When travelling in Vietnam, having some basic Vietnamese words and phrases handy is incredibly useful. While mastering a language like Vietnamese would take years, learning basic Vietnamese is easier than you might think.
Try to say this word, which means ‘thank you’ in Vietnamese: cảm ơn.
Chances are, if you speak a language with a Latin based alphabet, you got pretty close to saying this word correctly. What you said might be understood by a Vietnamese person as; noisy oranges, but at least you got closer than you would trying to say ‘thank you’ in a script that looks like this: ကျေးဇူးတင်ပါတယ် (Myanmar), this: ຂອບໃຈ (Lao), or this: លាមក (Khmer).
Why is Vietnamese Different?
Written Vietnamese uses the Latin alphabet, an obvious distinction between it and most other Southeast Asian languages. With the addition of 7 special characters (ă, â, đ, ê, ô, ơ, ư) and 6 tones (a, á, à, ã, ạ, ả), Vietnamese is comparatively simple to read. Due to the work of French Catholic missionary Alexendre de Rhodes, Vietnamese underwent an aesthetic transformation between the mid 1600’s and the 1800’s. By the 19th century, it’s written predecessor, chữ nôm, similar in appearance to modern Mandarin, had been completely replaced. Rhodes’ intention to Catholocize Indochina – whether supported by you, readers, or not – has made Vietnamese all that much easier for us tây (westerners) to learn.
What Vietnamese Should I learn?
For the backpacker planning to spend 1 month or less in Vietnam, I recommend becoming familiar with 10 of the most basic Vietnamese phrases, which I cover in this article. This is a great place to start, and many Vietnamese people will certainly appreciate the effort you put forth.
Top 10 Basic Vietnamese Words and Phrases
Note: Every word in Vietnamese (ie: xin/nhiều/không) is only one syllable.
- Hello: Xin chào (Seen Chow)
- Thank you: Cảm ơn (Gam Uhn)
- Where is. . .?: . . . ở đâu? (Uhh Doe)
- How much does it cost?: Bao nhiêu tiền? (Bow Nee-oo Tee-en)
- Where is the bathroom?: Vệ sinh ở đâu? (Vay Sing Uhh Doe)
- My name is. . ./What is your name?: Tôi tên là. . . / Tên là gì? (Toy Tane La/Tane La Zee)
- No thank you: Không cảm ơn (Khome Gam Uhn)
- Nice to meet you: Rất vui được gặp bạn (Zut Voo-Ee Du-uk Gap Ba)
- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10: Một, Hai, Ba, Bốn, Năm, Sáu, Bảy, Tám, Chín, Mười (Moat, High, Bah, Bone, Nam, Saow, Bay, Tam, Cheen, Muh-oh-ee)
- See you again!: Hẹn gặp lại (Heh Gap Lie)
Bonus phrase: I am speaking in Vietnamese: Tôi đang nói Tiếng Việt (Toy Dahng Nigh Tee-ang Vee-et) – Often times, when I speak in Vietnamese, people will initially think that I am speaking English. Clearly, this will cause confusion. Using this phrase correctly will help the listener understand you.
If you plan to stick with basic Vietnamese, simply saying these words as they appear in the parenthesis will be enough. Most of the time, the context will do 90% of the work for you. However, if you plan to take your language skills to the next level, you should start by learning the pronunciation of individual letters and tones. This website, with a great series of Youtube lessons, is an awesome place to start: www.happyhanoi.com. If you’d like a more hands on approach, www.iTalki.com provides online Skype lessons for around $10 US per hour. My recommendation for a teacher, for obvious reasons, is my girlfriend, Van Nguyen!
A noticeable difference between Vietnamese and English is it’s heavy emphasis on using the correct pronouns. The correct pronoun will change based on several factors, including; the speaker’s age and gender, the listener’s age and gender, and even the nature of the relationship between two individuals. Using these pronouns properly is a quick way to gain respect from Vietnamese people, and to separate yourself from the average backpacker. In my next article about learning Vietnamese, I will cover this topic!
*Important Note: The accents of Vietnamese people differ greatly in the different regions of the country. The standard Vietnamese accent is that from the North (Hanoi), so if you learn to speak in that way, you will be understood throughout the country, but may have trouble understanding local people in places like Da Lat and Ho Chi Minh City.