Having spent a fair chunk of time living and traveling in Asia, I would like to think that my bargaining skills have slightly improved since my first trip to Indonesia, where I got hustled (hard) on countless occasions. Some people get a thrill out of bargaining. I’m not one of those people. Even in my early twenties I would dread going into a shop knowing that I would need to ask for a lower price from somebody that may or may not be able to afford it for a fair standard of living. This being said, there are times when bargaining is inevitable in Asia.
But here’s the thing- there is an ethical way to bargain! Too many times, I have witnessed public outbursts from tourists that don’t feel like they are getting the best deal. Personally, I find these tantrums to be embarrassing and unnecessary.
With this in mind, I have come up with a few guidelines for when it is appropriate to bargain and how to bargain in a tactful way, where both parties come out of the bargain feeling like winners!
1. Is it handmade
When an item is handmade, you should be paying a higher price. Asking for an exuberantly lower price than the original asking is insulting to the work that was put into the item. Handmade items take a lot more time than machine-made items. There is a whole process that goes into a person learning how to design and craft that item. In areas with less money, the artists often sell themselves short because of a financial need (scroll down to see Case #1).
2. Where you are
In heavily touristed areas, because it is already expected for you to bargain, you will more than likely be asked for much more than the worth of the item as an initial asking price. You are a tourist on vacation with money in your pocket… obviously there are people want capitalise on that. I spoke with a local Hmong woman in Ha Giang, Vietnam, that agrees that bargaining is more appropriate in heavily touristed areas.
In less touristed areas, prices are much lower. For the same thing that you can find in the touristy area, you will find it in a non-touristy area for half the price. More often than not, the initial asking price is more than reasonable and it is inappropriate to try and haggle them down, especially in rural areas. (Scroll down to see Case #2)
3. Where your money is going
Is your money going to a large corporation or to a family trying to earn a decent enough wage for everyone to be well fed, have a place to sleep and live with the bare necessities? With this in mind, you may find it easier to decide on a fair price. (Scroll down to see case #2)
4. How you treat the person that you are bargaining with
There is never a time where yelling, rudely gesturing of cursing the person that you are bargaining with is appropriate. They are also trying to do what is right for their family and livelihood. And while it a sometimes very frustrating knowing that they are asking for a gashing 10 times the local price, a public outburst will only shed a bad light on tourism and travelers in their community. If it’s not fair, do what your parents always told you to do growing up… just say no! Said simply: treat people the way you want to be treated.
5. What is a reasonable price to pay for the item
Sometimes, you walk into a store, pick up an item, and not have any idea of its worth. In this case, ask for a price, put it back, take a walk, and think about it. If you want it bad enough, you can always go back. I also recommend shopping around and asking for prices of similar items. This way you will have an idea of the going rate and what it’s worth.
Bargaining is apart of Southeast Asian culture. There is a time and place to strike a deal and I am sure that if you consider these points, you can bargain in a way that is respectful and elegant, leave a positive impression on the locals of the country you are visiting, and get a good deal!
Case #1: A blanket hand woven and dyed by a woman of the Hmong hill tribe (Sapa, Vietnam)
I fell in love with the impressively complex embroidered textiles created by the ethnic minorities of Vietnam over three years ago. Recently, I decided to purchase a queen size blanket that was hand dyed and hand woven by the woman in the picture below. I asked her the price. With her calculator, she asked for 1 million VND (~44 USD/~56 CAD). My jaw dropped! This could have possibly taken her over a year to have made (believe me, I took a lesson with a Hmong woman and these embroideries take a enormous amount of time!). In this case, bargaining for the blanket didn’t even cross my mind. I left her shop with a bag of textiles, none of which I bargained for, feeling happy with my purchases.
Case #2: Along the main road of Sapa, shop around for the best price for outdoor gear
The main road in Sapa, Vietnam, is swarming with tourists. One outdoor gear shop after another line the street, selling all the same items, most of which are knock-offs of famous brands (North Face, Arc-teryx, Adidas, Nike…). You can spot these stores from a mile off, with their permanent sale signs on display, faded from years of exposure to the sunlight. In this circumstance, it is best to shop around and scope out the prices of the various shops.
Case #3: A table runner made at the Hop Tien Linen Cooperative (Ha Giang, Vietnam)
The Hop Tien Linen Co-operative was created in the remote village of Lung Tam in Ha Giang, Vietnam, with the intention of preserving the culture and providing an income to the families of the village. After a tour of the facility, decided to purchase a table runner for 800 000 VND (~35 USD/~45 CAD). Knowing that our money was going toward a good cause certainly made us feel better about where we were spending our money. (Visit my article Keeping Hmong Tradition Alive: A Linen Co-operative in Lùng Tám, Ha Giang for more information about the co-operative!)