Every single morning in the narrow 283 Pham Ngu Lao alleyway, countless numbers of tourists and locals alike are greeted by sellers of all stripes. Some hawk sunglasses and novelty lighters while others slowly peddle up and down the street with a variety of wares strapped to the backs of their bicycles. On any given day I have at my fingertips many kinds of tropical fruits, house plants, and ice cream.
I rarely engage Vietnamese street sellers in negotiation. I learned a long time ago that the best way to find the cheapest price for any item in Vietnam is to either have a local purchase it for me or to find it at a modern grocery store where prices are listed on all products. While I’ve all but retired from the name your price game here, I absolutely love observing how other travelers play it.
When approached by a persistent seller in Vietnam, the method that I usually employ is to simply look in another direction or to keep walking. In America I consider this fairly rude behavior; after all, my parents taught me to at the very least say “No, Thank You”. But in Vietnam the rules are different, where merely blurting out a “Thanks, but no. Thanks.” is a wide open invitation for a street seller to hook you in.
I was invited to breakfast by another traveler several weeks ago and could not help but find myself amused by the nonverbal stories that she would attempt to tell sellers in order to stave them off. She would open her wallet to show the sellers that she had no more money or wave her sunglasses in the air as if to say “I already have a pair!”.
To the food sellers my companion would rub her stomach and feign pain as if to indicate that eating a bar of ice cream off the back of a bicycle might not be the greatest idea. And to the Vietnamese phrasebook sellers she would with all of her might say “xin chao!” as if to say that she had already learned all that she would need for her brief stay in Vietnam.
These small exchanges between local Vietnamese business people and foreigners usually end in smiles. It need not be spoken that most of the items for sell are not necessities, which makes the game even that much funner.
Indeed, bickering over small chocolate snacks or knock off shades seems a lot more harmless than finding oneself subject to the mercy of little knowledge of the Vietnamese language coupled with the need for, say, medicine. In any event, this is one of the staples of Vietnam that I truly enjoy watching.
On any given day in this nation there will be those who return home frustrated and feeling like they were taken advantage of by unreasonable prices. And for the others, they will have a story to tell about how they talked a Vietnamese seller down to a great price on a faux Gucci.