Tuesday, February 16, 2016

15 Things about Vietnam #17 - That Kinda Cute But Slightly Daft Thing Vietnamese Girls Do With Two Fingers

A little light humour to counterbalance some of the moderately heavy material from the last few weeks - probably something you're already aware of: that kinda cute but slightly daft thing a lot of Vietnamese girls do with two fingers for any nearby camera, with almost terrifying enthusiasm. 

Is it a sign they come in peace? Is it a backwards version of the sign for victory?

Please examine the evidence below (figures 1 - 21).

Having considered the evidence and discussed it with various local friends, it seems certain to me now that the contemporary Vietnamese version of the two-fingered signal is a simple visual/linguistic pun. The number 2 in Vietnamese is "hai", which is pronounced "hi", as in the English "hello".

That's right, the two-fingers all those girls are offering the camera are not some sort of off-key reference to anti-war activism, but a simple greeting, perhaps, you might say, a greeting mixed with some sort of low key invitation to enjoy their massively non-edgy sensibilities.

Within those general parameters though, there are a gamut of specific issues - multiple shades of silly, sweet and stylish - that the practiced observer of Asian girl-behaviours needs to pick up on, if s/he wants to fully appreciate the Vietnamese girly-hi.

With the right degree of confidence, I think the Vietnamese girly-hi is straightforwardly hot:

Figure 1

Though clearly adding a whiff of the shrinking violet/wilting daisy is an enchanting, old-fashioned touch too:

Figure 2

In groups, the desired impression seems to be that life is some sort of high school musical:

Figure 3

Which Vietnamese boys, when they're not hitting the piss or moralizing about female virtue, can also create to marvelous effect:

Figure 4

Various problems arise, however.

For example, when one is barely past the mirror stage of the great Freudian adventure, one has to concentrate very hard to differentiate the concepts of twoness, fiveness, whatness and my-it's-my-hand-iness:

Figure 5

Then there is the effect created by giving the hi-signal but forgetting to smile:

Figure 6

Or the slightly unnerving double-handed "hi" that makes it look as if one is putting one's own head in inverted commas:

Figure 7

Or the anti-effect of hesitating to hi or even refusing to hi when everyone else is wildly cavorting to get their hi into the picture:

Figure 8

(Personally I think the girl in the maroon top who's too shy to hi is the attractive one in this shot: the Asian equivalent of the hot, nerdy girl who brought a novel to read at the footy.)

Clearly, there are more or less inappropriate places to give the hi signal. E.g. in front of Uncle Ho's tomb:

Figure 9

In front of the boys toilets at socialist boot camp:

Figure 10

And (of course) in front of Western anthropologues observing your behaviour at close range:

Figure 11

However for me, and for most Westerners, the real issues arise when the hi-signal gets turned back-to-front and starts to look like . . . an old-fashioned two-fingered salute:

Figure 12

Churchill himself - who of course pioneered the use of two fingers as a way of signaling Victory - seems to have been aware of the ambiguities here: rotate your two fingers through 180 degrees and, in the West, you're giving your audience a very different sort of message:

Figure 13(a)
Figure 13(b)

In Figure 14 (below), Wally was apparently too busy explaining his mobile phone to the hot girl from Figure 1 to notice what sort of messages people were giving off in the foreground:

Figure 14

While at the time I took this shot:

Figure 15

I thought the pint-sized cutie in the middle was giving me a backwards girly-hi, which, like its cousin the frontwards girly-hi, means, of course, hi. But the more I examine the photographic evidence (the looks on her friends’ faces), the more I think she was telling me to . . . eth off.

Couldn't get more curious?

More curious still is when Vietnamese girls position their backwards girly hi's in front of their mouths and start pouting or kissing or in anyway . . . licking:

Figure 16
Or indeed when they start pouting, kissing or licking en masse:

Figure 17

I’m not sure what the boys at your local high school used to do when they worked out what performing oral sex on a woman involves, but a backwards-hi held in front of the mouth, possibly with some crass use of the tongue to go with it, is what the hormonal 15 year-olds in my part of the world used to do. Which makes it harder to look at Vietnamese girls doing this for some reason . . .

Figure 18

Last but not least, there is the whole issue of Westerners giving the hi-signal.

