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Shopping for Bags in Hanoi



Language barrier makes shopping challenging anywhere. But be wary when sellers take advantage of it to make you spend more than you intend.

Embroidered red tote bag

The photos were taken in our serviced apartment in Taiwan. But the embroidered red tote bag was bought in Hanoi a month before we flew to Taiwan. At the time I bought the bag, it didn’t occur to me to write about it. It’s just a bag, after all. Yes, I love the way it looks. The color. The dainty embroidery. The fact that that it’s so lightweight. But, most especially, I love the roominess.

Inside an Embroidered red tote bag

The bag is so roomy that I could fit a large shopping bag inside, my camera, my wallet, a packet of wet tissues, a packet of facial tissues…

Right. Features that are true for a lot of other bags. What’s so exciting to write about that, eh? But how I bought the bag… Well, that’s quite a story.

You know how it is when traveling to a country where you don’t speak the language and the vast majority of the population don’t speak yours. Modern technology says “use translation apps to make communication easier.” But I’ve always found that to be a damper as it takes away the opportunity to learn a few words and phrases in an unfamiliar language. Besides, there’s nothing more sincere and genuine than communicating with someone by looking into his face and interpreting his body language rather than sticking your phone out so he can read the translation of what you’re trying to say.

So, Sam and I were on Church Street hunting for the best priced paper lanterns that she wanted to redecorate her bedroom with. She had just finished her egg waffle and I had just downed a cup of egg coffee at Take East Easy. We crossed to the opposite side of the street and, in one of the shops there, she finally found the paper lanterns she wanted at a price that did not make her eyebrows wrinkle.

But Sam being Sam, she tried to haggle some more. As the haggling went back and forth, I checked out some of the bags on display. One, in particular, caught my fancy. A beautifully designed hemp bag. From the corner of my eye, I watched how, with a calculator and a few English words, the shop lady managed to tell Sam that if she bought another item, she could get a larger discount for the paper lanterns.

Smart, isn’t she? Just by watching our movements and facial expressions, she knew she’d make Sam happy by lowering the price of the paper lanterns IF Sam could get me to buy a bag.

To be honest, I didn’t need another bag. But the hemp bag was so beautiful and the price wasn’t bad (plus, according to Sam a few days earlier, it’s not possible for a girl to have too many bags). So, I agreed. I paid for the bag, Sam paid for the paper lanterns and we were ready to go.

As we stepped out of the store, we noticed for the first time the bags displayed out front. And I saw a bag like the one in the photos above. In purple though. The shop lady was right behind us. I asked if the bag came in other colors and she led us back inside the shop. She pulled out a red bag and I was hooked.

No matter Sam’s philosophy about the impossibility of owning too many bags, I was not about to buy two bags in the same afternoon. Heck, not even two bags on the same trip. So, I made the shop lady a proposal. I would buy the higher-priced red bag, return the hemp bag, and pay for the difference.

But the shop lady refused. If I wanted the red bag, I would have to buy it too. I tried to explain that I didn’t need two bags, and she was getting the better deal because I would end up paying for the higher-priced bag. If she earned by commission, she’d be earning more.

At that point, communicating was getting more and more difficult. Perhaps the shop lady thought I was trying to rip her off by getting two bags for the price of one. She stepped out, found someone who could translate for both of us, and the negotiation went on. I told her interpreter that I wasn’t trying to buy two bags for the price of one and he explained as much to her.

Then, to my complete surprise, the shop lady did a change of strategy. She pointed to the surveillance camera overhead. And I said… What, are you suggesting I’m trying to steal? There was a discussion between the shop lady and the interpreter in Vietnamese. The interpreter said that the owner would see and, from what I gathered, would not have approved of the return, or my proposal to buy the higher priced bag, or both. Finally feeling exasperated, I said okay, never mind. I’d just leave with the bag I originally bought. I wouldn’t die or go into depression if I couldn’t manage to exchange it for the red bag anyway.

So, Sam and I started moving toward the shop’s front door. But we hadn’t walked a few steps when the shop lady called out, let out a very visible and audible sigh, and motioned with her hands that she was finally agreeing to my proposal to return the hemp bag, get the more expensive red bag and pay for the price difference.

After we had walked a few meters from the shop, Sam said I stressed out the shop lady. Well, heck, she stressed me out too. It could have been language barrier. But the more I thought about it, the less convinced I became. In my gut, I knew she understood exactly the exchange that I was proposing. She was just trying to see if she could prevail and sell two bags instead. The fact that she switched strategies with that surveillance camera made that obvious to me.