Vietnam Vacation: Shopping

The Christmas shopping season is in full swing here in the United States. Last year I was blissfully able to skip it, since we planned to bring all of our gifts home from Vietnam.

The exchange rate was hovering around 20,000 Vietnamese dong per US dollar during our visit, a nice round figure for calculating prices. One of Hanna’s friends, a German expat, wanted US dollars to go to graduate school in the States and offered us an excellent rate for his surplus dong, much better than we could have gotten at a bank or money changer. We were multi-millionaires!

Vietnamese currency. There are coins for the lower denominations, however they are rarely used.

Hanna took us to the Hanoi night market our first evening in Vietnam. It was Christmas Eve, and we were exhausted from traveling, but it would be our only chance to go.

Dong Xuan night market, held on weekend evenings in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

This gave us our first opportunity for souvenir shopping as well as our first lessons in bartering. Hanna, having lived in Hanoi for nearly a year, was an invaluable asset. She knew the going prices for merchandise and when to walk away, although this made Laura quite unhappy when she was willing to pay the asking price for a backpack but Hanna would not let her buy it.

Most merchants knew enough English to barter. Those who didn’t punched their asking price into a handheld calculator and handed it to us. We had three choices: agree (although that would be silly at this point), walk away (no fun in that), or enter a counteroffer on the calculator (optimally a lowball bid so that the seller could tsk-tsk and renegotiate until common ground was reached).

Laura pouted a little while about the backpack, but recovered enough to poke fun at Hanna for the singsong voice she adopted during bartering. A typical exchange went something like this:

  • Hanna (upon receipt of the first offer): Oh, no, no, no. Too much, too much. I bought this much less at another store. (Gives counteroffer.)
  • Merchant: Oh, no, no, no. Cannot be, too cheap, too cheap. Who sold for that?
  • Hanna: I bought one week ago, two blocks that way. (Gestures vaguely “that way.”)
  • Merchant: Same same, but different. This better.
  • Hanna (shaking head): No, no, just the same. We will go back to other store. (Turns away.)
  • Merchant: For you, best price. (Gives counteroffer.)
  • Hanna frowns and holds her chin in her hand for a moment, considering, then makes another counteroffer.
  • Merchant accepts. Smiles all around.

Laura caught on quickly, although she staged one minor rebellion and bought a Mickey Mouse scarf against Hanna’s better judgment. We bought a few gifts and souvenirs that evening before our menfolk pooped out altogether.

Later during our stay we returned to the Old Quarter for sightseeing and more shopping, learning a few more tips along the way. For instance, there are so many stores in the Old Quarter that it is easy to forget where they are located. Most shops provide business cards so that a shopper can find them again. Hanna had quite a collection. If a merchant makes an offer in dollars rather than dong, it means s/he will accept dollars in payment. Also, while bartering is acceptable at most stores, there are some with firm pricing. In general these are specialized artisans or craft cooperatives. How to know for sure? If a store has individual price tags on each item, then the prices are fixed.

These are some of the noteworthy fixed-price stores we visited:

  1. Gingko Biloba T-shirts – high quality, original design tee shirts. The girls and I each bought a “Vietnam Telecom” tee shirt.
  2. Mekong Quilts – beautiful handmade quilts. The girls each picked out a “Circles” quilt. Phil and I selected a quilt reminiscent of the ones we would see later at Mai Chau. The store kindly delivered our purchases to Hanna’s house later that evening so that we would not have to lug heavy quilts around the city.
  3. XQ Viet Nam – exquisite hand embroidery. The finished products are breathtaking in their detail. There are works in progress throughout the store, which also contains a museum dedicated to the art. The store will wrap purchases securely for airplane transit.
  4. Craft Link – a not-for-profit organization for traditional crafts artists offering a wide assortment of scarves, jewelry, clothing, purses and home accessories.

Although Craft Link was a fixed-price store, it had a clearance section! Not only did we find the journal Laura had been seeking, but also some lovely silk scarves at an extremely reasonable price. I bought all of the scarves they had left to give out as gifts. At first I felt a bit bad at how inexpensive some of our gifts were, until I rationalized that distributing the cost of our air fare among the gifts made then quite expensive.

There seemed to be a store featuring Apple iPhones on every corner, and counterfeit goods abounded. Copies of brand-name luggage, watches, and clothing were available ranging from obvious fakes to not being able to tell a difference. The labeling sometimes gave it away, though. A sock merchant on one corner had identical socks branded “Tommy Hilfiger,” “Tommy Hlfger,” and “Tommy Helen.” I sincerely wish I had taken a picture.

Laura wanted to have a dress made by a tailor during our stay, but there was not enough time. Hanna had quite a few outfits made while she was there. She would go to a fabric market to buy material, then the tailor would make each garment to measure. Hanna also had a traditional ao dai made for herself, Laura and me. I wore mine to Phil’s office Christmas party and received many compliments.

JCMG Christmas Party 2011. This party pic cost more than the infamous “Joseph the Pineapple Vendor” shot in Hanoi.

I would have to say that the girls and I enjoyed shopping more than Phil and Joseph did. Joseph did barter for a hammer and sickle tee shirt all by himself, but passed on the opportunity to get an inexpensive foot massage (40 minutes for $6). Phil took Joseph to a money changer just for the experience. Phil’s major purchases were for scarves for his female employees from Mai Chau (I know, I know . . . I promise to post about Mai Chau next week) and robust Vietnamese coffee.

Toward the end of our visit, the girls and I happened to pass by the store with the backpack that Laura wanted. We stopped in and Laura practiced the skills she had been honing all week. This time she scored the backpack . . . for even less than Hanna had coached her to settle for. Unfortunately, it started to unravel inside right after we returned home.

Next week: Mai Chau!

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