With a rich and diverse history, internationally renowned cuisine, and some of the friendliest people one could meet, Vietnam is growing in popularity with travellers of all types. Officially called the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam, it’s located on the easternmost part of the Indochina Peninsula, right in the middle of the group of countries commonly known as Southeast Asia. The country is long and thin, stretching vertically up the coast of the peninsula, and features 3,260 kilometres of coastline. This makes it the perfect place to get some RnR on the beach while sampling the country’s amazing cuisine, and of course, doing a spot of shopping.
Although Vietnam has a rich and varied ancient history, after the Vietnam war it was impoverished and politically isolated until the government initiated reforms in 1986. Since then, the economic growth rate has been among the highest in the world, evidenced by the rapid expansion of cities and suburbs and a huge rise in tourism to the country.
Many travellers who have returned here multiple times remark on the visible growth and changes that have taken place over just a few years. This combination of factors means that visitors to the country will be amazed at the comfortable, affordable accommodation and delicious low-cost food options. Getting a bargain on your shopping, however, is a little more of a challenge, as there is a strong culture of haggling in Vietnam. Of course, prices for clothes, souvenirs and food are still relatively low if you don’t haggle, but where’s the fun in that? Read on for the best places to shop in Vietnam and some tips for learning how to haggle in Vietnam.
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Where to go shopping in Vietnam
One of the most well-known things to shop for in Vietnam isn’t available in a mall or market: it’s tailoring, or having bespoke clothes or shoes made to measure. You can bring a picture of something you like, or choose from the example pieces that the shop has on display. Keep in mind that although buying clothes in Vietnam will be a lot cheaper than something of similar quality from a Western tailor, it will still be more expensive than something you could find in a “fast fashion” type of store. Choose a style that you will be happy wearing for at least 10 years.
When looking for a tailor, make the time to visit a few shops. Look for a tailor who won’t pressure you into buying a certain style or piece of clothing. Also check out the other customers in the shop: do they look happy with their purchases?
On the beaches in Vietnam, the shopping sometimes comes to you! People walk up and down the beach, carrying huge bunches of beaded and knotted jewellery. They are happy to stop for a chat and show you their wares, and if you see something you like, will happily haggle with you to find a mutually agreeable price. Keep in mind that these people, mostly women, are trying to make a living here, so if you don’t want to buy from them, politely tell them that early on in the conversation so that you don’t waste their time.
Best markets in Vietnam
However, the best place to shop in Vietnam is at the country’s markets. Here, you can rub shoulders with the locals and practise your bargaining skills while you shop for food, spices, jewellery and trinkets, household items such as the iconic Vietnamese coffee filter, and much more. Read on for a rundown of the best markets in Vietnam.
Hoi An Central Market is located on the riverside in the ancient and picturesque UNESCO-listed town of Hoi An. This market features fresh meat and produce, spices, household items, and trinkets. There is also a section featuring Asian silks and textiles. Although it’s busy all day with locals bargaining for their dinner, the best time to visit this market is in the morning, when the fishermen have just brought in their catches, and you can beat the crowds and enjoy the cooler early morning temperatures. Wear closed shoes as the floor can often be wet and slippery, especially in the fish and meat area of the market. If you’re on the tall side, watch out for the umbrellas which might be set up exactly at your eye height! This market is open from 7:00 am to 8:00 pm.
Hanoi Weekend Night Market takes place every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 7:00 to 10:00 pm. This is when food vendors and roadside stalls set up along the roads in Hanoi’s Old Quarter district, selling street food and a selection of clothes, shoes, handicrafts, and sunglasses. Although some visitors find this market unremarkable, it’s a popular spot for photographers because of the illuminated streets and historic buildings, and the unmistakably Southeast Asian market scenes. But the real draw of this market is the food: as you learn how to haggle in Hanoi, be sure to keep your strength up with some Hanoi specialities such as bun thang or bun cha, both rice noodle dishes.
Binh Tay Market, also known as Cholon Chinatown Market, in Ho Chi Minh City, occupies a two-storey building which was built by the French in the 1880s. Best known for selling fresh meat, poultry, fish and produce, the market is also a popular breakfast spot for the locals. Stop by in the morning to try Vietnamese-Chinese specialities such as banh bao, steamed buns with various fillings. You can also try the ubiquitous pho (noodle soup) or goi cuon (spring rolls). This market is about a 15-minute motorcycle ride from downtown Ho Chi Minh City and is open from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm.
