The Sales Culture of Vietnam

Heather Markel, Writer, Photographer, Speaker, Globetrotter

6 November 2018

The sales culture ends up teaching me a lot of lessons and shifting my entire perspective of Vietnam.

Even in the most peaceful of locations in Vietnam, I’m amazed that it’s impossible to escape a flock of sellers. In fact, it may be worse in the remote locations than in bigger cities. I’m writing this post from Hoi An. It’s in the middle of the country and, so far, one of the two most beautiful places I’ve been. (Sa Pa being the other, though Ninh Binh is lovely, too!) Funny enough, my two top picks for beauty turn out to also be the worst places to go in terms of the sellers.

Trinkets for sale in Hoi An, Vietnam.

Photograph by Heather Markel, Copyright 2018

Let me clarify. By sellers, I mean the people that want you to buy from them – be it souvenirs, the women holding those cool double baskets full of fruit, people with stalls in the market, people in shops, people on the beach, women from various tribes in Sa Pa…you just can’t escape them. The women, so far, want to sell me food, clothes, accessories and the men want to sell me motorcycle and taxi rides. Selling is so pervasive in the Vietnamese culture that I wanted to devote an entire post to it.

“women want to sell me food and clothes, men want to sell me motorcyle and taxi rides.”

First Impressions of Being Sold To

My first reaction, as I realized that I could not escape the sellers, and that it keeps getting worse, is that It pisses me off and makes me want to try another country. There are times I am so sick and tired of feeling like prey circled by human vultures wanting to pick the carcass of my wallet clean. I start out by being greatly concerned about offending the women, who are much more aggressive about selling than the men. I don’t want to offend them, hurt their feelings…this only gets me taken advantage of. (Remember, I’m working on self respect, so this has been a great lesson for me!) In Sa Pa, and because I’m Jewish, I can say this – I think they must be part Jewish. I have never in my life seen a worse guilt trip in my life. If you buy from one woman, her friend, who has watched you make the purchase, will then insist you buy from her. If you say no, she will say her purse is different from the one you just bought, and you need two…eventually she will almost cry if you don’t buy and ask “You buy from her, why you no buy from me?”!!!

Newlyweds in new banana outfits. (All the couples do it, friends too, and I did, too, ha!)

Photograph by Heather Markel, Copyright 2018

The Pivot

When I reach Hoi An, I think it can’t possibly be worse than in Sa Pa. I’m immediately seized upon by my hotel staff. Think about the experience like when you stay in a low budget hotel in Vegas where you can’t escape the damn timeshare people who want you to sit through a brief demo and give you a free ticket to a show if you do. Except in Vietnam it’s like you buy the timeshare and don’t get a show. Everyone here has a family member that works someplace they want to bring you so you can buy. I’m now not sure if I feel worse about being sold to in Vietnam or being in a meat market. I quickly realize they have no concern for my feelings in their persistent demands of me, so I begin to lose my concern for theirs in my rejections. (Again, helpful for my self respect issue, woo hoo!)

From Overwhelm to Empowerment

After almost 3 weeks here, I’m beginning to get more confident. First, I don’t care about offending people by rejecting them anymore. I’ll waive them off, just say no, or the new phrase I learned, “khong cam on” (no thank you), or walk away. I simply couldn’t give a shit anymore. But on the flip side, I’m learning how to bargain. At first I felt completely rude and silly for bargaining over 50 cents, now I feel like I’m saying “I won’t be taken advantage of – I know I shouldn’t pay any more than half of the price you’re offering me.” I now place a price I want to pay in my mind and keep it there and if the bargaining doesn’t work, I put the item down, walk away, and then suddenly, they agree to my price. In a strange way, this whole experience is empowering and I am grateful for it in my journey. I’ve learned about my own value, how to negotiate and feel good about it, and how to avoid being taken advantage of.

A New Perspective

I receive another point of view to this culture on my plane ride from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh. The Vietnamese man next to me speaks English really well. (And owns a Czech Beer bar, and recommends one of the most fantastic restaurants I’ve eaten in during my stay in Vietnam!) His name sounds like “Juan” but it’s for sure spelled differently! I learn from him that in Ho Chi Minh a studio apartment is roughly $300/month (about 6,900,000 dong) and a one-bedroom costs about $500/month (roughly 11,500,000 dong.) I’m sure prices vary a bit, but when a vendor wants 200,000 dong for a shirt and I bargain them down to 100,000, that leaves them needing to sell about 69 of those in a month for a studio apartment – so I can understand why they work so hard to sell! And, in fact, that’s the point – Vietnamese people work hard. They’re willing to get their hands dirty. When I tell “Juan” that I notice very few, if any, homeless people, he explains that it’s because everyone is willing to work, and because family is so helpful, they find work for everyone. That’s pretty touching, and damn efficient, if you ask me. Makes me re-think  my assessment of Hoi An – imagine if your entire family – immediate and extended cousins and beyond – were working together to ensure the entire family were provided for? Gives me a great deal of respect for the sales culture here, after all.

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