Monday, November 24, 2008

haggling in Ben Thanh

Question: Which retail space commands the highest selling price in the world?

If you answer Ginza or 5th Ave, think again. The answer is Ben Thanh Market, in downtown Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. As of August 2006, a stall in this traditional market commands a staggering price of 177,000USD per square meter according to The Guardian (UK).

Ben Thanh
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/4000s, f/4.5, 18mm, ISO 400
the Ben Thanh market in Saigon


Lower those raised eyebrows and allow me to qualify. First, retail space average is ONLY about 1.5 square meters in size so in actuality, any money exchanged will not be in the tens of millions of US dollars that would be otherwise required in Tokyo or New York where property is denominated in hundreds, if not thousands of square meters. Second, retail is cheap once you get the rights. Communist Vietnam offers socialized rates. Reselling is not common hence the high demand and the inflated price.

Ben Thanh- dried goods
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/40s, f/3.5, 24mm, ISO 800, +1/3EV
With space at a premium, Ben Thanh has narrow aisles

My good friend Dinh pointed out this bit of information to me but I was incredulous. I only checked this out online today and to say that I was surprised would be an understatement.

Ben Thanh, or Chợ Bến Thành as it is locally called, is the largest traditional marketplace in Ho Chi Minh City, covering more than 10,000 square meters, with about a thousand stalls. The market is old, dating back to 1859, but it has probably moved at least twice, until its present day location in 1914 at Le Loi St. The cream-colored edifice is a plain square, one storey and is most notable for its tower with 3 clock faces. The clocks were notoriously off-timed in the past but in recent years, they have already been synchronized. While the market is still largely a daytime operation, with most stores open from 7AM up to the early evening, it is fast becoming a haven of night-time habitues who frequent the numerous food tables that are set up in the evening.

Ben Thanh- food stalls
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/40s, f/4.5, 35mm, ISO 400, +1/3EV
This is fastfood Vietnamese-style. Note how large the prawns are on display!


Not minding its humble and unassuming structure, Ben Thanh is a microcosm of what are available in Vietnam. It practically sells a little bit of everything that anyone could need, or at least in my case, bring back as souvenirs.

Ben Thanh- candies for sale
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/25s, f/5.6, 53mm, ISO 800, +1/3EV
travel tip: Ben Thanh food and candy stalls typically offer fixed prices

Like any other market in a popular tourist city like Ho Chi Minh, Ben Thanh is schizophrenic. There is a large part of the market which caters to the domestic market, from fresh produce to flowers and housewares; but there is also that portion which are for visitors, like t-shirts to trinkets and handicrafts.

Ben Thanh- shoes and slippers
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/25s, f/3.5, 28mm, ISO 800, +1/3EV
Vendors use the lower market traffic in the morning to dust off and segregate displays


Price tags are practically non-existent and for non-locals, expect an inflated price. Haggle to kingdom-come. While this turns off many Westerners, we Asians think of bargaining as a local sport. Generally, I would start with 25-30% of the price and would consider myself successful if I get a price near 50%. I would suggest check out the prices in the bigger malls or stores with fixed prices to get a bearing on what prices to settle. Be willing to walk away if you don’t think you are getting a good deal. One never loses a face in coming back later. I’ve heard too that there is a secret color coding of the shopping bags given out by the vendors to broadcast to the rest of the marketplace whether you are a good bargainer or not. These are all part of the game.

Ben Thanh- haggling for dried shrimps
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/50s, f/5.0, 38mm, ISO 400, +1/3EV
Haggling at a section selling dried shrimps


And did I mention that vendors often know samplings of most other languages? While English is generally spoken, there are some mumblings of French to Chinese. I often am received with a greeting with Malay or Bahasa Indonesia and if they are really observant, Tagalog. (My native tongue is Cebuano but being welcomed in Tagalog is good enough for me.)

Ben Thanh- fruit vendors
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/50s, f/3.5, 18mm, ISO 800, +1/3EV
Every morning, vendors would slice fresh fruits and package them in convenient plastic boxes.


I still have to meet a market with lady clerks more flirtatious than in Ben Thanh too. All is fair in love, war and I guess, shopping.

Le Loi
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/50s, f/6.3, 40mm, ISO 100, +1/3EV
typical busy traffic at Le Loi St where Ben Thanh is located

part 2: what I brought back from Ben Thanh?

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2 comments:

Br. David said...

Come on, if no one is really buying at the supposed "selling price" than it isn't a real price, and the answer is still Ginza. IMHO...

Farl said...

Br David- I hear that reselling is not frequent but they are occurring at those staggering prices.