Ben Thanh Market is one the biggest in Ho Chi Minh City, located in District 1. Many travellers view it as a tourist trap, but others come back day after day for all their meals, and it’s well frequented by locals who also come here for grocery shopping. This is a great place to buy coffee, souvenirs and branded goods, along with basic supplies and meals. Although it’s probably best to avoid this market in the hottest part of the day, it’s an excellent place for an early morning mooch around. In the evenings, restaurants around the edges of the markets open their doors, creating a lively evening scene perfect for people watching. Ben Thanh has the longest opening hours of the markets listed here, from 6:00 am to midnight.
If you’re lucky enough to visit the gorgeous Phu Quoc Island, check out Duong Dong Market, the largest and busiest outdoor market on the island. This market features the usual fresh produce, snacks and juices, along with a wet zone where the fishermen drop off the day’s catch. Many travellers describe this island as a seafood lover’s heaven, so you can imagine the huge variety of weird and wonderful fish you can spot in this market! Duong Dong market is open from 7:00 am to 9:00 pm, and some travelers say they enjoyed it more in the evening instead of during the heat of the day.
Saigon Square is an air-conditioned shopping mall in Ho Chi Minh City, featuring two floors of shops and stalls selling mainly fashion items and jewellery. You can find some excellent-quality branded items here and. Bargaining might be a slightly easier affair than at many other big-city markets as many reviewers report that sellers here seemed more relaxed. Although many shops sell similar items, there isn’t really any order to the layout so it’s a great place to just wander until something catches your eye. Be careful of the sizing, especially of women’s clothing, as they tend to run small. Saigon Square is open from 8:00 am to 10:00 pm.
How to haggle in Vietnam
So how exactly do you haggle in Vietnam? If you’re anything like me, you’re approaching this part of your Vietnam experience with some trepidation. Here are some general rules to follow as you navigate your negotiations:
Be nice. The first and most important rule for haggling in Vietnam is always to be polite and respectful of the sellers you meet. Keep in mind that the people working in shops here earn the equivalent of $150 US a month, and are often supporting a family on that income. Besides that, nobody wants to give a fat discount to someone who’s rude!
Know your exchange rate. Did you know that in Vietnam, everyone is a millionaire? At the time of writing, 1,000,000 Vietnamese dong is worth about $42 US, or $59 AU. It’s worth doing a quick mental calculation when bargaining, to estimate how much of your home currency you’re spending. It’s also a good reality check, as 50,000 dong feels like a huge number if you’re used to dealing with dollars or pounds, but it’s only about $2 US. That probably won’t break the bank for most Western visitors but could make a big difference to the shopkeeper.
Use cash. You can pay with a card at some (not all) hotels and restaurants, but only the very high-end stores accept cards. You can pay with Vietnamese dong or US Dollars. The exchange rate if using dollars may not be as favourable, as shopkeepers usually make an estimate of the exchange rate instead of checking it daily.
Be sensitive to language differences. Although most Vietnamese people working in tourist areas will speak fairly good English, they still pull out their trusty calculator when talking about money. You may even want to have your own calculator handy so you can type in your counteroffer. You can’t go wrong (and may even get a better deal!) by learning a few key phrases in Vietnamese, for example, “How much?” “Too expensive,” or “I’ll take it.”
Start with 50% of their asking price, settle on 75%. Some people see haggling as a blood sport, gleefully bargaining prices down to the absolute bare minimum. But if the point of haggling is to have fun and play the game, it’s much more fun when everybody wins. Although 75% is probably more than a local would pay, and you could probably get a bigger discount if you bargain extremely hard, the price will still be much lower than if you were shopping in your home country.
Shop around. Especially at the more touristy markets, many stalls carry items that are either similar or exactly the same. If you see something you like and don’t spot it anywhere else, you can always go back for it later.
Don’t start haggling unless you actually want the item, but don’t act too interested. Although haggling can be fun and give you some great stories to take home, both you and the seller are wasting your time if you’re haggling over something you don’t really want. They could be spending that time with other customers, and you could be spending that time slurping pho. On the other hand, if the seller sees you eyeing the item of your choice with too much love in your eyes, they’ll know they’ve got you hooked and will be able to ask for a higher price.
Try “the walk away.” If you are getting tired of haggling with one person, or they are still insisting on what you feel is too high a price, simply say “I’m sorry, that’s still too expensive,” and walk away. Either the seller will let you go, which means that they are not going to sell for the price you were asking for, or they will ask you to wait and a new price will magically appear on the calculator.
Remember that a shopkeeper will almost never say “no,” as it’s extremely rude in Vietnamese culture. Especially in bigger cities and more touristy areas, many shopkeepers might be less willing to haggle over prices since there is probably another traveller right around the corner who will pay full price. If you offer a price that is too low for them, they may walk away from you as a way of communicating a negative answer. Don’t take this personally; decide if you are happy to pay their asking price, or move on.