I boarded the flight from Bangkok to Saigon and sat, as I usually do, in the middle seat. At the window was a little girl, maybe eight or nine years old. I said to her with my best attempt at Vietnamese “xin chao” which probably sounded like “Zinn Chow.” She responded politely “I only speak vietnamese” I tried again but I only got a hey crazy lady I just told you I can’t understand you kind of look.
Once I settled into my volunteer gig, at the local rehab hospital and teaching English, I continued to get this look. Despite my attempts to say hello and thank you and my name is, I get the same look. Why? Vietnamese vowel sounds and tones are specific and complicated. Still, I try.
a ă â b e ê g i k o ô ơ p t u ư v y z á ắ ấ c é ế gi í kh ó ố ớ ph th ú ứ x ý à ằ ầ d è ề h ì l ò ồ ờ q tr ù ừ ỳ ả ẳ ẩ đ ẻ ể ỉ m ỏ ổ ở r ủ ử ỷ ã ẵ ẫ ẽ ễ ĩ n õ ỗ ỡ s ũ ữ ỹ ạ ặ ậ ẹ ệ ị nh ọ ộ ợ ụ ự ỵ
There are three separate A’s, each of them can have up to six different tones. Didn’t I tell you? This is confusing.
Tones are “pitch contours.” Each accent can indicate a different pitch contour, a different raising or lowering of pitch changes the meaning. This means, when I think I’m saying hello cheerfully, I’m not actually saying hello, I might be saying “Dad, in” or something else unintelligible.
The word “Chay” depending on the pitch contour, can mean fire, vegetarian, run… you get the picture.
Even though my accent remains poor, it’s always good to try. Speaking to someone in their own language shows respect.
Hello: xin chào
Thank you: cảm ơn
How are you: Khỏe không?
Response [I’m fine]: Khoẻ, cảm ơn
Do you speak English: Biết nói tiếng Anh không?
Excuse me/ sorry: Xin lỗi
Goodbye: Tạm biệt or chào
Count to Ten:
1. một 2. hai 3. ba 4. bốn 5. năm 6. sáu 7. bảy 8. tám 9. chín 10. mười 11. mười một
How much does it cost: Bao nhiêu tiền?
Bread: bánh mì
Pork: thịt heo
Egg: trứng / op la
Vegetarian: Tôi ăn chay
More Than Words
When you’re greeting someone older than you, bow slightly towards them to indicate respect. If you’re going to someone’s home, ask them before how you should greet their relatives as there is a different hello for older women, older men, oldest, same age as you and young ones too. I was told that as a foreigner it’d be ok to bow/nod and say “Xin Chao.” Just ask, maybe you’ll get off easy 😉
On the same note, don’t be surprised that everyone here asks your age. It’s to show you the respect you’re due.