How to get a good price when haggling in Asia by dismissing cultural stereotypes

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I didn’t grow up in Australia even though I was born there. My parents travelled when I was very young and I actually grew up in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and other such remote places. My fifth birthday present was a hand-carved dug-out outrigger canoe. English was practically my second language because we lived in the remote highlands of New Guinea with no other white people for hundreds of miles. As such, I subconsciously understood that non-verbal communication means a lot. Haggling and bartering were skills I learned before I knew how to cross the road on my own. Whether it was trading fish-hooks for papaya or getting the best price on some beaded jewellery, I became an expert at it. I understood that if I wanted something, it had a price, and that price was totally negotiable and depended on how I acted and what I had to offer. I once traded a broken camera for a beautiful carved shark with mother of pearl teeth because the locals thought it was cool that the flash still worked and none of them had ever owned a camera before, even one that couldn’t take pictures. I still have that shark. It’s gorgeous.

Recently a discussion came up on an expat Facebook group about “getting ripped off” just because you were white. In Vietnam especially, that’s sort of the way things work. A local gets one price and a foreigner gets another. But that’s not because the locals are assholes and you’re a “walking ATM” as people always like to say. It’s partly because they think you can afford to pay more and you shouldn’t you care about a few cents or a few dollars extra. And you shouldn’t. But people often do. A lot. The other reason is that, quite frankly, you’re a pain in the arse to deal with. No, really. Have you ever worked in a busy shop in a western country and some Asian person has walked in looking confused with a Japanese to English dictionary in their hand and you’ve thought “Oh here we go. That’s just what I need. I don’t get paid enough to deal with this shit” ? You have, haven’t you ? Well, now you know what it’s like when the tables are turned. Keep that in mind.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve proven that time and time again. I remember when Yi and I first moved to Go Vap in Saigon. One of the first things I wanted to do was visit the markets. Not the clothing and other rubbish markets… the local fresh food markets. We went out together and bought some groceries and came home. She’d never lived in that area so she didn’t know the prices any more than I did. But the second time she went out by herself and returned home saying “You know, when I go by myself I get a much better price than when I’m with you”. “Naturally,” I said. “Foreigner tax”. But for the next week, I went out to the markets all on my own. At first the locals thought it was funny. They were bemused. But then they were surprised when I knew how to say “tomato” and “potato” and “chicken” and “pork” in Vietnamese. Their eyebrows went up. They tittered amongst themselves. And the price went down. They gave me a little bit of due respect for trying what most people don’t. Sometimes I even got some freebies. I’d pay for my groceries and they’d hand me my change and then pause and hand me a cabbage, or throw a large red chilli into my bag and smile and say “phi” (free), and of course I would bow a little and smile happily and thank them graciously.

There was one point where I was back in District 1 and I wanted some onions and Yi said “I’ll get them. You’ll pay too much” and I said “How much do you pay ?” and she replied “21,000 a kilo”. I said “I’ll go”, and I went into the alleyway and bought the onions. I came back and said “Guess what ? Only 20,000 for me”. She looked puzzled. I added “You may have lived in this area for six years, but you don’t shop in this alley. I’ve only been here for three, but I’ve been shopping at that same store almost every day. I’m a regular. You’re not”. It didn’t matter that I was white and could only speak a little Vietnamese. Because to the shopkeeper, I was more local than my wife was.

During this rather negative discussion on Facebook in which expats and locals argued back and forth about “dual economies” and how Vietnamese people were always out to scam the foreigners, which was at times rather bitter, someone said something about how when they were living in rural parts of Vietnam and they had no common language, they would just point to or pickup what they wanted and then hand the stall-owner money and let them decide how much change to give. They said that they never got ripped off, because they eventually learned what things were worth and it was the same price. Another person said that from what they’d read on expat forums it seemed that the people who complained about being ripped off the most were the ones who DID get ripped off the most, most likely because of their negative attitude.

It reminded me of what really matters when you’re dealing with a price negotiation in a foreign country, and that’s respect, trust, and an understanding that the vast majority of communication is non-verbal. Let me deal with that last one again with an example.

