Mai Cam Linh took her Indonesian boss to a cloth shop in Ben Thanh Market and ordered a piece similar to one just bought by a group of Vietnamese customers.
But they were charged three times more.
“Foreigners pay different prices,” the shop owner said, pointing to her boss.
The “embarrassing” experience, as Linh described it, urged her to join the iSaigon (integrity Saigon) project to persuade retailers in the city to sell at fixed prices and not overcharge, Tuoi Tre newspaper reported.
The 27-year-old started the project late last year with her friends Tran Thi Phuong Thao, 23, and Nguyen Hoang Phuc, 24, with funding from Hanoi-based non-profit Towards Transparency.
The three founders said they have countless stories of being ripped off, not just in HCMC, but also in Linh and Thao’s hometowns of Da Lat and Phan Thiet, especially when traveling with foreigners.
Phuc, a Saigonese, said one time he took a Vietnamese who was mistaken as a foreigner by retailers at the city’s popular Saigon Square shopping center, and they were told a very high price.
But when his friend bargained in Vietnamese, the shopkeeper realized he was a local and immediately halved the price.
Ben Thanh is the city’s most popular shopping destination thanks to its history, but it has also become one of the scariest places for foreigners, since many vendors have this formula: Southeast Asians pay double price, Japanese four times and Westerners six to seven times.
The trio said they chose HCMC as they share a love for it and do not want greedy vendors to detract from its charm.
Phuc told Tuoi Tre that the city gets its charm from its people, “so we have to change the people to make the city look better.”
The group is open to new participants, who only have to email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
They said they dream about iPhanthiet, iDalat, and iVietnam, a country where integrity is a lifestyle and not something to campaign for.
For a start, the group has persuaded 20 market vendors and restaurant owners in Districts 1, 3, Binh Thanh, and Tan Binh to sign up for transparent vending.
Throw gains for fame
The group members said to persuade vendors to accept smaller profits, they have to show them a bigger gain: fame.
Any shop that agrees to join gets a sign in English saying “We proudly serve fixed price and great quality”.
Then they recommend the shops to local tour guides. It’s win-win for all: the vendors get regular customers and the tourists get fair prices.
The group prefers to visit young vendors thinking their chances of success are better since young people are more willing to change.
Phuc said they realized that many young vendors at Ben Thanh do not like to overcharge customers.
“But everyone around them do so. If they lower the prices, they will be accused of dumping.”
Nguyen Thi Phung Lien, a 26-year-old owner of seven clothes and souvenir shops at Ben Thanh, said she joined the project so that at the end of the day she feels at ease.
“I’ve seen happy smiles from customers,” Tuoi Tre quoted her as saying.
She said every vendor wants to sell at high prices, and it has been easy for her.
“My shops get a lot of deep-pocketed Japanese tourists. I could charge 10 times higher, even more, for a VND70,000-80,000 T-shirt. Even if customers bargain the price down to half or a third, I still gain big.”
But she is tired of it.
“Customers bargain with bitterness. I earn big profits, but their hatred as well.”
The “fixed price” signboard has attracted some foreign customers.
“I’ve stopped raising prices. And it feels much more comfortable.”