The worldwide Augustana College experience

Saigon Market, Part I.

My two trips to the Saigon marketplace have been among my favorite experiences in Vietnam thus far. In this post, I’d like to document my experience, and my transformation from a polite, bashful American to a competent haggler.
But first, the marketplace warrants a description in itself. It’s a short walk to the markets from my hotel, the Northern—perhaps only five or six blocks. Before reaching the market’s labyrinthine heart, one encounters its exterior stalls. These stalls carry a wide variety of goods. One shopkeeper was selling Northface backpacks (at least, alleged Northface backpacks) for only 150,000 dong: less than $10 U.S. dollars. A different man, a street vendor, sold what were clearly knock-off Ray Bans for a similarly low price.
Inside the marketplace, one is greeted by a great flowing of human traffic and the pungent aroma of fish, meat, and vegetables. Some of the food vendors, which occupy the center aisles of the market, have whole baskets of prawns in front of their stalls that are made stinking by the 90 degree heat. Though it’s sometimes tempting to purchase the local harvest, as an American tourist, it’s hard to do so while imagining the severe food poisoning which would likely follow.
Food vendors, however, represents only a portion of the shops inside the Saigon markets. The floor is laid out like a maze, full of narrow paths and nooks which house hundreds of shopkeepers. You can find just about anything in the markets. There are probably a few dozen clothing stores alone, some of which sell knockoff designer brands, and others that sell shirts aimed at tourists. There are shirts featuring Uncle Ho, shirts which display the emblems of local beers, and even a clever line of Mac-inspired shirts which read “iPho” (named, of course, after the local beef ball soup delicacy). Beyond clothing, stores house innumerable numbers of trinkets—bracelets, watches, chopsticks, jewelry boxes, Buddhas of various shapes and sizes, and more. Being a professed arachna-phobe, I was even startled to find a shop selling spiders and scorpions preserved under glass.
Upon reaching the market’s heart on my first visit, I was looking to track down a pair of sunglasses. I stopped at the first shop I found, and spotted a slick pair of gold-trimmed aviators. I took an immediate liking to them and desired to have them, but grew afraid of making a purchase. After all, it is the custom of Vietnamese markets to haggle over purchases; to purchase an item at full price is to write “sucker” on one’s forehead.
Still, I was afraid to haggle, and instead enlisted the aid of my friend Margaux. (She has, perhaps, already blogged about this encounter.) Margaux haggled the aviators for me, stubbornly resisting the shopkeeper’s counter offers, and showed me the effectiveness of pretending to walk away. In the end, she haggled the glasses to nearly half price, and I’ve delightedly warn them ever since. Smashing job, Margaux.
Having learned the tricks of the trade from my friend, I thought myself ready to score some deals through my own skills. This was a hasty assumption. As I made my way toward the clothing section of the market, I travelled through a narrow pathway lined with shops. Smiling young Vietnamese women poked their heads out from their shops. They called to me, each holding their goods, asking if I’d like to make a purchase. Being polite, I tried to respond to each smiling face with a “no thank you” or an “it’s OK, I’m just looking.” I soon realized that, good intentions aside, this is risky behavior in the markets. As I paused to respond to the various shopkeepers, I felt some of the women grasping my shirt, pulling me towards their stores. I panicked, and wished to escape the great flurry of hands and clutching. I tried to move forward more quickly, until a solid slap landed between my shoulder and my neck. I turned at once, radiating embarrassment. What had I done to deserve a slap? Perhaps, I thought, I had knocked over some goods while trying to escape, and had upset a shopkeeper. But as I gazed back, I saw who had slapped me: a pretty, young, and innocent looking Vietnamese woman. She smiled politely, held up a shirt, and gave me an expression that whispered: “Will you buy?” In the tranquility of a later moment, I reflected on the incident, and laughed about the aggressive-yet-charming sales tactics employed by the woman. At the time, however, I could only stumble away half-shocked and confused.
Having escaped the hectic aisle where shopkeepers had grabbed me, I arrived at a calmer clothing store. Eyeing the shop’s selection, I discovered some shirts that I thought would make great gifts for friends back home. I was still, however, frazzled from my earlier encounter. I intended to haggle like Margaux had taught me—to pull the classic act-like-you’re-leaving move, and score some inexpensive souvenirs. But the shopkeeper—again, a woman of roughly my own youthful age, with a charming smile and an endearingly loose grasp of English—playfully protested my efforts. I tried to pay her with Vietnamese dong, but I was still unused to the sometimes-confusing currency. I unknowingly kept trying to give her a 10,000 bill instead of a 100,000 bill, and I hoped she didn’t think I was trying to cheat her. I ended up paying close to the given price for the shirts: a seemingly meager $9 per shirt. Days later, I would discover that the same shirts could be purchased for half as much, or even a quarter as much.
Perhaps I should regret not having performed better on my first day at the market. But I’ve discovered that—beyond skill—there is a barrier that may always prevent me from being an all-star haggler, and that barrier could be roughly described as guilt. On my first day at the market, I watched a friend try to haggle a bracelet down from 200,000 dong to 100,000 dong (these numbers may be remembered inaccurately, but they’ll serve for the purpose of the story). During the haggling process, the shopkeeper responded “I know you can do 200,000. I know you can afford it.”
He was right. My friends and I are Americans. We come from good families, from colleges, from a country where even the poor drink clean water. Yet there we were in that market, wallets full with hundreds of dollars, trying to pay two dollars less for five-dollar souvenirs from people who might make three-hundred dollars a month. Sometimes, while shopping in the market, I’d feel like saying, “Take the five dollars. To hell with it, take ten. Go out and get a good meal.” It’s saddening, sometimes. Haggling is a part of the market culture; it’s expected, and it’s a cultural experience too alien and too valuable to miss as an American. But to take part, one needs to confront some of the world’s harsh truths, and to realize how lucky many of us Americans really are.
I intend to describe my second trip to the market in an upcoming post. But as of right now, I need to go grab some breakfast.

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