Learning a local language of a foreign country where you travel to is one of the most powerful and amazing keys for anyone to connect with the local people and culture. I have lived and travelled to lots of different countries and had opportunities to learn several different languages. And even the mere ability to speak out few basic words and phrases always brought to me a massive joy and special bonds with great number of local people.
There are many people who live in a foreign country and are not at all able to speak the local language and it is also true in Vietnam. I think it’s partly because big cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh have a great number of population who are able to speak English, thus allowing foreigners to live by with English only. And it could partly be for any human being’s ability to communicate with body language, which is also a powerful means connecting people.
However, if you can speak few basic phrases and show the willingness to practise despite pronouncing it wrong, you will be rewarded with that much more affection and appreciation from the locals. It is true because of my personal experiences living abroad as a foreigner. I’ve made countless mistakes in pronunciation or even said the most random words that are out of context and I still do. But there was always a sense of satisfaction and bountiful situations where I could build intimacy with random strangers.
It is also true speaking as a local person back in my hometown, South Korea. I have so much gratitude and am always pleasantly surprised to meet foreigners who try to speak Korean and / or express their interest in my culture and country. I’m sure many people can relate to this!
So I will introduce you some very basic Vietnamese phrases that you could use when you’re visiting Vietnam along with videos to help you hear and practise the pronunciation of a local person.
Three Basic Phrases
Xin chào! = Hello! (Can be used throughout the day)
Tạm biệt! = Goodbye!
Cảm ơn = Thank you
Cảm ơn rất nhiều = Thank you very much!
For pronunciation, please refer to the video at the bottom for reference!
1 – 10
1 – một
2 – hai
3 – ba
4 – bốn
5 – năm
6 – sáu
7 – bảy
8 – tám
9 – chín
10 – mười
11 – 20
11 – mười một (ten + one)
12 – mười hai (ten + two)
13 – mười ba (ten + three)
14 – mười bốn (ten + four)
15 – mười lăm (ten + five)*
16 – mười sáu (ten + six)
*Exception: 15, 25, 35 and on, pronounce five as ‘lăm’ instead of ‘năm’. This is because ‘năm’ is a homophone that also means ‘year’, so it is to avoid confusion. So mười năm would mean 10 years.
20 – 90
20 – hai mươi
30 – ba mươi
40 – bốn mươi
50 – năm mươi
60 – sáu mươi
70 – bảy mươi
80 – tám mươi
90 – chín mươi
100 and more
100 – một trăm
1,000 – một nghìn or một ngàn
10,000 – mười nghìn or mười ngàn
100,000 – một trăm nghìn or một trăm ngàn
1,000,000 – một triệu
10,000,000 – mười triệu
100,000,000 – một trăm triệu
1,000,000,000 – 1 tỷ
It’ll be very helpful if you can memorise numbers from 1 to 10 for ordering food at a restaurant and buying things at a market.
Vietnamese currency starts from a thousand dong (VND) and you’ll most likely be paying in tens and hundreds of thousands VND for meals, coffee and shopping here. So it’ll come in handy if you can master these numbers.
Bao nhiêu tiền ạ? = How much is it?
To break this down for easier understanding…
Bao nhiêu = how much
tiền = money
ạ = is put at the end of a sentence as a way of expressing respect (especially to older people).
You’ll definitely want to bargain when you’re shopping in markets, night markets and many shops in Vietnam as oftentimes the prices are first called at a much higher rate than it really is. You may not be comfortable with the idea of negotiating and might not want to bother going through all that hassle, but it’s part of the experience and trust me the sellers are prepared to bargain and play the game with you. So just relax and have fun!
So there’s a magic phrase in Vietnamese that will be the key to your bargaining experience. It is…
Đắt quá! = It’s too expensive!
You can say this the first time as an expression of surprise that the price is higher than your expectation. Then you can say once more in the other order.
Quá đắt! = It’s too expensive!
It’s almost the same meaning, but there’s a very subtle difference. The first one shows the feeling of surprise and the second one implies that it is ‘too’ expensive for your budget.
And one final phrase if you want to ask for discount is to say:
Giảm giá cho tôi đi = Please discount for me
I’d say this phrase is not commonly used by locals as they have a lot more different ways of expressing and negotiating, but I think it could be worth a try for foreigners. My personal tip here is to say it with a sweet tone of voice and who knows you might make them smile and give you a discount!
The Magic Word!
This magic phrase is Ôi giời ơi! or Ôi chúa ơi!
It means “oh my god”! It is such an essential phrase in everyday life in Vietnam that I cannot count how many times I hear this and say this myself for all kinds of different occasions.
I say this is a magic word because it’s almost like a criterion that distinguishes expat living in Vietnam who understands the local culture from all other foreigners travelling and living here. Meaning that if you say this word, locals would be awed!
Call & Address People
If you want to go one step further and deeper into understanding and speaking Vietnamese, mastering how to address people would be the one thing to go for!
In Vietnam and in other Asian countries including South Korea, there are several different ways to address people depending on the age and gender. I think Vietnam has a more varied version than Korea, but you’ll be quick to catch it if you pay attention to how the Vietnamese people call each other.
Here are few that you can use and in reality, you’ll probably only need the first 3 – 4 out of these to use.
Em ơi! = is used to call someone who is / looks younger than you.
Anh ơi! = is used to call a man who is / looks older than you.
Chị ơi! = is used to call a woman who is / looks older than you.
Bác ơi! = is used to call a man or woman who is around your uncle’s age.
Bà ơi! = is used to call a woman who is about your grandmother’s age.
Ông ơi! = is used to call a man who is about your grandfather’s age.
I know that there’s some guess work to do when you decide if you should call someone ’em’ or ‘anh / chị’ and I’ve had and still have quite a tough time figuring that out sometimes. But in such confusing situations, it is probably safer to address them as ‘anh / chị’ as a way of showing respect. And that’s what I do.
You can use these everywhere you go – restaurants, shops, markets, cafes, streets etc and every day of your trip!
Great Videos to Learn & Practise Pronunciation
Here’s a video that is straight to the point and introduces you all the basic words you’ll want to learn in Vietnamese. There’s part 2 of the video, so you can check that out if you’d like!
On a side note, there are regional dialects in Vietnam of which the two are the most common – Northern (Hanoi) and Southern (Ho Chi Minh) and they are distinctively different. The official dialect is the Hanoian accent and so the video is.
I hope you all will have an unforgettable and beautiful experience with Vietnam and its amazing people!