With its dramatic, diverse scenery, intriguing recent and ancient history, and some of the best food your taste buds have ever encountered, there are few destinations as enticing as Vietnam. The nation is well set up for travelling, with an abundance of easy cross-country transport, reasonably priced accommodation, and a population that’s full of people who can speak English to a decent standard. Even so, learning some simple Vietnamese phrases can improve your experience while traversing this gorgeous landscape, whether you’re on a Contiki holiday with a fun-loving group of 18-35 year olds, or braving it alone.
Unlike the languages of most of the nations around it, Vietnamese uses a Latin script, so once you have the accents down it’s simpler to read for most Westerners than languages like Thai – although understanding doesn’t come as easily! With that said, it’s still possible to pick up Vietnamese phrases and slang before you travel. Like most places in the world, the locals will really appreciate your attempts to communicate with them in the Vietnamese language, especially if you throw in a few different slang terms. If you’re headed to the Southeast Asian nation and want to impress the Vietnamese people you meet, check out our list of the 25 most important Vietnamese phrases and slang terms!
Some notes on Vietnamese
Although Vietnamese once used a pictorial script similar to Chinese, nowadays the entire country runs on a Latin-based script that was introduced by the Portuguese, known as Chữ Quốc ngữ. This alphabet has 29 letters that will be familiar to Western travellers, although the letters F, J, W, and Z don’t exist in the language.
Like many of the languages from the countries that surround the nation, Vietnamese is a tonal language. The word “ba” is probably the best and easiest to understand example of this for English speakers: when said in a flat tone, it means “three,” when spoken with a rising inflection (like a question) it means “governor,” and when said in a low, throaty tone it means “randomly.”
This might seem confusing at first, especially if you’re trying to learn Vietnamese phrases, but thankfully unlike other tonal languages Vietnamese tones are actually incorporated into how the word is written out. There are five accent symbols used to denote five different tones, and if there are no marks then a flat tone (like “ba” meaning “three”) is used. The accent marks are only ever written on vowels, and four out of the five marks go above the letters. The only exception is the “heavy” tone, which goes underneath. Below are the tones and how they are used, specifically with the word “ma”. A pronunciation guide is also provided.
- ngang (“level”) – No symbol – ma – mah – ghost
- huyền (“deep”) – ` – má – ma-arh – mother
- sắc (“sharp”) – ´ – mà – ma – which/but
- nặng (“heavy”) – . – mạ – ma-ar – rice seedling
- ngã (“tumbling”) – ˜ – mã – ma-uh – horse
- hỏi (“asking”) – ̉ – mả – ma-ah – grave
Image source:Tran Phu / unsplash
In addition to this, there are also some accented vowels: ă, â, ê, ô, ư, ơ. These do not represent tones, but specific pronunciations of the letters. They are not considered the same as the main vowels, but are completely different letters, with their own unique sounds. For example, the letter “e” without an accent is pronounced as an English speaker might say “get”, whereas “ê” is pronounced more like the “-ay” in “hay.”
Also, like most vast countries, accents vary across Vietnam, so a Vietnamese phrase you hear in the South might sound different in the North. However, as you’re a foreigner, with context most locals will be able to understand what you’re trying to say. And, as understanding is the most important part of communicating, even badly pronouncing Vietnamese phrases will undoubtedly help you to have an unforgettable experience.
We could go on and on about how to pronounce Vietnamese, but the subtleties of the language are far too complex to learn in a short period of time, and not particularly important if you’re only using Vietnamese phrases for travel. Plus, the below basic Vietnamese phrases all have a pronunciation guide next to them, so you can practise without learning the entire language.
Basic Vietnamese Phrases for travellers
These are the basic Vietnamese phrases you will use to communicate with Vietnamese people. They won’t exactly help you have a deep and meaningful conversation, but they are the kinds of phrases that will allow you to be a good and polite guest in the country.
- Xin chào – Sin chaw-oh – Hello/Hi
- Tạm biệt – Dhamn biet – Goodbye
- Cảm ơn – Cam urn – Thank you
- Làm Ơn/Vui Lòng – Lam uhn/Voo Laow – Please/Please
- Xin lỗi – Sin lo-oy – Sorry
- Tôi không hiểu – Toy hkong hi-ow – I don’t understand
- Bạn có nói tiếng anh không – Bahn co-noy tienc an-hkong – Do you speak English?
- Không có gì – Hkong co-zee – No problem
- Bao nhiêu – Ba-oh neo – How much?
- Ở đâu – Oh dah-wo – Where?
- Cứu! – Cay-yoo – Help!
Vietnamese people are generally quite social, with plenty of communal eating and drinking to indulge in during your travels. These useful Vietnamese phrases should win you some friends, and maybe even more
- Tên tôi là – Ten toy la – My name is…
- Bạn tên là gì – Bahn tenh la zee – What’s your name?
- Bạn khỏe không – Bahn hkoo-way hkong – How are you?
- Tôi thích nụ cười của bạn – Toy tick nuy coo-oy cuh-banh – I like your smile
- Trăm phần trăm – Cham fan Cham – Bottoms up/Down it/A hundred percent
- Thả thính – Thah Tinh – To flirt
- Một, hai, ba, dô – Mut, hai, bah, dzo – One, two, three, go! (Used as one would say “cheers”)
- Chảnh chó – Chan shaw – Unfriendly
- Tôi đang say – Toy dang say – I’m tipsy
- Mặc kệ nó – Mack keh naow – Let it be/no worries
Eating your way through Vietnam is one of the best ways to experience the country. In the West our knowledge about dishes from this vast nation only really extends to bánh mì and phó, and while both these meals are staples and delicious, there’s plenty more of the culinary culture to explore. While eating out, try to use some of these phrases.
- Cho tôi – Choh toy – For me/May I have
- Tính tiền – Tdin tee-en – The bill
- Thực đơn – Thook durn – The menu
- Ngon lắm! – Nongh Lam – Delicious!
Are you ready to book your first Vietnamese adventure? Check out Contiki’s trips to Vietnam and soon you’ll be immersed in this enchanting country with a group of fellow 18-35 year olds, ready to use these Vietnamese phrases!