In Vietnam : The Market Divided

 

It took me a few weeks of living in this area of Đà Nẵng to discover the Bắc Mỹ An Market. Previously I’d bought fruit and vegetables at the supermarket, where an assistant weighs your produce on a digital scale, presses a button on a computer to calculate the cost, puts it into the inevitable plastic bag and slaps the computer generated sticky price label on it. No doubt about the price, it’s whatever appears on the label.

The Bắc Mỹ An is mostly a tourist and expat free zone. The stall holders speak little or no English. There are no computers or even cash tills. They keep their cash in a bag or purse. They have old-fashioned mechanical scales. Prices per kilogram or per piece are sometimes shown on pieces of cardboard, sometimes not. It’s very useful to know the basic Vietnamese numbers so that you can understand what they’re asking you to pay, decide if it’s reasonable or not, and hand over the correct amount of dong.

I was, and still am, a bit trepidatious about the market. It’s common knowledge that tourists and expats will usually be charged more than locals in markets. I don’t mind that as long as it’s not outrageously more than the local price. But the interesting thing I’ve noticed in Bac My An is that the stall holders at one end of the market, the eastern end, are almost uniformly pleasant, smiling and charge me pretty close to what they probably charge the locals (ok, call me naive). I can’t prove that, without recruiting a local to go around and buy the same as me, and compare prices, but I always feel that the price is very reasonable. However, at the western end of the market the stall holders seem intent on trying to gouge a lot more out of me for the same produce. I stress that this is just my impression, based on a small number of visits and interactions.

Today, at the east end of the market, I bought a hand of bananas (15,000 dong, about A$1), two dragon fruit (25,000 dong, about A$1.50), two mangoes (20,000 dong, about A$1.25), four potatoes and 5 tomatoes (25,000 dong, about A$1.50). All with very pleasant interactions and a few giggles as I tried to slowly translate “hai mươi lăm” and “mười lăm” (25 and 15 respectively, which means the price is 25,000 and 15,000 dong). I’m sure a longer term, more street savvy resident could have got the prices down, and a Vietnamese person would pay less again. I don’t bother to haggle, though I have given the bag back and walked away when I thought the price was outrageous.  To me, the prices I paid today are still bloody cheap, and I’m more than happy to keep buying from those stalls.

A number of times I’ve mistakenly given the stall holder way too much – for instance a 100,000 note thinking it was a 10,000 note – and they’ve given it straight back, pointing out my mistake. Mind you, there could have been times when they kept it and I was none-the-wiser, but I don’t think so.

At the other end of the market, I’ve been charged more than twice as much for dragon fruit, and three times as much for mangoes. I sense, perhaps incorrectly, that there is a more predatory attitude – a sort of “here’s a mark, here’s my chance to make a bit of easy money out of him”. In the overall scheme of things, it’s still petty cash to me, but significant to them, so I can’t blame them for trying. But the end result is that I don’t go back to the west-enders, and I continue to patronise the east-enders. It’s just a more relaxed, pleasant experience.

If my observations are accurate, I wonder how the different cultures developed in this one, smallish market. Do “honest” stall holders tend to hang out together, set up stall next to like-minded people? Do they berate “mean” vendors and banish them to the other end of the market?

On a macro-level, Đà Nẵng people seem to generally be pleasant, friendly and welcoming to foreigners. Friends who have lived in another Vietnamese city, which I won’t name, tell me that people there seem to be mean-spirited, hostile to foreigners and to resent their presence. How does this happen? I have sensed this in other countries too. You can arrive in a town and get a feeling about it – comfortable, uncomfortable, mean, friendly, hospitable, cold, safe, unsafe. This might be down to your first few interactions with people, and, no-doubt, two people can react in completely opposite ways to the same place. I know lots of people who like Melbourne for instance, but whenever I go there I have a sense of dislocation; there’s something about the place, the people, the culture of the city that just always makes me feel out-of-place. I have cycled a fairly short distance between towns in Cuba and sensed entirely different atmospheres. There are towns in Ireland that feel mean and cold, and others that feel warm and friendly, to me at least.

I’m very happy to have discovered the lovely people at the east-end of Bắc Mỹ An, and to be in a city where the atmosphere is one of openness and welcome, rather than suspicion and hostility.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2017

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