How I Learned To Negotiate While Traveling In Vietnam

February 14, 2010 § 2 Comments

photo courtesy of  Tony Trần

The cab driver always waited outside the gates of the volunteer hostel. Everyday it was the same. Between 1pm to 5pm, the same cab with the same driver will be at the gates of the Peace House, smoking a fag or drinking green tea at the coffee stall.

He knows foreigners pay big money. Some of the volunteers don’t bother negotiating. And its an hour and half to Hanoi city centre from here. Cab fares are usually arranged before hand. There are no other cabs, unless you walk 15 minutes out to the main dusty road.

“Ga Hanoi, Bao nhiêu?” (Hanoi train station, how much?)

He would give me a price. I’d insist on a much lower one.
He would shake his head, I’d show my pissed face.
He gives me the same figure, I start walking along the dusty road. Still pissed.
Seemed like a permanent stalemate.

Back in Vietnam, I had an issue with negotiation. I thought negotiation meant putting up a strong front and insisting you get it your way, or the highway. Those feelings came easily. Foreigner in a unfamiliar land surrounded by people who don’t understand what I’m saying, and I couldn’t make a word out of the beautiful language they were speaking.


Until I saw how a street smart Estonian girl show me how its done. Same scenario, occasionally with a different driver. Valen was all smiles, she had similar language difficulties. But boy did she charm him into lowering the cab fee.

“C’mon, một trăm hai mươi ok? I’m your friend! :)”

And then she tried to shake hands with him. She got it. He was smiling too. Yeah I know what you’re thinking. Valen’s a pretty girl, she has golden hair, so its easy for her.

Yes and no. This is actually a great case study in negotiation can be learned and duplicated.

Doug Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen’s Difficult Conversations has been helpful in revealing the details of  a successful negotiation. Here are four basic concepts to keep in mind:

1. Stop Arguing About Who’s Right: Explore Each Other’s Stories

Its really not that difficult, and investing another minute into understanding why the other party is giving you a certain price will be key to finding middle ground. We think that they’re trying to make money of tourists and travelers, they think we’re foreigners and we ought to pay more.

In many South East Asian countries this is the foreigner-local conundrum. The Harvard Negotiation Team that wrote  Difficult Conversations calls this “We Think They Are the Problem, They Think We Are The Problem”. If this sounds like a situation you’re facing with your girl/boyfriend you’re right on.

2. Move From Certainty To Curiosity

Of course, I’m not asking you to sit down with the cab driver over green tea, talking about his childhood or work experiences. But if you spent more time with locals, talking to them and finding out what their perception of foreigners are, I think you’ll get a ballpark idea of how they dream up these big money figures. What do they think of us? How do locals expect foreigners to be like? What would make the locals feel at ease?

The first mistake we make is  that our assumptions about their intentions are often wrong. Is it really true they are all out to make lots of money from us?

In the case of Vietnam, most of the locals would never dream of a chance to travel out of their country. While wars may seem a distant past, the country has limited interaction with the outside world. I wrote a deeper analysis of the Vietnamese and South East Asian experience previously.

I’m Asian and I probably look just like the locals, but a smattering of broken Vietnamese blows my cover. Thats why I’ve paid three to four times what locals would pay for a drink or a baguette.

3. Abandon Blame: Map the Contribution System

If a negotiation is going nowhere, its probably safe to say both parties made a contribution to the situation. In the above scenario, I made a hard-to-spot contribution to the stalemate.

Being unapproachable.

“The flip side….is having an interpersonal style that keeps people at bay. You contribute by being uninterested, unpredictable, short-tempered, judgemental, punitive, hypersensitive, argumentative, or unfriendly.” -Difficult Conversations

Yep, I was ALL of the above with the cab driver.

4. What Can Be Done Differently?

Valen did a couple of things right. She had been in Vietnam for four months, worked, played, partied with the locals. She understands where the locals are coming from with the money issue.

If there is any one thing that rivals (and sometimes complements) the importance of money in Vietnam, its the friendship of foreigners. Really, the Vietnamese people want to be your friend!

But only if you show that you can be their friend first. You do that by being friendly and open. Sure, its risky, but isn’t that the way with life? The pro-active person takes a small amount of risk with rejection, but she wins by having more friends and favors on her side.

Beyond local sentiments, our Estonian friend also demonstrated that feelings are at the heart of tough conversations. Inject some humanity into your negotiation to get the other person to loosen up and play ball. You won’t get anywhere with a poker face.

“If you can make a girl laugh – you can make her do anything.”
-Marilyn Monroe


A month later I made my final trip back to the Peace House for one last time. I had backpacked down south to discover the multifaceted Vietnamese lifestyle. I’m back in Hanoi to catch my flight back to Singapore for the evening. But not before going back to the Peace House for goodbyes.

At the Old Quarter, I stopped a xe ôm (motorbike taxi) driver. I was tired and weary, and its a bloody hot day. Not in a happy state of mind.

The driver gives me his price, and at that moment, Valen’s words flash by in miliseconds. My cue, with a smile:

” Hey I’m not new here! Sáu Mươi Nghìn? 🙂 ”


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§ 2 Responses to How I Learned To Negotiate While Traveling In Vietnam

  • Elizabeth Onstwedder says:

    I like this one! Personal examples are always good, I think.
    Very nice!


    • kziqi says:

      Hi Elizabeth, thanks for the comments!

      I hadn’t put much thought to this initially, but some memories and lessons are coming back to me every now and then. I’m sure you’ve had many too.


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