A Vietnamese Language Guide ‘Cause You Probably Suck at Vietnamese

December 2016 / words by Kevin, artwork by the Clare Lawrence.

Pssst, you may have noticed that we are starting to feature talented friends & fellow travelers’ work! It’s been inspiring to meet other artists as we go, and want to collaborate more on the blog. We met Clare in China, shared lots of laughter and spicy hotpot, and have since been in touch following each other’s projects. She spent a year in Vietnam and gave us lots of good advice, so we asked her to make some sick collages for this post. Thanks Clare!


I suck at languages. Actually, not true. I suck at foreign languages. And for me, if it’s not American, it’s foreign. And if it’s American, it should have a wall built around it. To prevent any non-American languages from getting in. And preferably Mexico would pay for that wall.

Just kidding. Walls don’t work. I think history has proven that time and time again. But who reads history books, am I right?!? Fucking boring!

But seriously, I mostly suck at foreign languages. They don’t come naturally for me. Regardless, I haven’t allowed my foreign language handicap to ruin my life. It took countless blank stares, disheartening failures, and many existential apathetic shrugs from the lovely citizens of Paris, but I’m now able to converse at an intermediate level in French, sometimes even at an advanced level with just the right amount of vin rouge. Similar story for Spanish, except my grammar is so bad that I sound like a slow 1st grader. But the Spanish speaking peoples of the world are far more forgiving than the aforementioned French, so it’s fun to converse regardless of my suckage level.

But Asian languages are a whole different beast. I learned about 3 words of Mandarin during 3 weeks in China. I couldn’t pronounce anything correctly because of the tones and diphthongs. And China just made no sense in general, on account of it just being China.

In Thailand I was able to learn a few basics, even though pronunciation was still hard because of the tones they use. And what I realized was that I only needed a few basics to get what I wanted, and to make the locals smile and perhaps laugh a bit.

This basically sums up my 2-fold language learning philosophy:
1) Learn some key phrases to get what I want
2) Make the locals smile

That’s it. So without further adieu, I present:

‘A Vietnamese Language Guide Because You Probably Currently Suck At Vietnamese’

HELLO — Xin Chào

Xin – Chào
(Xin as in “sin”, then Chào as in “ciao” like Italians or pretentious non-Italians would say)

Here’s a vid of a thousand different people saying xin chào.

Note: Of course it’s never this simple. There are a bunch of varieties of hello based on who you’re addressing, whether they are older than you or wiser or better dressed or some other reason. But xin chào is a great way to say wassup that will work for basic needs.


THANK YOU — Cảm ơn

Cảm – ơn
(Cảm sounds like the ’gam’ in origami, then ơn as in “on”)

Pretty simple. Same video as before, skip to the 0:12 second mark.

Note: The Vietnamese language has all of those squiggly marks on the letters to indicate tones…


WHERE’S THE BATHROOM? — Nhà vệ sinh ở đâu

Nhà – vệ – sinh – ở – đâu
(Nhà is a strange one that we don’t really do in English. Kinda sounds like the first half syllable in “gnocchi”, but then finish with an ‘A’ sound, then vệ as in “Vay”, then sinh as in “sing” minus the hard “G” sound at the end, then as in “Oh”, then đâu as in “doh” like Homer Simpson would say. Got all that?)

‘Nhà – vệ – sinh’ means ‘toilet’
‘ở – đâu’ means ‘where’

Feel free to cut off the ‘ở đâu’ part if you’re the type who enjoys speaking like a caveman screaming ‘toilet’ during an emergency.

I feel like ‘where’s the bathroom’ isn’t as urgent to remember in Vietnam since the food is less spicy. This phrase was of paramount importance while in Thailand where many bathroom emergencies were had. Regardless, it’s always a useful phase in your arsenal.

Good pronunciation at the beginning of this video until the ‘Viet-Nomad’ shows up and makes everyone barf in their mouth from this terrible pun.


VERY DELICIOUS — Rất Ngon

Rất – Ngon
(Rất as in “zit” like a zit on your face, and Ngon as in “naan”, the delicious bread from India)

I don’t know how you get the pronunciation of “zit” from a word spelled out as ‘Rất’ but I’m not the one making the rules here.

This one was hard to learn, but basically if you say “zit naan” people will understand you. The “zit” part is quick and the tone is upwards, and the “naan” part is long and flat.