I'm not going to warn you off too strongly, but let me say the Vietnamese girly-hi is hard to get right, not least because it's hard for big-boned, irony-addicted Westerners to propose to the camera what Vietnamese girls are essentially proposing to the camera when they do the hi-thing: "look how cute I am – doesn’t it make you happy? – it makes me happy”. 

The general principle: if done with an absence of blind joy or an excess of mockery, the Vietnamese girly-hi starts to look not just daft, but patently dumb.

Figure 19

This, I think it's easy to see, is a little awkward:

Figure 20

 This is more convincing, but not fully numerate:

Figure 21

Judge this one for yourself: the anthropologue trying out one of his own hi-manoeuvres: the walk-into-the-room + look-away-hi (degree of difficulty: 2)

Figure 22

Actually, if you're interested in the upper-tier anthropological issues related to the hi-signal, it's quite useful to take Churchill’s victory-signal as a reference point. 

The Vietnamese girly-hi in fact signifies the opposite of a victory over something. 

What in the West became a symbol of the successful conclusion of a gut-wrenching struggle with adversity, Nazis, etc has been re-invented in East Asia as a photographic invitation to spontaneous enjoyment of nothing in particular at all.

A little bit funny, no?


Sunday, February 14, 2016

15 Things about Vietnam #16 - The Vietnamese Language

You've probably heard round about, if you've been thinking of making a trip to Vietnam, that the Vietnamese language is 16 times more difficult to learn than French or Spanish. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the bad news.

The good news is - if you do end up learning Vietnamese and taking what you learn to Vietnam to try out on the locals, then you are guaranteed to get a very positive reception, even if, objectively speaking, your Vietnamese is atrocious, because the Vietnamese have pretty much exactly the opposite attitude to foreigners speaking their language to the French. Go to France and try to speak French and, even if you're nearly perfect, the majority of Frenchies will look at you as if you're a malodorous linguistic butcher. Go to Vietnam and string together half a comprehensible sentence and normal people will be moved to tears.

Today's entry is designed to give you some entry-level linguistic facts about Vietnamese that it would be foolish to ignore: facts you can proudly take with you to Vietnam, even if you don't end up learning Vietnamese or using your Vietnamese language skills to please and confuse native speakers.

The basic message is - there are two things that will really get to you in trying to learn Vietnamese: the tones and the pronouns. As you've maybe already heard, Vietnamese is a tonal language; all the hats and squiggles over the letters indicate little things you have to do with your voice in order to pronounce things properly - indeed to create meaningful sentences in the first place.

As you maybe didn't know, Vietnamese pronouns change constantly depending on the age and status of the person you're talking to. And we're not talking here about a simple switch between familiar and formal modes of address. We are talking about a five year difference in age between you and the person you're talking to demanding a whole different set of words for "I" and "you" (he, she, it, etc).

Let me assure you, these two things will keep on giving you pain, even if you get quite good at Vietnamese. So let's start with them and move on to some of the higher-level cultural issues to do with Vietnamese as a language.



That means you have to do something special with your voice, and, at a more basic level, with the supporting brainbox, with every word you speak. If you grew up in middle Australia like me, then you know, or ought to know, what rising intonation is – it’s what most Australian women do at the end of every sentence that comes out of their mouths. In Vietnamese, that’s what you have to do with a lot of individual words – plus 4 – 5 other things indicated by lines, dots and squiggles, thusly:

flat tone (no tone): ma
rising tone (straight up): má
falling tone (straight down): mà
low rising tone (down then up): mả
high rising tone (up then twist): mã
low falling tone (down then stop short): mạ

And those are just the pronunciation issues. The bad news is, though the sound of the six worlds you see above is very similar, the meaning is completely different:

ma – ghost
má – cheek
mà – but
mả - grave
mã – horse, appearance
mạ – rice-seedling, mum


Whether you go up or down with your voice, as in the case of the rising and falling tone, give a word a questioning tilt (low rising), cut it off short and low (low falling), give it a high-pitched squeeze (high rising) or do nothing at all (flat tone), makes a huge difference to what your saying in Vietnamese. Put simply, the general idea is: different tones give different meanings.

But the practical implication of the general idea is: unless you’re careful, you are going to end up calling someone’s mother a ghost or a horse. Or a grave. (The whole concept of a Freudian slip acquires a new meaning in Vietnamese.)

