Why we don’t (always) haggle

Vietnamese Bowls

A seemingly travel-wise road warrior once told us to “never accept the first price you’re offered in South East Asia. Everything here is negotiable. I just don’t understand why some people won’t haggle.”

We’ve come to a bit of a different conclusion. Perhaps a story is the best way to explain.

Feeling pretty jazzed after a jolt of sweet and chocolaty cà phê sữa nóng, I was dodging scooters and shoulder poles when I caught a snippet of conversation between a shaggy-haired Aussie and a vendor selling books from the back of his bicycle. They were haggling over a Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam, which was appropriate enough considering this was taking place on the streets of Hanoi.

“8,000” I hear Long Locks offer.

“Can you pay a little more?”

“No,” responds the Aussie, who then turned and walked away.

Fair enough. That’s how negotiations go. In a free exchange each side is entitled to name their terms and break off talks if those conditions aren’t satisfied. The details of this particular trade, though, are instructive.

The Lonely Planet book in question retails on Amazon for $20. The ones you see on the streets in Vietnam are almost certainly pirated, so they shouldn’t cost nearly that much. But still, the retail price gives you a fair idea of how much the content is worth.

Hanoi Book Seller

In this case Shaggy Hair set his drop-dead price at 8,000 VND, which translates to about forty U.S. cents. That’s certainly his right, but it helps to put some of this haggling into perspective.

While we can’t know at what price the seller would have parted with this particular book, we do know the stakes of the negotiations. The two were haggling over pennies.

And that, in a nutshell, is why we haven’t really bothered to haggle over things.

Mostly, it just isn’t worth our time. If Golden Curls really wants a Vietnam guidebook he now has to try to buy one from someone else. That means not only finding another vendor carrying the book but also investing the time trying to work him down to the desired price. And if that fails, he then has to spend more time going through the whole process yet again – all to save ten or fifteen or maybe thirty cents.

Asian Market

Quite frankly, I’d gladly pay an extra thirty cents if it means freeing up time to do something other than shopping around for the best deal – like maybe enjoying the book I was hoping to buy.

That isn’t to say we never bargain or that we accept whatever price is being offered. Some vendors really do go overboard, like the guy in Guatemala who tried to sell us a small packet of tissues for the same price we had just paid for two three-course lunches and drinks. Um, no.

Mostly we try to keep things in perspective and in proportion. The first couple of days in a new area we’ll get a feel for what things cost. If we pay a certain amount for a meal, we’re not going to pay twice that for a bottle of water or ten times that amount for a short taxi ride.

But as long as the prices we’re being quoted are consistent with what other things cost and as long as we’re getting good value for the money we spend, we don’t feel the need to niggle someone down to the last dime. There’s simply no joy for us in beating a hardworking vendor out of a buck.

And maybe that is why we haven’t had the negative experiences so many other travelers have reported in Vietnam. I can’t say for certain, but it seems reasonable that if you’re a westerner trying to drive hard bargains with locals over pennies, you may end up buying yourself some resentment as part of the trade.

Asian Night Market

It’s possible, too, that trying to get a rock-bottom deal in every exchange might make some travelers a bit hypersensitive to fairly insignificant differences in price. We don’t know whether we could have scored a cheaper meal than the 55,000 VND ($2.61 US) we paid for two lunches by trying to negotiate. But we don’t care either. We had a great meal at a price we were more than comfortable paying.

More importantly, we left feeling happy with the experience. Had we cared that the guy sitting next to us paid fifty cents less for exactly the same dish we could have easily worked ourselves up into a rage over the injustice. I know some people do.  

But that sounds an awful lot like Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic: someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

We make an effort to focus on value when we travel and are more than happy to let the nickels and dimes fall where they may.

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17 Comments on “Why we don’t (always) haggle”

  1. Jet Eliot December 26, 2014 at 10:29 am #

    I share your opinion — well said. 😄

    Like

  2. karenfranza December 26, 2014 at 12:31 pm #

    Totally agree. Thanks for saying it so well!

    Like

  3. Jason December 26, 2014 at 7:28 pm #

    Great article, paying a reasonable amount (at times even a generous amount) may mean pennies, or a dollar or two to us, but in local income terms it may make a significant difference to someone’s day.

    We adopt a similar attitude to tipping when we travel to the US. Australia is does not have an engrained tipping culture, our minimum wage here is pretty good. If wait staff have genuinely added to our dining experience, some of us will tip at home. We understand that in the US, minimum wage is less, so we have no hesitation in tipping. If the service is average we still tip, if it is great we tip more.

    When we travel to other parts of the world we will research the local practice and follow suit. If people add value to our day we will show our appreciation. Where haggling is an accepted part of the culture we will haggle with the same approach as you guys.

    Cheers,

    Jason

    Like

    • Brian December 27, 2014 at 9:45 am #

      Hi Jason,
      Once again it sounds like we’re on the same page.
      Happy New Year to you guys!

      Like

  4. Lucia December 26, 2014 at 9:47 pm #

    Yeah I think you’re right. No use fighting over 40 cents but some people are just abusive and I don’t think you should let them take advantage of you. Overall I agree that sometimes it’s not worth the time and energy you put into it

    Like

    • Brian December 27, 2014 at 9:44 am #

      Agreed. Every situation is different. We just haven’t found that many people trying to take advantage of us on this trip. We’ve really had lovely interactions with the people we’ve met almost without exception.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Nia Simone and Ántonia Moran December 27, 2014 at 12:07 am #

    Well said!

    Like

  6. veryguilty December 27, 2014 at 4:04 pm #

    Absolutely agree. Well written!

    Like

  7. Debra Kolkka December 27, 2014 at 5:22 pm #

    I agree. I haggled over a pair of earrings in India and was ashamed of myself when I worked out I was haggling over 50 cents. People have to make a living and as long as I am happy with the price I will pay it.

    Like

    • Brian December 29, 2014 at 7:50 am #

      Yeah, that’s pretty much our approach too.

      Like

  8. evelynsedits December 27, 2014 at 10:20 pm #

    I still regret haggling with an 11 year old girl in Peru over a hat I wasn’t certain I really wanted. I think she sold it to me below the price it cost to make it. Though I really like the hat now, I cringe every time I wear it wondering how that girl is. I wasn’t thinking about its worth because I was in “auto-bargaining” mode.

    Like

    • Brian December 29, 2014 at 7:50 am #

      I wouldn’t sweat it. Those kids are pretty savvy and by 11 she’d probably been around the block a time or two already. Now that it’s done, though, there’s no use worrying about it. If it makes you feel better just assume that she bought herself something nice to celebrate fleecing you. 😀

      Like

  9. digger666 December 28, 2014 at 1:10 am #

    Reblogged this on digger666.

    Like

  10. IshitaUnblogged December 28, 2014 at 3:39 pm #

    Beautiful… Wishing you a very Happy New Year and lots of travel to blog about!

    Like

    • Brian December 29, 2014 at 7:47 am #

      And a Happy New Years to you too! (and happy travels, of course.)

      Like

  11. barbstruestories December 29, 2014 at 8:22 am #

    When my Dad paid an entrepreneur (often local) a price knowing he could have either bargained a bit or gone to a store in the city rather than our prairie town, he’d say “he’s gotta eat too”. We use the phrase to this day. Appreciated your post and agree with your approach.

    Like

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