Shopping and bargaining in Vietnam

Many tourists can’t help but throw themselves head-first into shopping while in Vietnam. Why? Probably the variety of quality goods and the tempting prices have a lot to do with it. Many low-budget travelers considered Vietnam a heavenly place because in many shopping situations they can bargain the prices down to as much as a third of the original cost.

The list of Vietnamese bargains is seemingly endless and features bespoke tailoring and the national dress, the 'ao dai' from high-quality silk and many other types of material and textiles while many shoppers cannot get enough of the local handicraft, art and jewelry.

1. What souvenirs are available to bring home?

Most visitors like to take souvenirs and gifts with them when they go home. The following suggestions are ‘very Vietnamese’, but not too heavy or bulky. We can provide advice, and assist you to get what you want at a fair price. Your guide will also be a good source of information.

a) Good quality Vietnamese tea?

This can be bought in specialist shops in the large cities. A kilogramme of top-quality tea costs around $8.00 US if lightly flavoured with flower or herb ‘essence’, or about $5.00 US without flavouring.

b) Good quality 'Trung Nguyen' Vietnamese coffee

A kilogramme of top-notch Robusta coffee beans from Trung Nguyen (the Central Highlands) costs around $4.00 US. Arabica will be more expensive. An unusual present would be some ‘Weasel Coffee', but it is advisable to tell the recipient how it is produced after he or she has experienced its mellow taste (check the 'Eating and Drinking' page if you haven't already done so!)

c) Ethnic scarves, garments,etc.

Items made by members of Vietnam’s many ethnic groups make excellent and inexpensive souvenirs and presents. They are available from shops in the tourist areas of cities, and from towns near communities of ethnic people. However, ethnic products have usually been bought at low prices by intermediaries, denying the producers a fair price for their work. We recommend buying direct from the producers wherever possible. 

As a rough guide, a reasonable amount to pay for a woven scarf should be from $2.00 US upwards, depending on the complexity of pattern and design. A garment, such as a woven, embroidered or appliquéd jacket, should cost from $15.00 US upwards. Natural dyes are often used, so colours should be fixed before washing.

d) Vietnamese lacquerware

Lacquerware is a long-standing Vietnamese tradition. Usually applied to a papier mache object, it is both light and durable. It is also an artwork technique. Prices for lacquerware articles begin at $1.00 US for a small dish, $3.00 US for a large dish, $10 for a set of table mats, and so on. However, the quality of lacquerware depends upon the number or processes used – good quality products are expensive. A wide range of lacquerware, and lacquer artwork and objects, are available in souvenir shops and galleries in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Larger items such as ornaments and furniture are good value – we can arrange for them to be shipped to customers’ home addresses.

e) Ceramics and pottery

Products vary from high-quality porcelain to simple fired clay objects, and the range is enormous. As an indication of prices, a good quality plate from Bat Trang Village costs about $2.00 US and a café cup about $1.00 US. Small tea sets make good presents.

f) Embroider

Hand-embroidered items are good value and excellent souvenirs. Prices vary according to detail and the quality of the base material. A good pair of pillow cases or a set of bedlinen, both on a white cotton base, should cost around $6.00 US and $25.00 US respectively.

g) Vietnamese silk

Genuine Vietnamese silk is mainly muted in colour – bright colours are often indicative of Chinese imports or synthetic fibres. Quality varies widely. Prices for reasonable quality silk begin at about $3.00 per metre for 90cm wide material.

2. Is it good idea to take gifts?

Giving small gifts to those who have performed a special service or with whom you have a working relationship is greatly appreciated. Anything from your local area, such as cakes, sweets, chinaware or photo books or calendars, is a good idea. Otherwise, inexpensive make-up, perfume, jewellery and pretty toiletries go down well with women, while men will prefer pens, cigarette lighters, imported cigarettes, whisky or other spirits and car / biking magazines. For children, obviously small toys such as inflatable playground balls and skipping ropes are popular and easy to transport. Or how about drawing books / pads of paper and pencils or crayons, erasers, model cars, small-size T-shirts and other clothes.
When presenting gifts, don’t expect effusive thanks as this isn’t Vietnamese style. Whatever their reaction, you can be sure that the gift was appreciated.

3. Should I bargain for everything?

Almost everything is negotiable in Vietnam (with the notable exception of meals) and bargaining is very much part of the Vietnamese way of life. All tourists are regarded as wealthy - which we are compared to most locals - but that doesn’t mean you’ll always be quoted an outrageous price; small shopkeepers and restaurateurs will often charge you the local rate. 

When bargaining it helps if you know some Vietnamese numbers and have a general idea of the going rate for the item. Otherwise, the trick is to remain friendly, be realistic and make the process fun. If you manage to reduce the price by 40%, you’re doing well. In most cases it’ll be more like 10-20%.
A common ploy is to start moving away if you’re on the verge of agreement. But don’t bargain just for the sake of it. If your price is agreed, then you are honour bound to purchase. And always keep a sense of perspective: don’t waste time and energy haggling over what only amounts to a few cents.

There are 10 bargain rules in Vietnam as bellow:

1. Do comparative shopping before deciding on what you are willing to pay for an item.

2. Don't get emotional about items in front of salespeople. Try to look disinterested. You want the salesperson to think you need a discount in order to decide to buy an item.

