Speaking Vietnamese, with its tonal variations and exotic pronunciations, can seem daunting at best—and like an impenetrable language barrier at worst. But we all know the importance of being able to say at least a few key phrases when you’re a guest in a strange land, so set aside your concerns and allow yourself to become woven into the verbal fabric of the city. Here are a few useful Vietnamese phrases that will help you make the most out of all of the things to do in Ho Chi Minh.
Let’s get that linguistic elephant in the room out of the way first: Vietnamese is a tonal language, and while you shouldn’t beat yourself up about how you pronounce things you should know that you’ll likely end up making an inadvertent pun or two. It helps to be comfortable with the fact that you might get some giggles in response to what you thought was a completely innocuous phrase.
The word “ma” is frequently given as an example of how tone affects word meaning: when spoken in each of the six different tones outlined below this same two letter word can mean “mother,” “that/but,” “tomb,” “horse,” “rice shoots,” or “ghost.”
You can try to learn the basics of the tones or just keep in mind that they are signified by accent marks called diacritical signs that show where in a word the stress is meant to go.
If you’re curious, here are the marks and a rough idea of what they’re meant to sound like:
Mid tone (“ma”): When the word doesn’t have a mark, this tone is used. It’s at the middle of your voice range.
High rising tone (“má”): Begins in a high tone and then rises sharply
Low rising tone (“mả”): Starts low, goes lower, and then rises sharply
Low falling tone (“mà”): This one starts low and then falls
High broken tone (“mã”): begins slightly above midrange, dips, and then rises sharply
Low broken tone (“mạ”): begins low and falls sharply
If you’re in doubt, look to the shape of each diacritical mark for a hint about pronunciation. This video explains that method and is a great resource if you want to hear the tones aloud.
Certainly you’ll only be able to get a limited understanding of pronunciation from reading a language you don’t speak, so there are pronunciation guides included in parentheses to help you figure out how to say what you’re reading.
If you’re looking to chat with a local, try opening with xin chào. Pronounced “sin chow,” this greeting is a safe bet for foreigners who don’t understand the complex social conventions attached to more specific of saying hello. While those comfortable with Vietnamese will be more descriptive with their greetings, tagging on indicators of things like gender, age and relationship to the speaker, a friendly xin chào will be enough for you since it can be used between anyone.
If you’re feeling extra friendly, feel free to say xin chào, tôi là (your name) (“sin chow toy la”) to say hello and introduce yourself.
To close a conversation, say tạm biệt (“tahm b’yet”). The low broken tone indicated in the Vietnamese spelling means that the two words are said rather shortly.
Ignore your impulse to say “come on,” because this useful phrase meaning “thank you” is actually pronounced something more like “ca-ahm uhn,” with the first word rising in tone. This is considered a more casual, or at least less sophisticated, way to say thank you than the very similarly spelled but differently toned cảm ơn.
A simple little Vietnamese word you’ll absolutely want to have handy, không means “no.” Spoken with no tone and pronounced like “hung” with a slight k sound ahead of it, this will be a useful phrase if you get followed around by street merchants in the touristy areas surrounding the hotels in Ho Chi Minh. A solid and strong không should be enough to get even the peskiest salesperson off of your back.
For the record, the word for “yes” (at least the simplest and most often applicable) is a level-toned vâng (“vung”).
Bao Nhiêu Tiền?
On the other hand, if you are interested in buying something it’s useful to know how to ask for the price of an item. You can ask bao nhiêu tiền? (“bow new tee-yun,” meaning “how much is this?”) or just bao nhiêu? if your goal is to avoid tonal complexities.
Not pleased with how much the merchant wants for something? Trot out a đắt quá (“daht kwaa,” both with a high rising tone), which means “too expensive,” and watch those numbers drop. Bonus points for using the colloquial expression ôi giời ơi (“oi zoy oi”) to exclaim “oh my god” when the offered price is too high. At the very least, it’ll charm the salesperson.
Say không (“no”) if you can’t get the price down far enough or if the salesperson is trying to talk you out of being firm, and eventually you’ll likely be able to name your own price. Confidence is key in market negotiations here; you don’t want to let on that you’re a tourist if you can help it so just pretend like you understand the bartering conventions and focus on the numbers.
You won’t have much luck waving around or pointing to get the waiter’s attention in a restaurant in Vietnam. The preferred method is instead to shout out for the server, so it’s worth knowing how to address them.
For a server who is younger than you use em ơi (“ehm oi”), while an older female server should called over with chị ơi (“chee oi”) and an older male server with anh ơi (“ang oi”). Don’t be shy when it comes to raising your voice in a crowded, noisy restaurant—that’s just how it’s done in Vietnam.
This article was created in collaboration with Along Dusty Roads