A host of factors are at play when you find yourself paying more than you should for goods or services in Vietnam.

By SAM PATERSON on March 14,2018 11:11 AM


Photos : VIET TUAN

The elderly woman stared at me intently. ‘60,000 dong,’ she said. Taking a moment to absorb this, and mustering my best Vietnamese, I politely replied that I’d paid 50,000 last time.

It was the fourth time I’d visited this restaurant and ordered the same dish and it was the third different price I’d been charged. The concept of paying too much - be it a subtle increase on food or a blatant rip-off on a taxi ride - is a common part of being in Vietnam. Although it’s by no means a universal feature, it was significant enough to be listed in a recent survey as a primary problem for tourists. Taking for granted the existence of overcharging foreigners, I wanted to explore the reasons why. What are the differences between home (for me England, but hopefully with parallels to other Western countries) and Vietnam when it comes to buying and selling things, and how do these differences contribute to the problem of overcharging? In considering this, I was left feeling that things aren’t as straightforward as they may seem and that there is a lot to consider before we can discuss it fairly.

‘It’s because they think you’re rich,’ my Vietnamese friend Mai replied bluntly when I asked her about the culture of overcharging foreigners in Vietnam. Although it is a reductive point, it does catch a key element. With the recent explosion of tourism in the country, coupled with a growing number of people coming here to work, the average foreigner has a lot more money than the average Vietnamese. This point has a double-edge to it, though, as awareness among the foreign community that we are a good deal better off means that most people are prepared to pay a little more, albeit perhaps if it isn’t quite as blatant as the example I described above. (Being seen as) having more money certainly forms the starting point of the debate, but is by no means the end of it.

One of the major obstacles to buying anything in Vietnam is the lack of a shared language. Trying to communicate what you want or how much it costs can be problematic. My friend Jon recalled a story about trying to buy some soap soon after he arrived. The shopkeeper, speaking no English, replied by showing five fingers, leaving him confused to whether she meant 5,000 or 50,000 dong. Standing wallet open hoping for the best, as the shopkeeper rummages for the right change, is never a good tactic in getting a fair price.


It’s important to note that a growing number of local people do speak good English. Vietnam has a large young population. Unlike their elders, they have benefited from an extensive English education, which families are prepared to pay large sums for. In practice this means levels of English are typically a lot higher among the younger generation. Not only this, but younger Vietnamese have been exposed to Western culture and people in ways their elders have not. From the tourists on their streets to the English teachers in their classrooms, the younger generation has grown-up having a totally different relationship with the West.

While chatting with my 20-something local friend outside a Circle K shop, where young Vietnamese go to chat, drink and enjoy some freedom away from their families, he spoke of generational differences as being key to understanding the problem. ‘They [the older generation] only think about money, they don’t think about the importance of tourism to the country.’ Older Vietnamese people are often put in a position where they are business owners with foreign customers, but don’t have the same English knowledge and experience of foreigners as the younger generation. Whether this directly affects attitudes to overcharging is a moot point, but it certainty resonates with some of the more frustrating exchanges I’ve had.

To return to the problems that lead to overcharging, the concept of bartering can’t be overlooked. For anyone who may be unaware, many goods don’t have a fixed price in Vietnam, and an agreement is reached by negotiation. This takes place with Vietnamese and foreign customers alike. Despite the rise of the aforementioned Circle K and other major chain stores, many shops are still small and family-owned. Bartering and raising the price makes more sense in these circumstances.

The problem is that the concept relies on each party knowing the value of the item being purchased. As Jon’s attempt at buying soap illustrates, with a far lower overall cost of goods here, and a far higher number of zeros at the end of the currency, it’s common to have very little idea of how much something should cost. I recently bought a coat, simply because the lady got so angry as she continued to reduce the price, I assumed it must be a good deal.

On the surface, bartering feels quite alien to a lot of foreigners. Another Vietnamese friend even needed to be told, on a recent trip to Europe, that ‘we don’t do that here.’ In fact, the truth is a little more blurred. Flashback to a previous life, where I worked in England as an insurance salesman. For anyone who has been on either side of the phone, you will know the art of bartering is alive and well. And so is overcharging. When reminiscing recently with another former worker, he spoke of the good / bad old days where ‘ripping off sweet old ladies’ was very much the norm. It’s not just insurance, as other financial products and home improvements also subscribe to these same principles. In industries where customer knowledge of a good price is typically less and sellers have more to gain (through the bonus culture associated with these industries), it’s interesting to see parallels to Vietnam. It’s possible to make the argument that when it comes to bartering, it’s not the game that’s different but the players. Haggling takes place over more expensive items, naturally reflecting the relative wealth of each society.

What started as an investigation into the reasons for overcharging ended up leading me to consider the need to be careful before we deem it a ‘problem with Vietnam’. How does it compare to home, and who exactly are we talking about? Though overcharging happens, for the reasons listed above, attitudes are changing as the country evolves. I find it fascinating to view the problem through the eyes of different generations. At one end of the spectrum you have the elderly woman above. In Vietnam she is revered as a master-barterer, whereas in the West she is seen (by some) as vulnerable to being overcharged. At the other end of the spectrum you can see two cultures growing closer together in Vietnam, through a shared language and culture. The question remains of whether, as these young Vietnamese grow older and become providers for their families, will overcharging foreigners continue or cease to be such a problem?

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