This is my fool proof phrase to get locals to smile and sometimes even laugh. Plus, they take their food seriously so should be complimented on its deliciousness.

Also, I can’t find a video that show how to say it, so just show the words Rất Ngon to a Vietnamese person and they’ll help. For the first few days when I was learning it, I’d always pronounce it wrong, get a blank stare, then show them a screenshot of Rất Ngon on my phone and they’d crack up laughing and eventually teach me how to say it properly.

BEEF — Thịt Bò or just
CHICKEN —
DOG MEAT — Thịt Chó

Beef — Thịt – Bò
(Thịt as in “tit”, then as in “bow” said really quick)

At 0:35 this lady says beef. She pronounces it kinda like “baw”

Thịt literally means meat. So add and we get beef meat. I’ll take the beef meat, please.

Chicken —
( as in “gah”)

Pretty straightforward. If you need extra help, this lady explains all the intricacies of the chicken for ya.

Reason why beef and chicken are important to know is simply because these are the two basic meat types you’ll find in soup. So often you’ll sit down on those cute little plastic sidewalk stools and the only thing you’ll be asked is Bò or Gà. Beef or chicken. Now you know what they are asking and you don’t have to stare blankly like you’re dumb. Unless you are dumb, then stare away.

This brings us to our third & final meat type in this lesson…

Dog Meat — Thịt Chó
(Thịt as in “tit”, then Chó as in “chode” minus the hard ‘d’ sound at the end. And let’s face it, if you’re out there chown’ down on dog meat, your probably a chode.)

Yup, dog meat. They eat it. And I’ve seen it pretty often too. In fact just yesterday I saw what I thought was a pig on a spit. Upon closer inspection I realized it was a dog a spit. First time I ever saw that.

A word about dog meat for Westerners who have only heard horror stories about Asian people eating their pets… the dogs they eat are farmed to be eaten, much like cattle or pigs in the West. These dogs are a very specific breed, and once they reach about 12kg they are ready for slaughter. Eating dogs, and cats, and even rats comes from a time when people were very very poor, and had to eat whatever was available to them. So out of necessity. For survival. Not because they enjoy tricking stray dogs into capture, torturing them, and feasting on their meats. Even though lots of people are no longer super poor, eating dog meat has continued into the modern day with the older generations being the main consumer. It’s a delicacy now, not consumed often.

So you might be asking yourself… “Kev, did you actually try that shit?” And the answer is yes. Just a small amount because my curiosity was killing me and I’ll (mostly) taste anything once. Don’t tell my dog back home, he’d be so pissed off at me. For the record, it wasn’t bad at all, tasted kinda like ham on Christmas Eve. I know I know… I’m definitely a huge chode for trying it, but now that I know, I will never have to eat it again.


HOT BLACK COFFEE — Cà Phê Nóng
HOT COFFEE W/ CONDENSED MILK — Cà Phê Sữa
ICED BLACK COFFEE — Cà Phê đen đá
ICED COFFEE W/ CONDENSED MILK — Cà Phê Sữa đá

First up… Cà Phê which simple means coffee. Sounds kinda like “cafe” but with a break between the “ca” and “fe” parts. So “ca…(break)…fe.” Easy peasy.

I’m not going to explain how to exactly pronounce the rest of these varietals since let’s face it, you’re probably going to be pointing to a menu and ordering anyways. The more important thing here is to know that these four variations are the most common ways you’ll be taking coffee in Vietnam. And milk really means condensed milk, but it’s not overly sweetened like you might find in the West. It actually cuts the bitterness of the coffee in a really nice way.

If you find yourself in Hanoi, you’ll sometimes see “Egg Coffee” on the menu, which is worth trying. Kinda tastes like egg custard mixed into the coffee. Great after dinner.

Here’s a cool infographic showing these four coffee varieties.


Well, that’s about it. Before reading this guide, you probably sucked at Vietnamese. And let’s face it, you definitely still suck at Vietnamese! But hey, at least you won’t be unknowingly eating dog meat out there.

love ya,
Kev

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7 Comments

  1. You ate DOG???? Holy crap, I’m impressed Kev. You are fearless!! My Dad ate dog in Korea once but he’s Korean AND he didn’t know what he was being served. He said he couldn’t swallow it cuz it smelled really weird. Good for you!!

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