I once lived in a big expat house in Vietnam, and one resident wanted to get the guy who delivered the huge water bottles to carry them upstairs for him (to the fourth floor). I warned him the guy was not going to speak a word of English and that he should not confuse the matter by trying to speak at all and communicate only through body language. I told him “If you try and speak, he will shake his head in confusion and want to just go away. He won’t try and understand you. But if you are silent and just use body language he will attempt to understand what you’re saying”. I told him to pay him first and then show him the extra money, point at the water bottles, and then point up the stairs and then raise his eyebrows and nod his head a little bit to indicate questioning affirmation.

He just couldn’t do it. He seemed to think that as long as he said the words slowly and individually the guy would magically just understand them. So he talked like one would talk to a child or a mentally handicapped person “Upstairs ? You take … upstairs ? I give you.. forty thousand. Ok ?” I had never seen the delivery guy before but he did exactly what I predicted. He shook his head vigorously, grabbed his stuff and took off. He was a water delivery guy. It wasn’t his job to deal with “this shit” from foreigners, even though if he’d understood he probably would have been more than happy to earn a couple of extra bucks just for carrying the bottles upstairs.

People that can learn to communicate with only body language are far more likely to get a good price. In fact, if you say nothing and then just hold out the money, they are much more likely to appreciate the simplicity of the communication and your honesty and take only as much money as required, or point out the right value note for you. I think Lonely planet actually says as much in their guide. They warn people that it’s common in Vietnam for people to reach for your money because they’re trying to show you the right amount. The sort of people who freak out at this and snatch it away are the ones who were going to be charged too much all along. Because they’re operating from a standpoint of mistrust to start with.

Bumbling idiots who walk in and loudly say “How much for this one ?” just come across as stupid and ignorant. Most of the time they don’t even seem to understand that just saying “how much” would be better than rattling off a whole sentence. When we begin to learn Vietnamese we understand the phrase “bao nhieu”. But if we were an English shopkeeper in a Vietnamese district of our own country and someone said something like “bao nhieu tien cho viec nay khong” we’re going to be like “Huh ? Whaaaat ? Slow down. I have no idea what the hell you just said”.

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It’s not really about politeness, because you can say huge long sentences very politely and it doesn’t mean people understand you any better. It’s partly about the tone in your voice, but it’s even more about understanding the fact that the majority of communication is nonverbal.

Especially if you’re going to be asking the price of multiple items that you may not buy, just out of sheer curiosity. Saying something like “How much is this one ? What about this one ? And these ?” is really stupid, and not just because you’ve asked the same question in three totally different ways. You’re at a market. You don’t need to speak at all. You can just point at a watermelon and raise your eyebrows and they’re going to hold up an appropriate number of fingers (typically one finger represents either 1,000 or 10,000 dong). It’s up to you to figure out whether they’re referring to the price per item or per kilogram using your common sense, but ultimately you’ll get a much better response if you use body language than if you open your trap and start speaking gibberish. Just as foreigners may think Vietnamese sounds like nonsense to them, your English sounds just as silly to a Vietnamese person who doesn’t understand it. If you do want a very practical language tip, the single most useful phrase you can learn in Vietnamese is “cái này”. It’s pronounced sort of like “gay nai”. It means “this one”. You don’t have to know what the local name is for a rambutan. If you want a kilogram of them, just point to them and say cái này while holding up one finger. They’ll know what you mean and you won’t even have to play charades !

But much more importantly than the language you use, if you smile and point politely at an item and give them the right facial cues and then hold the money out, you are showing your trust in them. Speaking in an interrogatory or cautious tone or asking loudly how much something costs like you’re trying to compare the price to “back home” is going to work out badly. Even if they don’t understand the words, they understand your body language and the tone in your voice. Sometimes it’s how you act that determines the price, not the colour of your skin.

If you want a couple of simple tips on how to start off a negotiation from a respectful position apart from just smiling and pointing to an item then the first would be how you enter a store. If you walk in all macho and swaggering, looking at the products and picking them up and inspecting the price tags, they’re going to be frowning at you from the back of the store even if you’re too engrossed to notice. And you should notice. Because they’re noticing you.

