Learn basic Vietnamese through proverbs and simple phrases

So you're curious about learning Vietnamese?

Vietnamese is certainly difficult to pronounce, but that's about the only difficult part about the language. The writing is easy, the grammar rules are straight forward, and the Latin alphabet is similar to many major languages.

In this article, I'm sharing a tried-and-true guide to help you tackle Vietnamese pronunciation. This guide will open up a whole world of Vietnamese food, culture, and humor that will impress your Vietnamese friends the next time you see them.

Learning tones through Vietnamese proverbs

Let's jump right into proverbs. They hold a ton of functions in Vietnamese, from exaggerating, to moralizing, to demanding. Vietnamese don't like to be direct, so they love to nói giảm nói tránh "speak in euphemisms", but these can ironically pack more of a punch than directly saying something. Proverbs are also excellent tongue twisters to help you with pronunciation and learn a few Vietnamese words!

A few easy proverbs are:

Ăn quả nhớ kẻ trồng cây
"When eating a fruit, think of the tree's planter" aka. "Be grateful"

Khẩu phật tâm xà
"Face of a Buddha but heart of a snake" aka. a two-faced person

Việc hôm nay chớ để ngày mai
"Don't leave today's work for tomorrow"

Bắt cá hai tay
"Catching fishes with two hands" aka. cheating/being unfaithful to a partner

Gậy ông đập lưng ông
"Get a taste of your own medicine"

Can't get enough? These more advanced proverbs that will bring a smile to your face:

Mèo khen mèo dài đuôi
"The cat praises how long its own tail is" aka. self-centered people who think of themselves as the best

Đói cho sạch, rách cho thơm
"Be clean even when you're hungry and keep a good smell even when you're threadbare" aka. maintain good morals even when it's a tough time

Trời có mắt
"The sky has eyes" aka. The Lord sees all

Giận cá chém thớt
"Being angry at the fish but hitting the chopping board" aka. misdirecting your anger at the wrong people

You must notice by now the various accent marks on top of these words. Vietnamese actually has six tones and changing your pitch when you speak will completely change the meaning of the word. That's why a slip of the tongue can actually create some funny situation for learners. Take, for instance, the words you can make with the accent marks the letters m and e:

Me   :   tamarind
  :   sesame
  :   edge (of a place like cliff or river)
Mẻ   :   chipped
Mẽ   :   strong (often used in the term mạnh mẽ, which also means "strong")
Mẹ  :   mother

Don't be surprised if you ask for more "beef" but a waiter bỏ "remove/throw away" your unfinished food instead. Or if you want to eat kem "ice cream" but someone bring you đồ kèm "side dishes".

Just like learning pitches while singing, differentiating Vietnamese tones will take some practice. Luckily, Vietnamese speakers will probably understand what you are trying to convey based on the context. To learn new words quickly, take a Vietnamese word and look it up with different tones!

Vietnamese phrases for ordering food

Any tourist to Vietnam has learned the age-old method of pointing randomly to a menu and hoping for the best. But what if you're vegetarian or can't tolerate spice?

It's hard to find diet-specific food in Vietnam, and many restaurants don't offer modifications, so it's your best bet to ask a knowledgeable local. To find a vegetarian restaurant, ask:

Tôi muốn tìm quán ăn chay
-  "I want to find a vegetarian restaurant."

You've found the restaurant you want, and picked a dish, but you are worried that there will be Vietnamese chili (which has about 50,000–100,000 Scoville unit) in it. You ask for a non-spicy version:

Không cay
-  "not spicy"

Once the dishes roll out from the kitchen, be courteous and make sure everybody has gotten their cutleries and drinks before digging in. If it's a bit of a formal meal, or if you're dining your date's family, impress them by inviting everyone to eat. Say:

Mời [person's name]: you will say this to everyone person starting from the oldest. Vietnamese parents are very insistent on teaching their children how to mời at a meal.

Vietnamese people love to nhậu "drinking", and bia hơi "draft beer" is a must on any given summer lunch. If you're at a beer garden with your buddies, don't miss out on the Vietnamese alcohol cheer:

MỘT HAI BA ZÔ "one two three zo!"

Say it as loud as you can and maybe even pick up a drunk competition with the next table to see who's the loudest.

After a meal, it's typical to go for coffee as a palate cleanser. That's why many restaurants and cafes set up shop next to each other in Vietnam. A cà phê đá "iced coffee" or sinh tố bơ "avocado smoothie" makes the perfect refreshment after a savory meal.