3. When asking "How much is this item?," don't show any emotion when you hear the answer. The stated price should be considered the first asking price. Maintain an air of uncertainty about whether you want to purchase the item.

4. Take your time. Once you learn the price, count to 20, then respond with "Oh, it's that much?" Start looking around at other items in the shop.

5. Ask your first bargaining question about the "possibility of a discount." When the vendor responds with a lower price, take your time and reply with "Is it possible to do any better on the price?" Anything is possible in Vietnam and Cambodia!

6. Make a counter offer that is 40 percent of the initial asking price and then keep moving toward an acceptable 20-percent discount. This offer will most likely be rejected, with a 5-percent discount being offered instead. But keep going back and forth until you achieve that 20-percent discount.

7. Slowly leave the shop if you're not getting the discount you want. This may induce the shopkeeper to yield.

8. Return to the shop either at the very end of the day or the first of the next day. Timing is important in the final negotiation. The last customer of the day, or the first customer of the day, often has a price advantage.

9. Buy the item regardless of the final outcome of your negotiations. If it's something you really want, but you're not making progress in bargaining, go ahead and buy it anyway. If you don't, you may regret having passed it up

10. Bargain for needs, not greed. Make sure you really want the item before you start bargaining for it. Avoid bargaining just for the sake of getting a bargain.

4. What should we know before shopping for Jewelry and Gemstones?

Qualities of Gemstones 
A gemstone should have visual beauty, durability, and rarity.

Beauty is somewhat subjective, with various cultures preferring certain gemstones over others, and different kinds of gemstones rising and ebbing in popularity over time within a culture. Beauty may be judged by the depth or absence of color.

Durability refers to the hardness, toughness, and stability of a gemstone. 
The hardness is defined by a value on the Mohs hardness scale. A diamond, for example, is at the very top of the scale--a ten--the hardest gemstone. Gemstones with a hardness of less than seven are easily scratched. 

Toughness refers to a stone's resistance to cracking, chipping, or breaking. While diamonds are the hardest stone, they lack toughness. 
Stability refers to a stone's resistance to chemical or structural change. Pearls can be damaged by acid, alcohol, or perfume. Porous stones, such as turquoise and coral, can pick up oils from the skin or be damaged by harsh cleansing agents.

Confusing Gemstone Names 
While most people know the names of the four precious gemstones--diamond, ruby, sapphire, and emerald--few are familiar with the mineral names of precious and semi-precious stones.

Sapphire and ruby are the gem names given to the mineral corundum. Gem quality corundum which is red is a ruby. Gem quality corundum in any other color is a sapphire; thus, sapphires can be yellow, pink, purple, green, white, even black.

Beryl is the mineral name for emeralds and aquamarines. A deep green beryl is an emerald, whereas a watery blue beryl is an aquamarine.

Rubies are not mined in Brazil. If a jeweler in Brazil tries to sell you a "Brazilian ruby" or rubellite, ask for the mineral name of that stone; you should be told it is a tourmaline. You need to know that a tourmaline is a different stone than a corundum.

a) Karats and Carats

Don't confuse these two! Karat is a measure of the purity of gold, whereas carat indicates the weight of a gemstone.

Most gold jewelry sold in the U.S. is either 14 or 18 karat; most gold sold in Brazil is 18K. In much of the world, 14K gold is marked as .585, and 18K as .750. These numbers indicate the percentage of gold the item contains; 18K gold is 75% gold and 25% base metal. Pure gold is soft and needs to be alloyed with other more durable metals. The base metals used as alloys and their amount create the different colors of gold.

b) Natural Stones, Synthetic Stones and Simulated Gems

Natural stones are formed by nature and are more scarce and have more value than synthetic stones. Synthetic stones are composed of the exact same substance as the natural stone, but are produced in the laboratory.

Natural stones, because of being formed by an accident of nature rather than intentionally by man, usually contain inclusions. If a stone is flawless, you should be suspicious that it may be synthetic.

Simulated stones are the cheapest of all. In these, the optical properties closely resemble the real gem, but the chemical properties are different. A jeweler would easily know the difference. An example is a spinal or zircon versus a diamond. Both are real stones, but the diamond has much more value.

Imitation stones may be made of glass or plastic, or may be composite stones consisting of a thin slice of the gem material beneath (doublet) or between (triplet) other material of no value.

"Enhancement of gemstones" has become common in recent years. Irradiation, chemical treatment, or heat may be applied to enhance the appearance of the stone. While these practices are legal, they should be disclosed on request, but often are not.

c) The Four C's

Referring to natural gemstones, these are color, clarity, cut, and carat, and determine the value of the stones.

  • Color varies with the stone, but generally a stone with a uniform and deep saturation of color will have greater value.
  • Clarity refers to the absence of inclusions.  
  • Cut varies with the stone and personal preference.
  • Carat refers to the weight of the stone; one stone weighing three carats is more valuable than three stones totaling three carats.

d) Natural, Cultured and Simulated Pearls

Natural pearls, formed as an accident of nature, are rare. Cultured pearls are formed in exactly the same way as natural pearls, with the difference being that man has deliberately inserted an "irritant" (small bead) into oysters raised for this purpose. Few pearls in stores are natural pearls.

Simulated pearls look like the real thing but have a different composition; many of them are plastic!

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