TRAVEL & LIFESTYLE

Negotiating Across Southeast Asia

Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Globetrotter, Business Strategist

2 December 2018

Learning and relearning how to negotiate in Southeast Asia was a difficult and fascinating experience.

In my opinion, money is about value and respect. I had a very interesting experience negotiating across Asia which was both empowering and disappointing. I learned to presume the opening price was much higher than I should pay, no matter which country I was in. This caused me some conflict because asking someone to lower their price meant, to me, I was implying I didn’t value their merchandise. I felt the opening price was disrespectful to tourists and yet I wrestled with whether I was devaluing and disrespecting the merchants I purchased from. This mental battle aside, here are some tips for negotiating in Southeast Asia.

Negotiating in Sa Pa, Vietnam.

Photograph by Heather Markel, Copyright 2018

Vietnam

My logic here was that whatever the asking price was, I knew I should be paying half. To get there I started with an offer of one third of the supposed price. That got the merchant to come down about a third of their original price. I worked my way up and either they would eventually offer half of their opening price and I’d agree, or, I’d come up to half their price and they’d accept. This worked a lot better than saying, “Can you lower the price?” which resulted in only a 5 or 10% discount.

“I believe money is about value and respect.”

Cambodia

I felt like I was taking advantage negotiating in Cambodia. I  simply offered a lower price and as they lowered it I repeated my original offer until they agreed to it. They always did and it took them roughly three to four attempts to get me to pay a higher price before they gave in.  I felt badly. I always knew I’d get the price I wanted. Even though I knew they were still making a profit I felt like I was paying too little and taking advantage of them.

Selling from boats in Cambodia.

Photograph by Heather Markel, Copyright 2018.

Thailand

It was much harder to negotiate here. Merchants value their products much more than in either Vietnam or Cambodia. I think they have many more tourists and have gotten used to getting a higher price. In Thailand my strategy was to figure out what I wanted to pay for an item. Since I knew that every merchant carried the same merchandise I simply walked away from anyone that wouldn’t come down to my price. I knew I’d find the same thing somewhere else and someone would accept with my asking price.

The underlying conflict I faced is knowing that prices, though inexpensive, are always more than items are worth and that I’m buying from someone who, by US standards, is poor. In the end, after six weeks in Asia, I became tired of negotiating every day. The prices are so low to begin with that I felt silly haggling over 50 cents or a dollar. It was always strange to feel victorious because I got someone down 50,000 dong or 400 baht and then realize that, in dollars, that was virtually nothing. By the end of my journey I often resorted to the “can you lower the price?” strategy and took the 5-10% discount. This allowed me to feel like I at least made an effort, and in the end, I hoped the extra 50 cents or dollar I paid might go towards creating a good life.

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