that signal means (“No, I do not desire your humorous yet overpriced silk-screened gem of a t-shirt. Not today, pal… not today.”)
In all cases, act like they’re not even there and keep your eyes up and over the heads of the people in front of you, like you’re looking for a seller or vendor up ahead. Maybe you aren’t, but if you come here with more specific things in mind, this technique shaves a lot of time and unwanted social interaction. In and Out is my motto for these places.
2B. Know What You Want and Come Prepared (if you can)
Ok, so you don’t like it. That’s understandable. Even more, you’re basically a modern-day HERO for getting in alive. Plaques an’ medals an’ shit, my friend. You can do this. It only gets easier from here on out!
Step TWOBEE is simply… have a printout or a google image search with a picture of what you want. So Simple.
NOT2B. Just Browsing
You’re also a hero, but just use the scanning-up-ahead trick to deflect queries and grabs. Keep in mind that it’s still quite rude to grab someone, even in a market – it’s ok to feel annoyance. They’re out of line.
Additionally, you don’t need to make conversation, if that isn’t your thing. Many sellers get buddy-buddy with you in order to gauge your interest and create an atmosphere where you feel pressured to buy. If you like making conversations, make sure you’re equally at home with the phrase “Khong mua” [sounds like: ‘COmb MOO-ah’] which translates to “no buy” – the resulting shock of hearing a legit Vietnamese phrase out of a foreigners mouth usually gives you enough time to smile a dazzling smile and slide away down a side aisle.
Alternately, simply not saying anything and pretending you’re mute is remarkably effective.
3. Locate Your Prey
I like to go to Market with goals in mind, because it is ALL TOO EASY to get overwhelmed… even after a year and a half of time in the culture. Look around and then approach a seller who doesn’t seem to pushy and is yet clearly successful. They can either point you in the right direction, satisfy you with their current stock, or (and this is most likely) get it for you and sell it back to you from a different stall for a slightly higher price. (I have several stalls where I allow a little bit of this last one, because I have good relationships with the shopowners. But not too much!)
4. Go In For the Acquaintance
You have discovered that which you have been seeking. Congratulations. The battle is basically over. The difference between you and the seller is that you, the buyer, think that the battle is just beginning, but the Seller is aware that this is already the mid-point. Their reaction hinges on what you do next:
Point at your prey, with it’s pretty Vietnamese colors and finishes, and say “Xin Chao! Bao Nhieu?” (“Good Day, How much?”)
5. Lay Down Some Funky Math on this Salesperson
You know your numbers, because you’re an individual that prepares (unlike me, who just arrived in this country with no language and no job). This is your disarming weapon #1. This poor salesperson has no idea how much Vietnamese you know now, but you know Numbers, which is more than 90% of foreigners know.
The result is that you’re now a human being in this situation. She gives you a price she desires for what you desire… You have the upper hand. USE IT.
If you are in Ben Thanh (and there is no sign that says “all prices final” or likewise), do this:
6a. “We’re Having a Good Time Now! Ha HA!”: The Backslapping/Haggling Phase
You’re in charge now. You have something you want (but not too visibly! Try not to make a big deal about it! You’re a foreigner and thus completely unpredictable, like a wild animal… use it) and they’ve given you a price.
Cut that offer in half. HALF, I SAID!
That’s right. Of course, this is not the price you’ll pay. But the upshot is that you’ll probably get tears of laughter out of your seller. Probably not tears of laughter as in “How could he even ask so little for what I’m selling” but “Oh My god, this foreigner has GUTS and now they’re going to actually, FOR REAL, gonna haggle! I can’t wait to tell my mother this story. Let’s do it!”
From here on out, haggle, going up a little at a time, until the seller is at about 75% of the original asking price or thereabouts. REMEMBER: Their job is to get you to agree to as high a price as possible. Your job is to get it for a relatively reasonable price while not making them hate foreigners like you. Play this like a game and you will both have a great transaction.
75% is both a reasonable markup (for quality items that you’re excited to buy) plus a small (reasonable) commission for the seller. It seems to work for me… whether I’m getting ripped off or not is up for debate, but it’s so damn cheap I don’t mind either way.
6b: Accept, unless you’re fluent or especially ballsy
If you’re in another market:
You now have succeeded in buying something at a Vietnamese Market. I enjoy Ben Thanh now because I usually know where I can go to get the gifts that I want to buy, but other markets often yield unsuspecting gems. I know that the market near my house is a wildly eclectic place full of things you’d never suspect would be at market, and full of people that will never expect you to be at market.
(The unpredictability of many Western tourists is sometimes alarming for Vietnamese, so showing up somewhere that people like you wouldn’t normally go is also a great tactic for getting a ‘local’ rate.)
6c: This Is Too Much…
Go home to your hotel. Drink a cool fruit drink. Pair it with some spring rolls or a mid-afternoon nap. You deserve it. The Market is magical and full of everything you need, but it is also super scary from a social point of view. I completely understand. *petpetpet* *kissyourbrow*
Come back tomorrow, or later, you’ll enjoy it! I promise. Or don’t, and opt for ice cream instead. Both are great.
7: Go again later in your trip
Seriously, sometimes, you just have to go do it again, like a crappy thrill ride. This time you know what to expect, where the salespeople come out from (spoiler: it’s from behind the stacks of t-shirts!!), and, most importantly, you know what is for sale.
Ben Thanh is great for tourists because
- Many shop owners speak English
- There’s a wide variety of things available
- It’s a mix of on-demand tourist stuff and common household items for locals
- Haggling is mostly accepted. If they don’t haggle, a sign will sometimes be posted up near the roof of the stall.