Andy Goes To Asia

How To Speak Vietnamese

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One of the biggest challenges in living abroad is communication.

Whether it’s your boss or the woman selling Banh Mi on the street, there are many words and nuances which often become lost in translation. This can be funny, then annoying, then even downright frustrating. Yet it can’t be avoided – you’re not in Kansas anymore (or Glasgow, or London or whatever).

Attempts at creating a cultural bridge find their building blocks in communication. Either the Vietnamese person you’re talking to will try their best to reply in English (and famously raise their hands and gesture screwing on a lightbulb if they don’t understand) or you, with your Lonely Planet guide and less-than-basic Vietnamese will attempt to hilariously spout out some local language that sounds nothing like its supposed to.

These interactions happen everyday. But the more you know, the better it gets, and the prouder you will feel of yourself for making the effort. Why, just the other day I drilled the Vietnamese phrase for “Where is the bathroom?” into my memory – when, feeling ready, I relayed the words to a waiter in a cafe he immediately smiled and pointed to the WC. Bingo. You’ve built a bridge. There’s no satisfaction quite like that.


Vietnamese is a language built on order and intonation. The position you place a word in a sentence can change it’s meaning. For example the word ‘nước’, when placed at the end of a sentence means ‘water’: ‘tôi có thể có một số nước?’ = ‘can I have some water?’. When placed centrally within a sentence it means ‘country’: ‘Tôi đến từ đất nước này’ = ‘I am from this country’. The logic behind this is semantical. You wouldn’t say “can I have some country?” or “I am from this water” would you? Unless, maybe, you were a pirate conqueror. Yes, the words can stand alone and have either meaning. But meaning is generated depending on context.

Likewise, the slightest addition of an accent symbol on a vowel can change what the word means and how it sounds entirely. There are six tones in Vietnamese:

1. ‘ngang’ or  ‘level’ tone which has no symbol and requires you to say the vowel outright flat.

2. ‘huyền’ or ‘low falling’ tone which is marked with a grave accent `and requires you to dip your tone lower in an often breathly fashion.

3. ‘sắc’ or ‘high rising’ tone which is marked with an acute accent ´and requires you to raise your tone higher.

4. ‘hỏi’ or ‘asking/ mid dipping-rising’ tone which is marked with a hook   ̉and requires you to start low in tone and rise up higher (kind of like if you were asking a question).

5. ‘ngã’ or ‘high breaking-rising’ tone which is marked with a wee wave (or ’tilde’) ˜and requires you, like in 4, to raise from lower to higher; except this time, you’re already starting pretty high.

6. ‘nặng’ or ‘heavy’ tone which is marked with a dot below the letter . and is the lowest of the tones. You have to get your bass on and blurt out the vowel in a short breath.

These differences in tone and meaning can be exemplified in the word ‘ma’, which means ‘ghost’. ‘mà’ = but, ‘má’ = cheek, ‘mả’ = tomb, ‘mã’ = horse, ‘mạ’ = rice seedling. Such small marks can have a big impact.

So when you see a word like ‘nước’ you notice several tones up in there; and you have to pronounce them all. That, mixed with the fact the Vietnamese semantics are so dependant on tone, makes it a complex language that’s difficult to learn. In English if a foreigner says ‘thankyou’ in their accent we tend to grasp the fundamental meaning and brush it off – they got the concept across, little things like pronunciation aren’t too important to communication. In Vietnamese however, if you say ‘thankyou’ with the wrong pronunciation you could come across as begging for porridge. You big pasty wierdo.

Think of the potential for hilarious encounters this provides. The word for ‘five’ is ‘năm’. The word for ‘man’ is ‘nam’. You could be wanting to buy ‘five’ of something but end up asking to buy ‘man’. Ooh, think of the looks you’ll get, you dirty Westerner!


As a language Vietnamese is pretty literal. When it comes to expressions and idioms we use in English, it can cause some confusion. Try saying “two shakes of a lamb’s tail” to someone here and they’ll point-blankedly smile and shake their head. You have to remember you’ve entered a different culture with its own discrepancies. However, that said, there’s one expression I find particularly interesting.

To say goodnight in Vietnamese you say ‘Chúc ngủ ngon’, which quite literally translates as ‘sleep delicious’. When you think about our English expression ‘sweet dreams’, ‘sleep delicious’ actually makes more sense! We all need to enjoy our sleep and get our fill. Literal expressions can contain just as much imagery and poetry as our flowery, far-flung idioms.


Often, I will find myself tip-toeing on the edge between foreigner and false-local. Being of partly Filipino descent, my asian features sometimes lull the people here into a false sense of kindred heritage. I’ll walk up to a man rustling up some sizzling Bánh xèo, and, wanting to practice my Vietnamese, I’ll ask him “how much?”. Without so much as a second glance he’ll start a torrent of Vietnamese that completely befuddles me. I raise my eyebrows, smile and say “no Vietnamese. English? English?”. A glint will sparkle in his eyes upon the realisation that I may be a Viet Khieu (a local term disgnated for those Vietnamese who grew up abroad) or he may catch my accent and assume I’m not from around these parts. In a proud voice he says “20,000 dong” as his hands continue to cook in a symphony of clinks, sizzles and scrapes. I get the foreign treatment: he asks “Where you from?”, I say “Scotland”. “But you look Asian?” “My mother from Philippines” “Ah Philippine. Ok. ok”. We got there in the end.

Being an ex-pat here is a mixed bag of the hilarious, frustrating and downright weird. You can sit in a cosy-looking restaurant, ready to relax when all of a sudden DMX starts blaring out of the speakers – screw appriopriateness, the waiter thinks, I’m putting my jam on repeat. You can go to a supermarket and be told outright that you cannot buy that mango because you didn’t get it priced in the fruit section by a check-out girl who looks more like an air stewardess, but she gives you a complimentary mint chocolate for your trouble anyway. You can be riding on the back of a xeom and all of a sudden have to dodge the guy next to you because he’s dragging a ladder on the ground with his flip-flopped foot. You can have great interactions with security guards and shop assistants that start out as asking for directions. You can get hassled to the point of rage on Bui Vien Street, where every. waking. minute. you will be approached by some entreprenurial soul trying to sell you sunglasses, fans, massages, marajuana. You can make Vietnamese friends at language classes who take you house hunting because they really want to help. Yes , that mixed bag keeps giving and giving.

Speaking of which, I need to dip my hand into that mixed bag and start lesson planning for my classes tomorrow. I’ve got ‘nam’ classes of 15-20 kids counting on me. Til’ then, I hope you all sleep delicious.

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