When in Vietnam, although English is widely spoken, especially in the main tourist spots. Learning a little bit of the language definitely has it advantages when it comes to conversing with the locals.
My Mother is from Bà Rịa-Vũng Tàu so her family speaks a Southern dialect of Vietnamese. Northern/Hanoi dialect is the official preference. Which I found very difficult to understand from my own personal experience while visiting Vietnam a few years ago. The pronunciation of certain words could really throw you off if you’re not a native speaker.
Vietnamese is a highly tonal language. Same words but with different vocal tone (higher or lower) will drastically change the meaning. But the great thing is you won’t have to learn noun cases, gender, or even distinct plural forms. Chữ Quốc Ngữ, the Vietnamese alphabet, uses roman letters with special marks like accents to show additional sounds and tones.
It’s true that, with six tones and a plethora of vowel sounds that we don’t have in English, pronouncing Vietnamese can be tricky. Many words have the same spelling but different meanings depending on their intonation.
Vietnamese Doesn’t Have Plurals
In English, when we want to make something plural we usually stick an “s” on the end of it. “Dog” becomes “dogs”, “table” becomes “tables” and “house” becomes “houses”. However, there are many exceptions. “Person” becomes “people”, “mouse” becomes “mice”, “man” becomes “men”, and some words like “sheep” or “fish” don’t change at all.
In Vietnamese, everything is like a sheep. The word người, can be used for both “people” or “person”; “chó” is “dog” or “dogs”, “bàn” is “table” or “tables”, and so on. If you think this would get confusing, ask yourself: can you remember a single time in your life when you heard someone talking about “the sheep” or “the fish” and you got confused because you didn’t know how many animals they were talking about?
If you really need to be specific, just slap an extra word in front of the noun, like một người (one person), nhũng người (some people), or các người (all the people). Easy peasy.
And it’s not just nouns that are simple…
Vietnamese Has No Verb Endings
Pity the poor learner of Spanish. Even to say something as simple as the word “speak” (hablar), he or she has to learn five or six (depending on dialect) different verb endings for the present tense alone. I hablo, you hablas, he habla, we hablamos, and the list goes on. Factor in different tenses and subtleties like the grammatical “mood” (indicative vs subjunctive), and a single Spanish verb has over fifty different forms that learners have to memorize.
The technical term is that Spanish verbs (and nouns, and adjectives) inflect, meaning the same word can take different forms depending on the context. English isn’t nearly as inflective as Spanish, but we still do it to some extent – for example the word “speak” can inflect to “speaks”, “speaking”, “spoken”, or “spoke”.
Here’s the good news: Vietnamese is a completely non-inflective language – no word ever changes its form in any context. Learn the word nói, and you know how to say “speak” in all contexts and tenses for all speakers. I nói, you nói, he or she nói, we nói, you all nói, and they nói. That’s dozens, if not hundreds of hours of work saved compared to learning almost any European language.
Vietnamese tenses are easy it’s practically cheating. Just take the original verb, e.g. “ăn” (to eat), and stick one of the following 5 words in front of it:
- đã = in the past
- mới = in the recent past, more recently than đã
- đang = right now, at this very moment
- sắp = soon, in the near future
- sẽ = in the future
To give you some concrete examples “tôi” ( means “I”):
- Tôi ăn cơm = I eat rice
- Tôi đã ăn cơm = I ate rice
- Tôi mới ăn cơm = I just ate rice, I recently ate rice
- Tôi đang ăn cơm = I am eating rice (right now)
- Tôi sắp ăn cơm = I am going to eat rice, I am about to eat rice
- Tôi sẽ ăn cơm = I will eat rice
Some basic Vietnamese phrases that will help you during your visit:
Yes – Vâng (North), Dạ (South)
No – Không
Thank You – Cám ơn
I’m Sorry – Xin lỗi
Can You Help Me? Bạn có thể giúp tôi được không?
No Problem/You’re Welcome – Không có gì/chi
Do You Speak English? Bạn có nói tiếng anh không?
Hello – Xin chào
Goodbye – Tạm biệt
How Are You? Bạn khỏe không?
I’m Fine, Thank You – Cám ơn bạn tôi khỏe
My Name Is… – Tên tôi là…
I Don’t Understand – Tôi không hiểu
Happy New Year – Chúc mừng năm mới
Nothing Too Spicy, Please – Không có gì quá cay
I’m A Vegetarian – Tôi ăn chay
Hot (Spicy) – Cay
How Much? Bao nhiêu?
Beer – Bia
One To Ten – Một, Hai, Ba, Bốn, Năm, Sáu, Bảy, Tám, Chín, Mừơi
Oh My Gosh – Trời ơi
I’m Hungry/Thirsty – Tôi đói/khát nước
See You Again – Hẹn gặp lại
Where Is…? – Ở đâu…?
Hurry – Nhanh lên
I am Lost – Tôi bị lạc
Souvenir – Quà lưu niệm
Bag – Bao
Can I Have A Look? Tôi có thể xem được không?
Bread – Bánh mì
Iced Coffee With Milk – Cà phê sữa đá
Water – Nước
Foreigner – Người nước ngoài
Beach – Bãi biển
I’m planning a trip to Vietnam this year and I’m so excited. Although my Vietnamese is not great, I do know enough to hold a conversation with the locals and to write a basic letter. I’m extremely proud of my Vietnamese roots and am always learning something new about the language.
Don’t underestimate the power of body language – it works in many situations! Vietnamese people are extremely amiable and willing to overcome any language barrier to give you the most enjoyable experience while you’re in their country.
One cannot truly get an authentic and educational experience unless they immerse themselves in the culture they are visiting. Although you might not know much about the language…don’t be afraid to make mistakes, be open to asking for help and learning from others. Discuss prices with the market vendors, speak to your drivers, communicate with a stranger on the street. You’ll be surprised at what you can learn/see once you let your guard down.