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Incredible shrinking prices!

Monday, February 10, 2020, 10:12 GMT+7
Incredible shrinking prices!
A neighborhood store in Da Lat City, Lam Dong Province, Vietnam. Photo: Rick Ellis / Tuoi Tre News

The old joke around Da Lat is about a visitor from the big city who lost his wallet only to have it returned later by conscientious citizens via the local constabulary. When he opened the wallet he was shocked to find more money than he’d originally carried in it!

That’s just a tall story, but the city does have a reputation as the home of decent, honest people, like most smallish provincial places in the world.

Honesty is one thing, but I’ve been keeping close track during the last couple of years, and the locals are downright generous. 

It’s become quite bizarre as prices continue a downward spiral at many places I frequent.

Prices going down?

I’ve never heard of such a thing - especially in a city growing rapidly in popularity like Da Lat in a country that is developing at breakneck speed.

I started cooking again a few months ago, resurrecting the 'One Pot Rick' style that I’m known for (i.e. Toss everything into a pot and see what happens - works like a charm), and use a small portable stove just like the tabletop jobs we see in hotpot restaurants.

I just returned from the shop that sells little canisters of cooking gas for those stoves. “Shop” is somewhat of an embellishment because it’s not even a building, rather a little cranny shaped like a slice of pizza wedged between two buildings in the space created by the street bending around a corner.

Someone put a roof on that tiny gap and presto - a business was born, run by two elderly ladies. I estimate it’s three meters across at the wide end which opens onto the street and about four meters deep. The width tapers down to nothing pretty quickly because the shop is so shallow, and the owner must squirm and slither around all the junk piled up in that tiny space.

A triangle-shaped shop in Da Lat City, Lam Dong Province, Vietnam. Photo: Rick Ellis / Tuoi Tre News

A triangle-shaped shop in Da Lat City, Lam Dong Province, Vietnam.

Weird triangular shop

The only living being that can go in and out of the shop unhindered is the cat that hangs around, but it usually lurks around the entrance blocking access as cats are known to do.

The shop itself, the women, and the cat are all pretty weird to begin with, but so are their prices, which instead of increasing over time as would usually be the case actually go down! 

The ladies originally sold me the canisters for VND11,000 (US$0.47) each, then reduced it to VND10,000 ($0.43), finally settling on VND9,000 ($0.39), which I had been told is the correct price prior to going the first time, but I played dumb not wanting to make a fuss over such a piddly little amount. Anyone who has to do business inside a tiny wedge like that deserves all the breaks they can get.

The big question, which I regrettably cannot answer, is: Why did the ladies reduce the price?

Part of the reason may be related to my resident status as opposed to a passing visitor or someone on a short-term sabbatical. Maybe they charge a little bit more to newcomers and transients, or fluff it up a bit for Westerners, and hope nobody cares.

Maybe they discovered through the local grapevine that I’ve been here a couple of years, and decided to knock off the first VND1,000, bringing the price to VND10,000. But that theory doesn’t hold much water because I have passed by their shop several times per day for over two years, so they all know me, even that cat, who pretends not to recognize me but does, coy as they always are.

Even though it’s odd logic, let’s say they swapped me over to the residents’ price, which would explain one of the price reductions, but not two. The other discount may be for being a regular customer since it was only applied after several visits to the shop.

I’m certain to never get to the bottom of this - I know how this type of mystery works in Vietnam. Sure, I could interrogate the women through a translator to find out what’s really behind the discounts, grill all my local friends for their take, and still not get to a clear reason. 

Never mind, the story gets better.

The story of the miracle prices at the wholesale store is even more absurd. They specialize in bulk quantities of soft drinks, snacks, beer, and cigarettes, which are piled up all over the shop, spilling out on to the sidewalk. Management is very big on having plenty of stock, but shelving, storage, and walking space is so tight there’s almost no room for customers inside, never mind staff. 

The shop does a roaring business, so customers need to push their way inside only to discover there is no room to inspect the goods nor move around, so they shove their way back outside to regroup. Then they yell out their orders over the throng, prepare their money, jostle their way back inside the shop, pay and collect the goods, and shoulder their way back out, goods held over their heads as if they were crossing a river with water up to their necks.

A wholesale store in Da Lat City, Lam Dong Province, Vietnam. Photo: Rick Ellis / Tuoi Tre News

A wholesale store in Da Lat City, Lam Dong Province, Vietnam.

Mob scene at wholesaler

The boss - a stern, businesslike type always sporting the same poker face expression - is planted right in front of the cash drawer as per Asian tradition.

You won’t believe how many times he’s lowered the price of the carton of my “Craven A” brand smokes (that’s the higher grade A, not the regular Craven)! It’s absurd. The original price over two years ago for the 200-cigarette carton was VND200,000 ($8.61) (which my local friend told me was too high, but I let it slide), then after a few trips it went down to VND190,000 ($8.18), then to VND180,000 ($7.75) a couple of months after that, then finally settled at VND170,000 ($7.32) about a year or so ago.

We’ve never discussed nor negotiated the price in any way, but I should add that I bring my own plastic bag as my token contribution to reducing our pollution problem, so maybe that entitles me to a tiny reduction, but surely not much, and definitely not three of them. I purposely hand him a VND500,000 ($21.52) note every time, then wait with bated breath to see what he gives me back as change. It’s like one of those television game shows and I’m the contestant awaiting my prize.

Following the cooking gas canister pricing logic, we could say one discount was for graduating from transient foreigner to local status, followed by a second for being a regular customer.  

What was the third discount for? No idea.

Then, get a load of this: After scoping out this article and completing initial research, I coincidentally popped in for another carton of smokes the other day thinking the facts were already in the can, and I swear to God, the price went down a fourth time to VND160,000 ($6.89)!

I’ve seen the grim-looking boss enough times to know that he could pick up the scent of a 500k note a mile away, so there’s no way that fourth and last reduction was any type of an error when giving me back my change. Impossible. Margins are tight, volumes are huge, so every bit matters. 

Let’s move over to the 'Tap Hoa' (neighborhood store) on my street, where their motto is obviously “everything costs less than you think." 

When I first moved here I made mental notes of the cost of basics such as instant noodles, eggs, razor blades, and other random personal items, and oddly the cost is always less at the Tap Hoa than elsewhere.

The owners don’t use a cash register, rather they note the amounts by hand on bits of paper, then invariably round it down a bit when tallying up the entire order. That discount procedure is common in Vietnam - a retailer will not negotiate the price of goods, most of which are marked with prices anyway, but sometimes offers a small discount when the transaction is final, especially to frequent customers and depending on the value of the transaction.

Neighbourhood store

The Tap Hoa people offer a huge discount, so large that I’m sure their profit is minimized or even wiped out entirely with every transaction we make. If this trend continues, I’ll end up leaving their shop with everything I buy plus more money than I went there with in the first place.

There we have it, another baffling set of scenarios - the old ladies and the cat, poker-faced wholesale guy, and the corner store couple, all offering mystery discounts that they could get away without offering. For those small amounts I wouldn’t challenge them and they surely know it, so their motivation lies elsewhere, never to be revealed.

In the meantime, happy shopping everyone, and if prices go down, just be happy and don’t ask why - you’ll probably never get to the root of the story.

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Rick Ellis / Tuoi Tre News Contributor

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