Spoken by around 85 million people worldwide, Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam – so you’ll want to know a few key phrases before travelling there. Pick up some basics before you travel, and you’ll have a much better chance of communicating with the locals and get a deeper flavour of their lives.
The Vietnamese language reflects the changes in the country’s history dating back thousands of years. Vietnam was under Chinese rule for around 1,000 years, then became a French colony for almost a century. It also had 20 years of involvement with the United States during the Vietnam War. No wonder there is so much vocabulary borrowed from the Chinese, French, English and even Latin.
The language you see today has changed drastically from the original version. It still belongs to the Mon-Khmer language family, with a hill-tribe language called Muong (influenced by Chinese) as its closest relative.
It wasn’t until the 17th century that the first Vietnamese writing system, Chữ Quốc Ngữ, was devised. European Jesuit missionaries crafted this Latinized script to help other settlers learn the language and spread Catholicism.
You’ll also find nods to the French colonisation of Vietnam in the language today. The French colonial administration enforced the use of Chữ Quốc Ngữ instead of the traditional Chinese language. They also tried – but failed – to replace Vietnamese with French. Look out for words with a French twang, such as ghi-đông (in French: guidon, meaning a bike handlebar) and cát-sét (in French: la cassette, meaning cassette).
Thanks to trade, the internet and a desire for many Vietnamese people to learn English as a second language, numerous English words slip into daily conversation in Vietnam. Listen out for English-borrowed words like “OK”, “hello”, “selfie”, “dollar” and “taxi”.
When it comes to speaking the language, you might notice that some vowels are pronounced with a low or high pitch, while others glide or swoop. This is because Vietnamese is a “tonal” language, using six tones. There are many different dialects in Vietnamese, but the three main dialects correspond to the three geographical regions: northern, central and southern.
You may not be able to differentiate between the Vietnamese lingo of the North and that of the South just yet, but you can still do your bit by mastering the basics. From asking for directions to saying your name, here are six must-know phrases to learn before you go.
- Hello / goodbye
Greeting people is polite – so commit these essential words to memory.
Hello: Xin chào (pronounced “sin jòw”)
Goodbye: Tam biêt (“daam bee-uht”)
- My name is…
When you get chatting to locals, you’ll want to tell them your name. Here’s how.
My name is: Tên tôi là… (“den doy laà”)
- Thank you
Essential for every time you need to thank someone – which will be a lot!
Thank you: Cam on (gaam ern)
- Where is the hotel?
Got lost? Remember this phrase and you’ll be able to ask for your hotel.
Where is the hotel? Dâu có khách san (“doh go kaak saan”)
- I want to go to…
Another must-know phrase for finding your way, practise this phrase before you travel.
I want to go to: Tôi muon di… (“doy moo uhn dee”)
- Do you speak English?
An essential when you’ve used up all your phrases! Do you speak English? Ban có nói duoc tieng Anh không? (“baan go noy duhr erk ding aang kawm”)
Written by by Ellie Ross