Imagine listening to a continuous flow of such words, where every single word could go one of six ways, completely changing the meaning of the word and the surrounding sentence, and you have an idea of the difficulty of Vietnamese.

Before you cancel your enrolment at evening school, let me just say the possibilities of misunderstanding start off seeming infinite, but after a while come to seem manageable. You’ll do just fine if you accept that you will start by making many many mistakes. Which your Vietnamese friends will probably find cute and forgive you for immediately.

For example, I once called two friends of my landlord, whose real names are Bích and Loan, “Bịch” and “Loạn” within the space of five minutes. Bích (rising tone) and Loan (flat tone) are actually quite beautiful names in Vietnamese – “Bích” means jade and “Loan” means a female phoenix. Or that’s what they mean if you get the tones right. If you get the tones wrong, as I did, it’s another story. “Bịch” (low falling tone) means “plastic bag” and “Loạn” (low falling tone) means “disaster”. 

Calling two attractive women you’ve just met Plastic Bag and Disaster Zone is not starting off on the right foot.

Luckily for me, Loan (the really attractive one) took the whole thing well.

Bích on the other hand let out a piercing scream. . .


This is not quite true. In reality there are dozens of words for “I”. The problem is that there is no single, dependable word for “I”.

The words for “I” and“you” depend on who you’re talking to. In particular, they depend on the age of the person you’re talking to and the sort of relationship you have with him/her.
For example, when talking to a man who’s older than you by a decent margin, say more than 5 years, you call yourself “em” (I, younger brother) and you call him “anh” (you, older brother) – the word for younger brother becomes the word for “I”. Likewise, when talking to an older woman, you call yourself “em” (I, younger brother) and her “chị” (you, older sister).

But if you are talking to a younger guy, you call yourself older brother (anh) and you call him younger brother (em), as you do when talking to a younger woman.

You address a child as “con” (child/kid) – in this case “con” means “you (the kiddy one)”. If you’re older than 20, the word the kid will use for “you” when talking back to you will be one of the words for uncle or aunt.

On the other hand, if you’re addressing someone’s grandpa, you call yourself “con” (I, the child) and you call him “ông” (you, respected Mr).

That may sound a little bit hairy, but it gets hairier. Much hairier.

A woman who is a bit older than you and is married you would call “chị” (you, older sister).

But if you don’t know her marital status, you might want to call her “cô” (you, miss).

If she is old enough to be your grandma, you could call her “bà” (you, respected older Mrs), which implies considerable deference – the deference due to age in all Chinese-influenced cultures. But if she is somewhere between your mother’s age and your grandma’s age, then “bác” (respected general older person) would be the better term of address.

When meeting the aunty of a friend, the word for “you” is the same as the word for aunty. But the word for aunty itself changes depending on what side of the family the aunty is on (mother’s side or father’s side) and whether she’s an aunt by marriage or by blood. In English, an aunty is an aunty if she’s the sister of your mother or the sister of your father or if she’s married to the brother of your mother or father. And when talking to her directly you just call her by her name, or you call her “you” – you use “you” for all other people present in the room, whether they are aunties, uncles, kids or prime ministers. In fact you can comfortably use “you” for anything short of the furniture.

In Vietnamese however you need much more specific information about this aunty figure before you know how to address her face to face.

So in English we have: “Could you pass the salt, AUNTY KAREN?”

While in Vietnamese we have:

DÌ chuyển lọ muối giùm cháu cái?
CÔ chuyển lọ muối giùm cháu cái?
MỢ chuyển lọ muối giùm cháu cái?
THÍM chuyển lọ muối giùm cháu cái?

Couldn’t get more complicated?

Minor complication: female vanity means that some of these rough rules go out the door. Vietnamese women under the age of 50 like to be called “em” (you, younger sister), even if they are obviously older than you, because it makes them feel younger.

Minor complication: when speaking to someone obviously younger than you (say you're 35 and talking to a 20 year old waiter) you can still use the pronouns relating to older people (anh, you/older brother, chị, you/older sister) to sound more polite.

Major complication: the words for “I” and “you” also differ from region to region within Vietnam. So in traveling from South to North or vice versa you have to change your approach to pronouns and pronomial social niceties.

