Sarah Van Boven

Today was my least-successful bargaining day in months, something I attribute to the fact that I am weakened by illness. Unfortunately, my lifesaving visitors had gone off to Halong Bay for two days, and there was no one left to buy essentials of life such as Sprite and toilet paper except me.

After resting all day to prepare myself for a trip to the market, I finally ventured out after the sun went down so it would be cooler and I’d be less prone to pass out and pitch headfirst into a stall selling roasted dog. To no avail. By 7:30 p.m. I had reached an impasse on oranges, was humiliated attempting to buy calla lilies, paid too much for toilet roll imported from Thailand, and was too dispirited to even attempt to purchase rice.

Armed with my misfiring, small-caliber vocabulary I go forth each day to try and conquer the shrewd and infinitely patient women at the market. By conquer I do not mean purchase things for the lowest possible price; that would be a bit mean, wouldn’t it? When one American dollar is worth 14,000 dong it does not ultimately matter (to me) if a tomato is 200 dong or 300. All I mean by “conquer” is avoid abject humiliation.

After a few weeks here I drew up a set of rules for myself when I realized I would have to bargain, hard, dozens of times a day to get anything I needed forever because there is no such thing as a fixed price. (Bananas, motorbikes, plastic sandals, rent, roses—it’s all negotiable. Get pulled over by the traffic police, and you can even bargain down your fine.)

So, Rule No. 1: Don’t get stuck haggling over 2,000 dong for an hour on principle because you will make yourself insane. It will also confirm the widely held belief that all foreigners—while filthy, stinking rich—are also selfish bastards. Rule No. 2: Even though you are filthy, stinking rich don’t pay 40 times the value of a product for the sheer ease of it. This supports the widely held belief that all foreigners should be taken advantage of because they are so colossally stupid.

Of course, rules firmly in place and shopping list in hand, you can still be utterly stymied. Today was such a day, compounded by the fact that it was wretchedly hot and I didn’t want to be in the market in the first place. Luckily, at the last possible point in the day a xe om (motorbike taxi) driver reminded me that bargaining can, on occasion, be sort of fun. A translation of what transpired:

Me: I need to go to Ngo Hue, 5,000 dong OK?

Driver: [effortlessly performing foreigner math] No, 10,000 for you.

Me: Well, I’m sorry but I live here, and I know it’s always 5,000.

Driver: Tonight 7,000 for late-night service

Me: [laughing] That means another customer might not come along, doesn’t it?

Driver: OK, 7,000 for service because it is very far.

Me: It isn’t very far at all.

Driver: [deep sigh for my benefit as I begin to walk away] Five thousand OK.

This was a near-ideal exchange, with both parties knowing the price ahead of time and all back-and-forths a mere formality after this fact has been established. I clambered onto the back of his grimy Super Cub, and he shot down Le Thai To street around the lake at breakneck speed, whistling though each red light without either looking both ways or slowing down. While this is utterly standard xe om behavior, I do not like it. Taking into consideration the fact that it was late and the street was a bit wet, I shouted “Older brother! Go slow, please.”

I couldn’t see him grin, but I sure could hear it in his reply. Victory was at hand: “Younger sister, 7,000 dong for go slow.”