Bargaining in Vietnam: A useful guide

How many times have you seen a most wonderful thing in a market stall, asked the price, then been astounded by how much it is, and simply walked away, only to have the person shouting after with the price dropping dramatically by the second? If this has happened to you and you want to change it so that you are the person leading the bargaining, then please read on!

Bargaining tip #1: Attitude

The most important thing with bargaining is your attitude. Never try to bargain when you are in a rush or when you have an absolute must shopping list (e.g., you are back off home tomorrow and need gifts for everyone.) In such situations, you will easily be irritated when the prices are too high and you will up being aggressive rather than a negotiator. 

Many expats are not accustomed to bargaining and some state that it is manipulative to bargain as an expat is able to afford the full asking price. This, however, is not the cultural norm and is nothing to do with getting a real discount. Instead, in a bargaining process, the stall owner decides on the price they want and then greatly elevates that price until it comes down to the price they had in mind or higher. 

So how to get started? Ideally, you will have an approximate idea of the normal asking price. It is worthwhile popping into fixed price (i.e. items with price tags) shops so that you can start to see the range of prices. It is important not to translate back into dollars or pounds, as that will make it seem incredibly cheap and make you pay way above the average. Instead, compare the price in Vietnamese dong to local goods such as a cup of coffee so that you have an idea of the relative price. 

Bargaining tip #2: Speak Vietnamese

When talking about the price with the stallholder, it is important to use Vietnamese dong instead of pounds or dollars. In this way, you are able to talk about much smaller amounts as adding 1 dollar means adding 20,000 Vietnamese dong, whereas if you are bargaining in dong you can manoeuvre in sets of 5 or 10, 000.

If there is something that you really do want in a market stall then do not let the owner know that you are interested in that item. Instead pretend to be interested in something else, then dismiss the price of that item, and then causally look at the wanted item (as if it is an afterthought.) It is important that the stall owner does not know how interested you are in an item otherwise they will overprice it.

If you have a splattering of Vietnamese, it helps your bargaining as it shows that you are not just a tourist and thereby are not willing to pay tourist prices which are much more expensive. To ask the price you need to ask “Bao nhieu? (Baow nyew). It is great if you can learn the numbers as well :

  • 1 = Mot (moth)
  • 2 = Hai
  • 3 = ba
  • 4 = bon (Bumh)
  • 5 = Nam
  • 6 = Sau
  • 7 = Bay
  • 8 = Tam
  • 9 = Chin
  • 10 = Muoi

To make numbers above 10, you simply put the two numbers together, so for example, 50 would be nam muoi, which literally translates to five ten.

If this is too difficult then you can also use fingers to show the price as well as the calculator (every stallholder will have one). 

Bargaining rules

As a basic rule, the first number that the stall owner will offer will be about 40 % over the price you want to pay. Remember that the process of bargaining is fun. Bargain with a smile on your face and start by looking at the item carefully to find a flaw – it doesn’t really matter what the flaw is; you are simply pointing it out to use as a negotiation tool. Examples may include the thickness of the material, any rough areas, any unfinished areas etc. 

In the bargaining process, the seller will start with an overinflated high price and you start with an exaggerated low price. Slowly you start to come together, one side and then the other giving an offer, which is rejected until you come to a middle ground that both parties are happy with. 

Whilst you are offering suggested prices, look to see the reaction of the seller- you will be able to see if you are coming up from your low starting point too quickly or too slowly. If the seller agrees very quickly, e.g. after your first price suggestion, then you have pitched it too high and the seller is selling it at a huge profit. If the seller gets to a certain price and then will not move from that price for a while, then you are pitching too low and need to increase your offer. 

When you are in the closing stages of your bargaining, it helps to show the actual money as an incentive – saying, for example, I will take it now for XXX Vietnamese dong. In addition, looking as if you will walk away is a useful technique – often as you turn to walk off you will find that the market stall seller will drop the price to the last price you offered. 

Overall, bargaining is a game of tactics – a useful skill for shopping in Vietnam, so get out there and experiment- who knows what bargain you will be able to get ?


Gracie Nguyen

To have good luck is a skill Not knowing how to seize opportunities is also a form of incompetence.

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To have good luck is a skill Not knowing how to seize opportunities is also a form of incompetence.