Vietnamese language

practicalities - Vietnam: May 23, 2014

The Vietnamese language

In Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese language is considered the hardest to (verbally) learn for foreigners, due to its reliance on tones. Since most westerners are not used to tonal languages like Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese and in our case Vietnamese, it may appear like some sort of singsong, strange to our ears and and very hard to understand.

On the other hand, the modern writing system is based on our familiar Roman alphabet and therefore much easier to read than the the script of neighboring countries.


The linguistic roots of Vietnamese can be followed back to China’s political domination during the 2nd century, but was also influenced by the Champa and Khmer civilizations. For centuries, written Vietnamese was practically identical to Chinese script until the 13th century, when a writing system called Chu nom was introduced that combined Chinese characters with phonetic elements. The current written language was introduced in the 17th century by Alexandre De Rhodes and was based on previous works by Portuguese missionaries. Though it was originally intended for writings of the Catholic Church, this version of Vietnamese slowly became more popular with the general public and is now considered the official written language of the country.


Sentence structures in the Vietnamese language have the same subject-verb-object word order as English. The grammar mainly relies on word order and sentence structure, rather than changes through inflection.


Though most of the vocabulary is monosyllabic, many nouns and verbs are combinations of one or two words that, once joined together, create a different meaning. Take for example nha hang. Individually it means house (nha) and place to buy goods (hang) but put together it means restaurant (nha hang).

The usage of personal pronouns in Vietnamese is determined by several factors including age, marital status, gender and your familial relationship to the other person. It’s a bit confusing but it’s just best to use Anh (male) or Chi (female) if the person you are addressing is older than you and Em if they are younger. Also, if they are a lot older than you, use Bac (male) and Co (female). Yes, it sounds a bit pedantic at first but etiquette and respect for the elder is very important in Vietnamese language and culture.


Due to the length of Vietnam, which stretches from north to south over around 1000 miles, there is a variety of local dialects, sometimes influenced by the culture of ethnic minorities, sometimes by history and accessibility of the countryside. Once you dive into learning the Vietnamese language, you will realize that there are significant differences between the idioms of the North, the South and the Center of Vietnam.

Officially of course, the northern variant of Hanoi is the official language that is taught at schools. Locals however will always prefer the specific dialect of their home town, which may sometimes lead to confusion.