Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Price Gouging

I'm in a dark mood at the moment. My wife has asked me to stay in the bedroom with the door shut. Someone is around to clean the drain on the balcony. There was a thunderstorm on Sunday - a very early one for April, and the outflow was blocked. Water flooded into the house. Fortunately, nothing was damaged, but that drain needs to be unblocked, and quickly, because more rain is going to fall. So someone's coming around with the mother of all pipe cleaners.

So why do I have to hide in my room? The workman isn't doing it for free. There's a price attached to the exercise. The problem is that if the man sees me - a white man - he's going to mark up the price big time, and my wife knows this. So I'm typing this instead in the darkness.

I like the country, but this is one of the things that can shit me about the place - when Vietnamese attempt to gouge the foreigners. What's worse, it's almost done unconsciously. It doesn't happen to me too often, but I've read the occasional "I'm never coming back to this place" post on Mekong ESL. Firstly, where does this attitude come from?

One main reason is that Việt Nam has a bargaining culture. You name a price, they name a counter-price, and with many a cry of "Mắc quá" (literally, "too expensive"), you agree on the value of the purchase. Now, I have no problem with that. It's part of the culture. Of course, tourists pay higher than the locals - they don't have the language, and sometimes tour guides advise them to pay in United States Dollars. (To which I say, assholes. You pay in đồng in this country, and you get better bargains for it. A mother of a friend of mine got extorted that way.) But a little bit of the local lingo goes a long way to cheapen things. Sometimes, it's even fun.

But there are other reasons. It's a legacy of the old two-price system that Việt Nam used to have. One price for locals, and one, far higher, price for foreigners:

The example was set by the highest government officials and quickly trickled down to the lowest street vendor selling baguettes or noodle soup. There is a two-tiered pricing system for nearly all admission tickets and restaurants will commonly have two menus: one in Vietnamese and one in English, but with very different prices. Old women selling pineapples on the street will refuse to sell one to you unless you pay at least double the local price, even if it means losing the sale.

Grumpy, isn't he? But understandably so. This sort of thing pisses off a lot of foreigners, especially if it is in your face. That went double for overseas Vietnamese (I gather); they knew they were being screwed over. Pissed-off customers don't come back. Moreover, they tell their friends. Paradoxical as it may seem, the country made more money after they rolled back the system in the early noughties. Tourists were happier, and reviews were better. Best of all, you started getting a lot of visitors and workers from poorer places, such as African countries. (You think the two-price system just affected rich Westerners, Koreans and Japanese? Think again. It applied as much to Chinese and Russians - people less able to afford these anti-subsidies.)  

The two-price system is almost gone, although exceptions remain, such as the Củ Chi tunnels. Most people print one menu with both Vietnamese and English (and Korean, and Japanese...) on it; it's a lot, lot cheaper, and there's clearly one price for all. Supermarkets are the same - you see the little sticker, you read the little number, and you know what to pay - auslander or no. Roadside stalls are now generally pretty good when it comes to coffee and coke, and you can bargain them down.

As for restaurants: the last time I encountered the "two menu" dodge was about a year and a half ago in Nha Trang, when I was suspicious as to the absence of Vietnamese words. (The trick to get around it: ask for both menus, on the pretext of "practicing my Vietnamese". Compare and contrast. Then ask the waitresses why there's a difference. Be calm about it - it's not their fault, it's the (suspiciously unavailable) manager's. Having my wife present to translate helped a lot. We paid the cheaper price, and agreed never to visit there again. I should say that my wife hates the phenomenon of overcharging a lot more than I do.)

But then you get what happened last night. My wife and I were on the way home, and we decided to stop at a fruit shop. She'd bought there a bag of some fruit for 20,000 đ by her lonesome some days ago. Alas, I was present in person this time, so the price magically doubled to 40,000 đ. I glanced at the fruit seller. There was no spark in her eyes - nothing like the old "scheming bargainer" stereotype that you sometimes get on expat/tourist blogs. I'd describe it as a slightly sullen blankness. I don't think she thought too hard about the consequences - angering a former customer, or that there'd be no sale as a result there, or in the future. (There's a lot of fruit sellers in this town.) I don't think she thought at all. Foreigner - therefore price gouge. As automatic a reaction as Pavlov's dog. Fortunately, cases like this are the exception, but a very large one.

Please, please, please - all Vietnamese reading - finish the two price system for good. And soon... preferably in the next hour. Because the workman hasn't left yet, and I'm stuck in my bedroom, and my bladder is about to burst.

(Update: the workman was a pretty decent guy, and hard-working too. He cleaned out that pipe, and I was even allowed out to meet him before he left. No price increase happened, but due to his diligence, he was given a nice - and unrequested - tip. I have no problem paying above the standard price. However, I do have a problem with being expected to pay above the standard price, 100% of the time.)