Vietnamese people are raised drinking sugar without a second thought. From milk to freshly squeezed juices to coffee, chances are they will be full of added sugar. If you don't have Vietnamese metabolism and want to watch your sugar intake, ask for không đường "no sugar", or ít đường “less sugar” when ordering your drinks. Your weighing scale will thank you!

Vietnamese phrases for dating

Many people come to Vietnam to travel then end up finding the love of their life here.

Dating in Vietnam depends a lot on adapting to the local culture. Thuần phong mỹ tục "modesty" is important in Vietnamese culture, so PDA is really frowned upon. This means that communication is the best way to win a Vietnamese over. Most people who are in long term relationships with someone Vietnamese are people who speak at least some Vietnamese.

There are specific pronouns people use in a relationship. For a male-female relationship, the male's pronoun is anh and the female's is em. A couple that's been dating for a while may even call each other vợ "wife" and chồng "husband". A same-sex couple often decide between themselves which of the two pronoun each person will take.

Vietnamese are not afraid to start monogamous relationships after seeing each other for a short time. To ask if someone you're eyeing is already dating, ask:

Anh/em có người yêu chưa?
-  "Do you have a significant other yet?"

They say no! Now you want to set up a date with them, and wondering when they will be free:

Ngày mai anh/em có rảnh không?
-  "Will you be free tomorrow?"

The two of you agreed on an afternoon date. Like many Vietnamese people, your date likes it when you take the initiative. You searched online and found an interesting movie that just came out.

Anh/em có thích đi xem phim không?
-  "Would you like to go watch a movie?"

You're on your way to pick up your date, but got lost in some random alleyway, you call them up for the direction:

Nhà anh/em ở đâu?
-  "Where is your place?"

The date turned out well, and you're dropping your date. Say anh thích em/em thích anh "I like you," to let them know that you would like to see them again.

If things have been going well for a while, don't be afraid to drop the 'L-word'. Vietnamese are not shy about proclaiming love and don't take it too seriously.

Anh yêu em/em yêu anh
-  "I love you"

Meeting the family

Speaking to a significant other's family can make even native Vietnamese speakers sweat bullets. You'll be up for some scrutinizing of how you carry your self, what you do for a living, and how you behave. The good thing is that Viet families will warm up quickly if you get over the first meeting hurdle, so remember to be polite, generous, and listen to the following tips.

Always bring a gift when visiting a home if you're not a regular. The safest choices are trái cây "fruits", trà/cà phê "tea/coffee", or a bottle of rượu "alcohol". Hand and receive everything with both hands and remember to greet every family member you see.

A beginner's Vietnamese class may teach you to say xin chào “hi/hello/greetings” as a generic greeting, but no one really says so unless it's a super formal occasion. It's much more natural and polite to directly address who you are greeting instead.

Start with saying *chào "*hi/bye" followed by the person's name, title, or a pronoun appropriate for their age and gender. This is a great segway into learning Vietnamese pronouns:

While this may seem like a lot at once, the upside is that Vietnamese pronouns don't differentiate when speaking in first or third person. You also use the same pronouns to refer to yourself when speaking. For instance, if you're speaking to someone younger from your generation, you use Anh/chị to say I.

An older family member may also greet you by saying:

Ăn cơm chưa? "Have you eaten yet?": This may or may not be an actual invitation to join someone for lunch. Older Vietnamese often use this as a greeting. Cơm "rice" is used instead of the word for meal because rice is almost always present in Vietnamese home-cooked meals.

Respond by saying chưa "not yet", or rồi "you have", but just sit with the family anyway if they're setting up a meal. Vietnamese hospitality comes in the form of food, so be ready to stuff your belly. Say ngon! "tasty!" to compliment the cooking!

After sharing some food with the family, the family members hurry to clear the dishes. Your partner, who's helping in the kitchen call out to you:

[Your name] ơi "Hey [name]": No one really knows why Vietnamese add ơi after a name when calling someone from afar, but it's an endearing part of the language that everybody embrace.

Turns out your partner notices you standing idle and wants you to be proactive and help clear the table and wash the dishes. The more you try to help as if you're already a member of the family, the better the impression you can make. So don't be shy to walk in the kitchen or have a hand in setting up tables.

The visit concludes with tea time and fruits, an excellent opportunity for questions and answers with the family. Plenty of questions will come your way so prepare to patiently answer them all. When teas and fruits are passed back and forth, take some, say cảm ơn "thank you", and pass the plates on until everybody has picked up something for themselves.

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