Street Vendors

Being a student of languages, I found it very interesting during my recent travels to compare the English abilities of street vendors in both Cambodia and Vietnam. These are the people who continually summon you to check out their goods and really pressure you into buying something.

At times it can be very annoying, but one has to remember that there are no social services here and these people struggle day by day to just get by. But for the foreigner, it’s difficult to identify who the true needy are and who don’t need as much help. So this entry will serve as kind of a guide to help in discerning who you should give a bit of money to as well as how they will approach you.

The first thing I noticed is how from Cambodia and throughout Vietnam they are using new English phrases to get you to buy something.

1. The new phrase everyone is using after you have repeatedly told them no is “ok, later.”

The vendor will continually say “You buy me one, you buy me one.” They will be persistent but after telling them “no” continually they will say “OK Later” after which many foreigners say “OK.” Then the next time they see you they will say “You say you buy me one, why you not buy me one,” and look at you with a sad face. If you really don’t want to buy something you cannot say “OK” after they say “OK, later” because they will really pester you since you agreed to buy something after they said “ok, later.”

In the beginning, foreigners will usually buy something but their constant pleas will eventually wear anyone down. On the beach in Nha Trang we bought a few items at first but that created a swarm of people around us. To those that simply wouldn’t leave and looked needy, I offered to buy them a drink and gave their kids some gum. It costs next to nothing and will create good will.

Sometimes, they are grateful if you just sit and talk with them instead of shutting them out completely. I spoke with one woman on the beach for about an hour and learned so much about her life and how she makes a living. It made me laugh when she said she really didn’t like the French because they never bought anything. Again, it can get very annoying when you are continually asked to buy something but it’s important to remember that these are human beings as well and it’s good to drop a few coins now and then.

While in Hoi An, I ran into one kid who had a very unique approach to selling his newspapers. We had just gotten of the motorbikes when this kid with tears running down his face said to me “You buy me one.” Now in this case I could tell that it was a trick that many foreigners might fall for. So I asked him directly, “Why are you crying.” I don’t think he could understand but all his tears really did get to me and I offered him about 20 cents for nothing. He then pointed to the price of the paper which was 30,000 VND. It was then I could see in his face that he wasn’t really sad and it was all a ploy. The price of a newspaper is 5,000VND and somehow he figured out how to erase the price that is printed on the paper and reprint in strange font a much higher price. This was a sham and made me mad so I walked past him and into the restaurant. He tried to follow me in but the staff stopped him.

I began to observe him from the outside and saw other Vietnamese looking at him with amusement. It sounds cruel, but this kid was doing OK with his gig of ripping off foreigners. His tears also immediately stopped when no foreigners were nearby. He then saw me looking at him and started gesturing after which I asked again in Vietnamese “How much??” with a look that told him I was not going to pay that outrageous price. I really did want a newspaper but there was no way I was going to get ripped off that much.

He lowered the price a little after which I told him in Vietnamese “Too much!” He then came into the restaurant and the staff wanted to kick him out again, but I told them to let him come after which I negotiated the price down to 10,000VND which is twice the price, but then again this is how the kid makes his living and for me it’s not that much money.

The moral of the story I guess is that it’s a bad idea to let yourself get ripped off because it is not an honest way of doing business and will cause trouble for other foreigners but on the other hand it’s good to be generous from time to time and when the need is truly there. So I felt good about not paying too much but at the same time giving him a little extra.

After I finished my meal I spoke to him a bit but my Vietnamese wasn’t enough to understand what he was saying. I gave him a handshake and he returned a big smile.
Another story to illustrate the negative effects of giving money when one shouldn’t is to the very young bow legged girl who hangs out on Dong Khoi street. She is cute as buttons but if it’s her mother who makes her go out day after day when she should be in school. If we give money to her it will simply encourage this terrible practice. And, she really isn’t that needy which I found out by offering to buy her a coke and a hot dog after which she replied, “No,,,, Money!” The conversation usually goes like this.

Girl: You buy me one
Me: Cannot
Girl: yes,, you buy me one!
Me: Not today
Girl” ok later
Me: No not later, do you want a Coke?
Girl: No, Money!
Me: No, Coke!
Girl: You give me money!
With the young ones it’s easy to get them off their goal by asking simple questions.
Me: How old are you?
girl: 7
Me: What’s your name?
girl: hanh
Me: Hi Hanh, my name is Matt
girl: You buy me one!

Then I usually just smile and continue on.

This girl knows me since I’ve lived here for two years and the other night when we were hitting the bars she started to come up to me after which I looked at her with an over-animated expression of surprise and started to run away saying “Nooooooooooooo” I turned around and it was so cute to see those little bow legs running after me with a big smile on her face. I picked her up and carried her in my arms and said, “Why you always chase me!” She said “You buy me one?” I said “Already buy you one last month!”

She started to count her postcards “One, two, three, four….” and I responded in Spanish after which she looked at me with a quizzical look. It was cute and I couldn’t help but give her 2,000 dong which is about 15 cents. I really shouldn’t encourage that practice but I couldn’t help myself on that occasion.

Another good trick if you really don’t want to give money is to simply talk with them or offer funny answers to their questions.

They will say “You buy me one,” but then sometimes ask you questions to keep you attention. Most all of them after you initially refuse will ask “Where are you from?” To this I sometimes reply “Japan” and if they are quick they will think a minute and then smile and say “nooooooooooooo” Then you can smile and share a laugh with them. I then ask where they are from and they usually say “Ho Chi Minh City” and are pleased that you stopped to talk with them since most foreigners do not.

It’s also extremely important to always keep a smile on your face and be warm and friendly. Even if you don’t want to buy you can sympathize with them by the expressions on your face and they will begin to have a favorable opinion of foreigners even if they don’t buy.

By Mateo de Colón

Global Citizen! こんにちは!僕の名前はマットです. Es decir soy Mateo. Aussi, je m'appelle Mathieu. Likes: Languages, Cultures, Computers, History, being Alive! \(^.^)/


  1. Hi Matthew,
    Last night,to prepare for my next presentation in English. I had to search for some information about the thinking,the feeling of visitors when they come here (Sai Gon),especially foreigners. With GOOGLE,I discovered your website.
    At first,I was really impressed by your sentiment toward my country.As I know,nowadays foreigners

  2. Thanks for the comment! Yes, many people outside of Vietnam have the wrong image because of the war. However, when the come here most foreigners are completely amazed at how wonderful and friendly the people are. In fact, many younger people want to come here and live after only one visit!
    Vietnam is improving everyday and I’m sure as progress continues the rest of the world will come to see what a great country Vietnam is and that it is the friendly people who make it so nice to live here.
    Good luck with your presentation!

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