The northerners, as in most things, are (moderately) more rational than the southerners because in the North they use proper names more often than in the South. Uncle Niên from the North, for example, is “cậu Niên” or “chú Niên” – if you’re talking to him, the word you use for “you” is “cậu” or “chú” and if you talk about him to a third party it’s the same. As long as your Western brain can assimilate the word for uncle and the guy’s name, you’ve pretty much got him picked out.

In the South pronomial pandemonium breaks out, because the Southern Vietnamese often refer to each other by a number rather than a name.

Children within a family are numbered from eldest to youngest, starting with 2. If the eldest child in a family is male, he is called anh 2, “brother 2”, if she’s female then she’s chị 2, “sister 2”, etc.

Guess who no. 1 is? Welcome to the feminist apocalypse. No. 1 is Daddy. Insidiously, no one calls him no. 1, it’s just taken as given.

Hairier and hairier. In the olden days, when Vietnamese families were often very large, some Vietnamese parents gave up giving their children personal names after a while. The number nine (“Chín”) mightn’t just be the number-marker of the eighth daughter of a large family, which she bears as well as a personal name. “Nine” might be her actual name.

So instead of knowing people’s names, in Southern Vietnam you sometimes need to know their numbers. Sometimes the number is the name. And sometimes the number will be what people use instead of the name. You might never learn someone’s real name. And s/he might not have a “real” name above and beyond a family number.

In case that’s starting to make it sound like a horrible faux pas awaits you every time you open your mouth, there are, luckily, a few ways you can make life easier for yourself, pronoun-wise, to begin with.

When talking to people you’ve never met before and are unlikely to meet again, you can stop worrying about which of the family-derived pronouns you should use and just call yourself “tôi” (formal "I"). This sounds hopelessly uptight if you keep on doing it in less formal situations, but it works ok when you’re dealing with the general public, in places like restaurants and shops. Or else you can refer to other people across the board using the all-purpose word “bạn”, meaning “friend”, or “you, the friend”. What you’ll be saying effectively isn’t “Could you pass me the salt, aunty?” but “Could you pass me the salt, my friend?” Again, it sounds a bit odd, but it’s probably better than making a complete hash of the 6 Vietnamese words for “aunty”.

Another option is to refer to yourself in the third person – which has the advantage of sounding casual and a little cute:

Mr Cam: Mrs Cúc, Cam is just going for a walk to clear Cam’s head. (Cam đi dạo thoải mái đầu óc nha chị.)
Mrs Cúc: Don’t forget to bring your raincoat, Cam. (Mang theo áo mưa đi Cam, đừng quên.)

It can take some getting used to – especially given that in Australia talking about yourself in the third person is either sign that you are having an identity crisis or have somehow turned into Kevin Rudd.

However the complexities of Vietnamese pronoun use mean that you’re going to have to do some wriggling round within your normal sense of identity anyway.

Let me say it again: expect there to be misunderstandings aplenty.


Third palpable fact about Vietnamese as a language: 3. MOST OF VIETNAMESE COMES FROM CHINESE.

The reason the Vietnamese and the Chinese are culturally quite close to each other (in spite of occasional Vietnamese denials about this), is that Northern Vietnam, the cultural heartland, was a Chinese colony for roughly 1000 years, from 179BC to 938AD. This, understandably, had a large impact on the language. In fact, 70% of all Vietnamese words have Chinese roots.

For most of the 1000 years after Vietnam regained its independence from China, Vietnamese was written, by the tiny fraction of the population who could read and write, in a complicated script adapted from classical Chinese called “Nôm” (= “Nam”, the script of the South). 

However, anyone who was anyone in olden-day Vietnam was a master of classical Chinese as well as Vietnamese Nôm.  History, literature, as well as what passed for economic policy, were written in Chinese, not Nôm, and the style and subject-matter of poetry were cribbed from the masters of the Middle Kingdom as well.

In the Fifteenth Century popular novels started to appear in Nôm and towards the end of the Eighteenth Century there was even a move to make Nôm the official national language. But throughout most of the period from 1000 – 1850, almost all Vietnamese who in any way wanted to turn on the tone did it by writing classical Chinese. (The last Vietnamese royal dynasty, the Nguyễn, took the policy to extremes. It styled itself more Chinese than the Chinese – which itself was a complex bad joke, given that China at the time was ruled by a non-Chinese dynasty, and given that, 50 years into the reign of the Nguyễn, the French took over Vietnam, reducing the spectacle of court life to little more than a colourful sideshow.)

