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Wednesday, June 27, 2007


Do hawkers sleep well?

I recently received an email from a friend in Australia which said '...you need to be very cautious as the population obviously thrives on fleecing tourists'. Please friends, don't lose any sleep over my challenges in Vietnam.

I wonder if my recent blog 'Hanoi hawkers' might have been an overreaction. Did I bring my friend to this belief? If so, I need to revisit the subject and put it in a different perspective.

When one arrives in Hanoi everything is new. Even though I've spent much of the past four years in Asia, this is different, so I walk the streets with eyes wide open. I see the hawkers in the street and stare. Naturally enough, they zoom right in on me. I am unfamiliar with Vietnamese prices, or at least that is what they expect, so some see it as an opportunity to milk as much money as possible from me.

However, this is not all hawkers and lets face it, only a small proportion of the 3.5 million people living in Hanoi are hawkers. Most of the people I've spoken to here are friendly and helpful. Some of the hawkers have even got to know me and say things like 'Oh, we are friends now and still you won't buy anything to help me.' Guilt manipulation? Perhaps, but with the tongue wedged in the cheek.

What is a fair price? We in the west are conditioned by the concept of the 'recommended retail price'. We think there is a correct fair price for everything. If we pay less it's a bargain. If we pay more we've been ripped off. This is our culture. Please excuse the people of Asia if this is not theirs. They have a right to their own culture.

So, when you visit an Asian country the first thing to remember is: There is no such thing as a fair price. The second thing to remember is: The correct price is whatever the customer is prepared to pay and the vendor sell for.

When a vendor sells their goods to a local there is no point in asking a highly inflated price. The local either can't afford it or simply won't pay it. So they ask a reasonable price, perhaps a little higher than they expect to get. The buyer makes a counter offer, a little bargaining takes place and a price is agreed on. Correct? Fair? Who knows? It is simply the price that both buyer and seller have agreed on. Both had the option to decline at any time.

When a vendor sees a foreigner they know either from experience or hearsay that foreigners are crazy and will pay anything. Think of a number and multiply it by ten. Is that the correct price? It is if the foreigner is stupid enough to pay it. You have choices. You can make a counter offer or you can walk away. You don't have to pay it. If you choose to do so, don't blame the vendor. You have a choice.

After spending a little time in a country a few things happen. First I stop staring, second I start to get a feel for the usual (I almost wrote 'correct') price for the goods. I hate bargaining. Therefore I probably pay more than the locals. Occasionally I get ripped of badly but usually we are talking about a few cents. In Australian money I am still getting a bargain.

I walked up and down the market this morning comparing prices of mangosteen. I love this fruit and it is said to be very healthy. The first vendor asked for 20,000 dong per kilo. I immediately compared this to what I had paid for lichees, 5,000 dong, and was shocked. I tried other vendors. The best price I could get was 25,000 so I went back to the first vendor and bought my kilo. I was disappointed when I got home. Half of them were off and I had to throw them out. But it's not a big deal. The whole kilo cost me a total of $A1.50. Mangosteen are rarely available in Australian supermarkets and when they are there is no way I can buy half a kilo for $1.50.

Is our culture more moral than theirs? What did you pay the last time you bought a t-shirt? I've seen t-shirts in Australia 'on sale' at $79. On the other hand I've paid as little as $A2 for t-shirts in Cambodia and Malaysia. Who is making the big profit? Certainly not the vendor in an Asian country. When Billabong buy there t-shirts in bulk from an Asian factory what is the price they pay? I don't know, but my guess is that it is less than $A1 a piece. What price do you pay for that same shirt in Sydney or Brisbane?

Mr Billabong sleeps in his extravagant beachfront mansion on the New South Wales north coast. The Asian hawker probably sleeps on a rattan mat on a concrete floor. I wonder who sleeps more soundly.

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