Look, how much to stop haggling?

Image of Robert Shrimsley

There is surely no human activity more pointless than haggling over goods in a holiday bazaar. This epiphany came to me somewhere between the cheap leather wallets and the fake Rolexes as my wife argued furiously in an attempt to save 50p on the cost of a T-shirt and the rain leaked through the roof of a dingy market in central Vietnam.

For many, the experience of haggling in some foreign market is one of those essential holiday highlights. No trip is complete without your haggling story, although, since the vendor never goes below their minimum price, all haggling stories can essentially be expressed as “look how little I got ripped off on this one”.

Yet after more than two decades trailing listlessly behind a spouse in pursuit of bargains, I have still to spot a single item that might remotely be considered a steal among a house full of Thai buddhas, soapstone animals, ceramic incense burners, metal earrings, bead bracelets, Indian rugs and a plethora of monuments to bad taste which seemed like a good idea in the heat of the equatorial sun. We may pride ourselves on boycotting any products made by child labour at the first whiff of a Panorama special, but that’s not going to stop us loading our cases with miserable curios, mass-produced in some central sweatshop. Now we have a fine fresh bounty of Asian tat and haggling tales to complete our holiday experience. Some kind of lacquer wine-bottle holder we bargained down to the same price we later discovered it at on offer at the airport; a bag full of Communist party caps that are the staple of any visit to a “democratic republic”, some fake designer products and a backpack we could have secured in Shepherd’s Bush and on which the zip is already breaking – and that’s just the stuff we bought for ourselves; you should see the rubbish we got for the relatives.

And yet the trip to the market remains a holiday staple – a genuine interaction with the locals. Indeed, our Lonely Planet guide devoted a section to haggling best practice. Step one after asking the price is to laugh maniacally at the answer and offer a third (at which it’s the vendor’s turn to cackle) – laughing is important it seems, so we spent our days chortling like loons as we argued about pennies for some piece of junk destined for a window ledge in the loft. It would be nice to try these tactics in Waitrose: “How much is this Pinot Noir? Ah ha, hahahaha.”

In many cases the amounts in question are niggardly. If it’s a country where the currency is denominated in thousands, the haggling tale can sound impressive. You can spin quite a yarn about how you furiously forced the price down from 420,000 to 310,000 dong; it loses some of its power when it turns out to be a saving of £3.50.

But the fact that you are arguing over minuscule sums which mean rather more to them than you soon gives way to the determination not to be taken for another western mug. It may be only a couple of quid to you, but it’s the presumption that you are a fool with more cash than sense which rankles. Of course you are a fool with more money than sense, otherwise you wouldn’t be wasting your time in some airless fleapit haggling over this junk in the first place. Naturally, it is not all tat; there are ample chances to overpay for quality products, too.

Now, I respect the right of a wily Vietnamese market trader to overcharge a fat western tourist. But the overt existence of a haggling culture is a warning to tourists that you may be ripped off. How much better to have a fixed price with a tourist premium and a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. It needn’t be a single price; you could employ the techniques of price segmentation we so enjoy back home. But in place of the premium prices for organic products or “luxury” meals, we could offer one tariff for sickly looking backpackers; another for tour parties in polo shirts; and a third for middle-aged men in shorts, perhaps with a surcharge for obvious signs of insect repellent. I suppose a club card would be some way off and you’d certainly lose some of the “experience”, but, hey, it’s a price I’m ready to pay.


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