What happened next was interesting, if painful. Pretty much out of naked self-interest, the French dragged the Vietnamese into the modern world, both culturally and linguistically.

As well as flooding Vietnamese with scientific, technical and everyday language, contact with the French changed the structure of the Vietnamese language itself.

Firstly, French rule led the Viets to start writing Vietnamese in a new script, our very own Roman alphabet, which was several times easier to learn than either classical Chinese or Vietnamese Nôm, even with the various decorations needed to mark the tones.

Secondly, French rule led the Vietnamese to formulate the relations between the basic elements of their thoughts more clearly. Older, Chinese-influenced Vietnamese, is, as the experts say, “periodic and elaborate”; that is, it gives a lot more weight to sounding toney than to saying what you actually mean. The basic thought-particles of traditional Vietnamese sentences are often repeated twice using slightly different words and in the toniest writing of all they’re repeated twice using exactly the same number of syllables. Adding to the sprawl is the fact that the logical links between thought-particles are normally not marked by actual words. Words like “if” (nếu), “then” (thì), “but” (mà) and even “is” (là), which in most European languages are basic to the task of saying something meaningful, are implied rather than stated.

Traditional Vietnamese prose, in short, is a lot closer to poetry than Western-style prose. So if your Vietnamese ever gets really good and you try reading a Vietnamese writer from the olden days, you’ll have to get used to guessing what the basic connections between different parts of the sentence are and learn to appreciate the way ideas and images appear in permanent poetic stereo.

All this started to change though with the appearance of the French in the land. From the middle of the colonial period (early Twentieth Century), Vietnamese came to crackle with more and more of the kindling of recognizable facts and arguments – more of what a certain Frenchman once called “clear and distinct ideas”. So while nowadays new additions to Vietnamese vocabulary tend to come from English, the lasting change to the psycho-linguistic engine room was made by the French. And by local patriots who went to school with the French – Vietnamese who learned French during the colonial period because it was the first language of French Indochina, but who didn’t let contact with their colonial masters dull their appetite for kicking said colonial masters out of the country.

Where did Uncle Hồ first learn the political language of liberation from French rule? Answer: Paris.

Uncle Hồ’s writing, at its best, crackles with clear and distinct ideas in the hope of persuading his fellow countrymen of the truth of one big clear and distinct idea: that Vietnamese national dignity is not compatible with being ordered around by polished Frenchmen in safari suits.

The real victory of the Westernized version of Vietnamese with the squiggles and the hats wasn’t guaranteed by French rule itself, but by the political drive of modernising Vietnamese communism. The Vietnamese communists made eager use of Westernized Vietnamese because it was much easier to learn than classical Vietnamese and because it was a language that was highly useful for the purposes of organization and propaganda.

The moral, if you want one: the biggest events of history are also events in language. Within a few years of taking power at the end of the Second World War, Vietnam's communists had taught half the country to read and write.

One of the first orders given to the Vietnamese by the victorious revolutionary comrades in 1945 was – to learn Vietnamese!

Which, funnily enough, they turned out to be pretty good at already.


None of which means that modern, Westernized Vietnamese is simply a tool for political argument or industrial development. Though the French managed to get the Vietnamese to take on board some of the precision of the factual view of the world, and the Communists used modern, Westernized Vietnamese as a tool to fight wars against two major foreign powers, the Vietnamese language still retains some of the opposite type of precision: the precision of old-style Chinese poetry.

Technically, what that means is that in Vietnamese nouns and verbs function easily as adjectives and qualifiers. Less technically, what it means is that you can plunk a small number of Vietnamese words down next to each other semi-poetically to create specific effects and meanings – the kind of thing English can normally only achieve with longer phrases, strung together with commas.

When you start really building up your Vietnamese vocabulary, you will be amazed by the number of words, few of them more than 2 syllables long, that seem to incorporate a whole sentence-full of meaning.

A typical Vietnamese street, for example, is “vui nhộn” – “happy in a riotous way”: it may be noisy, dirty and manically busy, but there is Life in it.

A Vietnamese “thằng bờm” is a figure whose face English needs 8 syllables to present to the world: a “practical-minded idiot”. (The Vietnamese, like Australians, pride themselves on their practicality. But they, or their language, can easily pick out the man who makes a pain of this mentality: a “thằng bờm” is someone whose petty pride in his own practical skills dulls his mind to all higher things.)

