Hoi An Market is a colourful and chaotic place that has the contradictory characteristics of being alluring and at the same time just plain scary. It can be daunting alright, the noise, the heat and the durian form a three-pronged attack on the senses. Not to mention the background band of vendors singing Buy Something Buy Something to the beat of beeping motorbikes.
This old town has a history of trading that stretches back to the the 12th century – it’s rich soil and riverside location made it the perfect market port. To this day the produce sold at the market is known throughout Vietnam for its quality. This, coupled with the absence of a local supermarket means the old market remains the beating heart of Hoi An.
Not surprisingly, as Hoi An’s popularity has soared in recent years so has the market’s. This has had both positive and negative ramifications for foreign shoppers. Tourists can get by speaking English relatively easily but there is a tendency to overcharge out-of-towners.
And the truth is you are as likely to stumble across a scam as a bargain, especially as you have irresponsibly decided to be foreign and white. It’s dog eat dog, but fortunately not human eat dog as it’s not that type of market. You shouldn’t worry too much, there are bargains to be found, and if you use this guide as your compass you might just get out alive and with some Dong in your pocket (Dong is the currency … again, it’s not that type of market).
Learn the Lingo
A little bit of Vietnamese goes a long way in Vietnam and Hoi An is no exception. They like a foreigner who makes the effort and knowing your Xin Chao’s and your cam on’s doesn’t go unnoticed. Learn the numbers too and it’s amazing how the price drops.
If all that sounds like too much effort you should at least consider arming yourself with dat qua (too expensive) and giam gia (discount).
And although the vendors are becoming increasingly accustomed to hearing and using English, miscommunication can happen. I learnt this the hard way as I asked for meat in English. Little did I know that ‘meat’ in Vietnamese means Jackfruit. Jackfruit pie and gravy is no alternative, trust me.
It’s worth mentioning, if you didn’t know, that Vietnamese is a tonal language. For example, the word bo can mean beef or lover depending on your pronunciation. So be careful, confusing the two can really ruin a meal or for that matter a relationship.
Get yourself a lady
In Vietnam there’s an old saying, a smart man finds a wife in the market, and there’s certainly truth in that. It takes a special type of woman to make it in the market. She must have tenacity, endurance and a strong nose that can cope with all manner of horrific smells. All skills applicable to married life.
Each and every stall is manned (poor phrase) by a woman. And the ladies, like the market itself, can be fantastic and terrifying in equal measure. To survive a trip you need all the friends you can get. So if you’re planning on staying a while, and why wouldn’t you, it’s a good idea to align yourself to at least one of them.
A market lady is nobody’s fool. And you know the old saying, if you can’t beat them, join them.
Barter! Barter! Barter!
Once you’ve got yourself a lady this one should become much less of an issue. However, if there’s one thing that terrifies visitors it’s having to haggle… that and malaria.
In Vietnam few things have a fixed price, so at some point you’ll have to bite the bullet and barter.
Usually you might be quoted around twice the price you should be paying, but of course this isn’t always the case. As a rule of thumb, take you time and be very cautious about accepting the first price. Here’s where the Dat Qua! from earlier comes in handy.
Do your research
An important one. And by simply reading this article you are on the right track. But you might benefit from reading a little more than a few throw-away lines on Hoi An markets. Look up a price list or at very least ask around.
At the market you can get almost anything from anyone so take your time and find the best price. Haggling can be hard, but it’s made a lot easier knowing roughly the right price. Of course, ignorance is bliss, and I have often witnessed tourists pat themselves on the back after a bartering battle because they have managed to bring the price down by a few dong, despite still paying twice as much as they should.
Enjoy the market, enjoy the heat, and the tenacious market ladies. Enjoy mispronouncing beef, the neverending noise, the fresh food, the cheap clothes, and even the haggle. You should enjoy the whole incredible experience, except the durian, avoid the durian like death.
Beyond the language and cultural differences we all know how to smile. And nobody will want to give a good price to a miserable person, that’s not lucky you see? So smile, after all your in Hoi An, you have no reason not to.