Bargain, bargain, bargain
What you pay for is what you get
Ten tips to savvy shopping
Good buys in Vietnam
The dual pricing system
Shopping can be an interesting – but also a very exasperating experience. So arm yourself with plenty of time and patience and get out there to find the amazing variety of great deals Vietnam has to offer.
DON’T miss the markets: among the most atmospheric in Southeast Asia and still the hub of commercial activity everywhere in Vietnam. Notable markets include floating ones in the Mekong Delta, Cho Lon market in the district of Ho Chi Minh City that bears the same name (it actually means big market), the large fruit and flower market in Dalat, any of the major markets in Hanoi, the colorful Sa Pa market and other ethnic minority markets in the mountainous north of the country.
DO go early when shopping at local markets. Goods are brought fresh every day from the countryside and without refrigeration they will suffer from the heat as the day drags on. Shopping in many parts of Ho Chi Minh City is now little different from shopping in Bangkok or any other Asian metropolis. Commercial complexes and supermarkets are also sprouting up in Hanoi and other sizeable towns. Elsewhere things change more slowly.
Before full-blown supermarkets arrived in Vietnam, there were only minim arts: compact operations only present in the big cities, catering almost I exclusively to a foreign clientele. Plenty of these little international stores still exist, stocking all kinds of surprising, exotic and expensive goods, catering to the hankerings of various expert groups. Over the years, caviar and Russian salmon have become scarcer, Fruit Loops and Californian Chardonnay more abundant. Still no real Marmite, though.
DO check the expiry dates carefully on any imported produce you buy: many of the more obscure items in these shops have been quietly gathering dust (not to say rotting away) for years. In Hanoi, you may notice a baffling remnant of the city’s old ways. Tradesmen as part of Chinese-style commercial guilds were traditionally grouped together geographically (as many have remained in the Old Quarter), but a more modern breed of shopkeepers, such as those selling televisions or making photocopies, often elect to bunch together in a similar way. !he practical upshot of this is that you may spend several weeks In Hanoi convinced that it is simply impossible for the moment to obtain: say, a tennis racquet. Then, one day, you will turn a corner into an unexplored street and be confronted by an entire row of shops selling nothing but tennis racquets.
Bargain, bargain and bargain
The idea of a fixed pricing system is still quite novel in most commercial contexts, which means that a little good natured haggling is an important habit to develop. Anywhere outside of supermarkets, restaurants and anything controlled by the state, bargaining is probably possible and usually essential.
The price of fresh goods can fluctuate quite a lot, depending on quality, season, availability, origin and type of goods. Mangoes for instance, come in many varieties from cheap and fibrous to expensive and juicy… Paying the lowest price might not always be the warned that, as you are always easily spotted from a distance as a foreigner, you will be asked to pay more than locals.
Sometimes just a little more, but often outrageously more, even if this is not always immediately obvious to you, especially when relatively small sums are involved. It might seem like a snip, but you may be paying ten times the going rate. If you feel mean haggling over such small sums or are tempted just to pay up for a quiet life,
DON’T forget to think of other people who will pass this way after you. You shouldn’t be too afraid of offending local sensibilities: if you pay vastly over-inflated prices without a murmur, you’ll simply be seen as the sucker you’re letting yourself be taken for! In order to hone your purchasing skills to a fine art, see our Ten Tips to Savvy Shopping at the end of this section.
What you pay for is what you get
As we have just pointed out, there’re a lot of fakes in Vietnam, many of them good ones, so if you think you’ve found the bargain of the century, maybe, but maybe not!
DO be advised: for now, there is no trading standards authority in Vietnam, so check the quality of what you’re buying very carefully, especially if there are safety concerns involved.
DON’T expect to get your money back if you change your mind after making a purchase, or even if you realize belatedly that the goods you have been sold are not as advertised…Check everything checkable yourself before you hand over your money. If it runs on electricity, get the assistant to plug it in and test it. Keep an eye on it while it’s being packed or wrapped.
Much of Southeast Asia is notorious as an earthly paradise for counterfeiters and Vietnam is no exception. Everything has been faked and flogged in Vietnam – from orchids to orgasms, via the Mona Lisa, motorbikes and MSG. At the time of writing, it is almost impossible to buy original music CDs, while copies of them are on sale down every street in town. This also holds good for software, frequently available in pirated form before it has even reached the computer stores in Europe or North America.
DO consider your motives carefully if you purchase counterfeit goods: if you buy a Rolex wristwatch for $20, you know that there is no chance of it being anything like a real one, except for its superficial appearance. If this is all you want, that’s fine, but DON’T complain if you get searched at customs on your return home, have your fake Rolex confiscated and are made to pay a fine equivalent to the cost of a genuine one. Copies of expensive makes (especially good ones) pose a real threat to business and these luxury goods companies are determined to defend their interests – and have the means to do so. Very good copies can be found in Vietnam, particularly items such as clothes, sports equipment and luggage. The Vietnamese are redoubtable and wily business operators, and both foreign and domestic companies often find it impossible to prevent know-how from leaking out. Even products made from materials imported exclusively find their way onto the local market at budget prices.
DO let the buyer beware however, it’s possible to find excellent deals, but only if you really know what you are doing. You could end up with something that is a substandard fake – except for the label, which is entirely genuine – although that, too, was made in Vietnam! To some extent, you can argue that fake goods provide a measure of ‘justice’ for developing countries like Vietnam, where real luxury goods are produced with really cheap labor to be sold subsequently to affluent Western consumers. Most people in the countries where these products are made could never afford to buy them, but they can afford cheaper copies. When (or if) countries such as Vietnam become more affluent and develop closer trading ties with the richer, industrialized countries, pressure will be brought to bear (in fact, this has already begun) to ensure that such fakes disappear from the market.