So what should you do when you enter a store ? Firstly, you should be quiet as you enter. Not loudly chatting away to your friend like you don’t give a crap. Secondly, it’s a really good idea to acknowledge the store owner. I can’t emphasise this enough. Especially if you are dealing with an older woman, the most polite thing you can possibly do is enter a store quietly and immediately catch their eye and give them a small smile and incline your head forward just a little. I know this isn’t really how most Vietnamese people would necessarily walk into a store, and Vietnam is not a “bowing” culture like some, but just the simple act of meeting the shop owner’s eye and acknowledging that YOU are in THEIR shop and that you respect that by a small nod of you head will do wonders to make the later negotiations go well.

You want to know how I buy a motorbike from a private seller ? Exactly how I just described. I’d take off my shoes and place them carefully at the door (discarding them without due care looks sloppy) and walk into his house with both my hands behind my back, and give him a small bow with a straight back. Just a slight bend from the waist. In a shop, I’d just nod my head (bend at the neck). If I’m entering someone’s house to buy something, I bend from the waist. Don’t bow too much. This isn’t Japan. But a little. To a woman, I would probably smile. To a man, probably not. Men don’t react to smiles the same way as woman. They will judge you more on how you hold yourself and whether you act like an idiot.

These are mostly tips for westerners traveling in SE Asia. If an Asian did these things in a western country it would be weird. And if you’re of Asian heritage yourself it might not apply that much either. But sometimes there is a certain immediate sense of annoyance or even mistrust that some Asian cultures will feel when a westerner walks into their shop. Westerners are often perceived as rich, stupid, ignorant and loud. So the best thing you can do is to immediately show them that you are quiet, respectful and polite !

And if you’re a westerner and you have a perception that people in SE Asia’s developing nations are going to be cunning, untrustworthy or sneaky, then show them that you don’t think that ! Walk into their shop like you have the utmost respect for them first. Treat it like a temple and acknowledge them as the master of their domain ! Don’t start randomly flicking through things or picking up every item. Treat everything with reverence.

If you were curious how I think an Asian should act in a western country, use the stereotypes in reverse. Westerners often think that Asians are going to be cumbersome with their English (when in reality most of them know English better than we know any Asian language) and fumble over every word. Western countries are mostly casual places, so the best thing you could do as an Asian tourist if you walk into a shop in a western country is to do something to make them think you’re not like this. Wave to them and say “Hello !” with confidence and a big smile. Even better would be to use more casual words like “Hi there !” This will put the person at ease and they won’t think “Oh my god. This person is going to be annoying”. They’ll think “Hmm. We have an interesting and friendly tourist here”.

Cultural stereotypes are a fact of life. They’re not a bad thing unless you use them to discriminate. Take advantage of them and understand them so that you can immediately dispel them and not be “that sort of person” that they expect you to be. If there’s a general perception that westerners are rude and ignorant of eastern customs… show them you’re not ! If there’s a perception that Asian people are difficult to communicate with and don’t speak with the same casual nature as western cultures, show them that you can !

You don’t HAVE to learn the local language to get the “real price”. You just have to treat people with respect and do your best to dispel the stereotypes they might have about you. Compliment them when you think something they sell is beautiful. Smile at their children if they’re present and compliment them too. Vietnamese people especially love to be told their children are beautiful. Even if they don’t understand your words they will understand your tone and body language. Make them feel relaxed about you being in their world and they won’t start from a standpoint of thinking bad things about you. First impressions count and you ARE an annoyance even if they’d still really like you to buy something, so do your best to minimise that and they won’t be tempted to add an “annoying foreigner” tax onto the price. If you go in thinking they’re going to rip you off and your demeanour shows it, they’re going to think the worst of you and charge you accordingly. If you go in treating them with the same respect you want them to show you, they’re much more likely to reciprocate. You’re on their turf, so anything you can do to make them think you’re a decent person is going to pay off for you when it comes to the final price. Respect is a two way street.

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