One of the big tourist spots in Sai Gon is Ben Thanh Market — it’s a large flea market that is a shopper’s nightmare and paradise all in one. If you like to negotiate and bargain, it’s the place for you. But if you bruise easily — mentally and physically, mabye it’s not your cup of tea. Especially before new years, it’s crowded and you can expect you’re gonna get bumped into, pushed, stepped on, etc.
There are stalls and stalls of merchants many of which sell the EXACT same things at outrageously different prices. For example, the same souvenir starts at 25.000VND at one place will start at 10.000VND. (Note: 17.500VND = 1USD) Ok, maybe that’s not so outrageous… but when you’re thinking in THOUSANDS of Dong, it seems like a lot more than it actually is. Keep in mind, a lunch from a street vendor costs from 15k – 30k. So, I did the same thing I did in China… pick a place at random, bargain it down to where I walk away and they aren’t calling me back and now I’ve got my low point. Now that I know the low point, it’s a point of reference for future bargaining. At markets like these — especially high tourist attractions — the mark-ups are extraordinary. Here’s where mental stamina is necessary —
- you have to be patient and willing to hit several places if you really want to get a good price
- you have to know how much you’re willing to pay and stick to your price.
- you’re gonna face some pretty hard sales, people swarming you, people clinging, people following you, and sometimes people insulted by your low offer. You have to be able to withstand it
- you might think you got a great deal one day (e.g. my mom thought she did an excellent job bargaining down to 100k) but the next day hit another vendor selling it for cheaper (in her case 50k — half as much!). Over and over again we’d go from one vendor to another and see lower and lower prices… it was SO aggravating — particularly when we bought bulk at a higher price.
My brother had a whole new tactic. Every where we went and everyone we spoke to always commented that he looked like a foreigner. We all look like foreigners to Vietnamese in Viet Nam — we’re what’s called Viet Kieu — Vietnamese who immigrated away. However, my brother wasn’t even thought to be Vietnamese at all. This, my brother quickly learned, worked in his favor. His gig was to bargain in English as a half Thai / half Chinese living in America. This was pure genius! As the vendors consulted each other in Vietnamese, my brother understood everything! He knew when they’d be willing to make the sale, how much profit they’d be making, etc. It was hilarious! One night, he was mid-bargaining (in English) and pretty close at getting his asking price (and enjoying the inside Vietnamese conversation amongst the sales people). Then my mom, finished with her night’s shopping, walks up to my brother and hands him the money leftover from her purchases. My mom… who is CLEARLY Vietnamese… handing money to my bro who is supposedly half Thai / half Chinese… the gig was up! =)
Besides the shopping and the eating in Ben Thanh Market, one day we saw a huge crowd starting to form. Apparently, what happened was a thief pickpocketed from the city and ran into the market hoping to get lost in the crowd. The guy was smart though. He changed he took off his shirt while in the market. As he was running, he was calling out "THIEF!" making it seem like he was chasing after the thief himself. About 5 minutes later, the crowd barely dissipated when it formed back up again… they caught him! A handful of cops, had cuffs on him and were leading him back through the Ben Thanh Market hands behind his back. I’m sure in part this was meant to be a lesson for all to see as well as reassurance to tourists — thieves beware and tourists be at ease, for the VN cops are on top of it!
Besides that incident, VN seems to be a much much safer place than 6 years ago when I was myself almost the victim of purse-snatching. It was even worse 8-10 years ago when my mom saw a guy getting pick-pocketted right in front of her while her friend whispered in her ear quietly, "Don’t scream or he might hurt you." These days VN enjoys and values tourists and what it does for their economy so these petty thefts have diministed quite a bit. I noticed a large number of tourists in Sai Gon, many of whom walked obliviously with backbags on their back, digital SLRs dangling around their necks and faces in a street map and they were perfectly ok. I’m glad Sai Gon is more inviting to tourists these days. It’s a beautiful city and more of the world should see it.