Or take some more everyday examples. The number of linguistic variations on the theme of telling lies and talking nonsense in Vietnamese is almost too large to count. Again, the subtle differences between the variations are something English can only capture in roundabout ways:

Nói bừa bãi – to spout a mass of confusions
Nói tào lao – to talk hot air, to talk bullshit
Nói xạo – to talk rubbish that is obviously a lie
Nói vòng veo – to talk in a deliberately circular way
Nói trổng – to liberally dispense innuendos
Nói tránh – to talk “avoidfully” (i.e. to beat around the bush)

Similarly, the genius of great Vietnamese poetry lies, in part, in its ability to fold half a universe of thought, feeling and experience into short, memorable phrases.

In the Vietnamese national epic, The Story of Kiều, a day without the woman you love takes 8 syllables to render as beautiful poetry: “một ngày đằn đẳng xem bằng ba thu”. To say the same thing  in English takes 18 syllables: “a day as dull and interminable as three autumns strung together”.

Less classically, when passing a Vietnamese guy with a large, un-Vietnamese butt, I once heard a Vietnamese girl say:

“Đít bự mà nhìn thấy sợ”

This means something like: “When I see a big butt like that, I’m scared!” (Scared in a good way.)

Why this is funny is a little difficult to explain. And explaining it will ruin it. But here goes.

It is funny because in Vietnamese the big butt comes unapologetically right at the start of the sentence. The sentence doesn’t tell us who is seeing the big butt or warm us up logically to the idea that I feel a particular type of spooky emotion on occasions when I see it (“When I see a big butt like that. . . ”), it just says “BIG BUTT!”.

A literal translation would go something like this:

“BIG BUTT but seeing it = SPOOKY STUFF”

Vietnamese abounds in these kinds of wonky thought-telegraphs, not all of them as joyously crude as this one.


As you would when you’re learning any language in situ, in Vietnam you’ll have to cope with the differences between regional speech-patterns. Linguistically, Vietnam is divided into three basic regions (Southern, Central and Northern) and while some of each region’s special terms are known to outsiders from the other two regions, others have a strictly local usage. 


As in most countries around the world, they also have widely differing accents and a nice little palate of psycho-issues relating to them.

The standard Southern Vietnamese accent sounds to the trained Northern Vietnamese ear like a careless blend of slurs and screeches, roughly, I guess, the way broad Australian English sounds to educated British and American ears. Only where Australians turn vowels into diphthongs, the Southern Vietnamese turn consonants into vowels and yowls. In the South of Vietnam, they don’t speak “Vietnamese” (tiếng Việt), they speak “tiếng Yiệt”, “Yietnamese”. And they don’t eat “roast duck” (“vịt nướng”) they eat roast yuck (“yịt nướng”).

Northern Vietnamese is classical Vietnamese, proper Vietnamese. Like High German, it’s the language of high culture and officialdom. Like American English, it’s also the language of pop culture.

Southern Vietnamese accept that all this is true by the way.

But that doesn’t remotely make them want to change their way of speaking or learn the “proper” Northern Vietnamese way of sounding their phonemes. That is because, in the mind of many Southerners, with the Southern attitude to consonant formation comes certain powers of straight-talking which a Northerner could never possess, no matter how clearly or eloquently he speaks Vietnamese.

In the minds of Southern Vietnamese, the linguistic prowess of the Northerners is the sign of a mildly deceptive attitude to life. The North, from the point of view of Ho Chi Minh City, is most of the way to China. That is, most of the way to the home of boring, staid, double-talking, imperialistic viciousness.

From the point of view of Southern Vietnamese, the best thing that can be said about Northerners is that they stick to their guns. And turn up on time more often than they do themselves.

But the Southerner attributes to himself a warmth of character which is a whole lot better than that – a power of direct, sincere speech that makes his inability to speak “proper” Vietnamese just another upside-down sign of a virtue.

(The trump card in the whole pack by the way is the accent of Southern Vietnamese girls, which is praised as silky sweet throughout Vietnam. The singsong powers of girls from the provinces around Ho Chi Minh City are said to make Northern Vietnamese men go to water.)

Accents to one side, the basic difference between the way language is used in the North and in the South is that Northerners, across the board, are more formal and the Southerners more laid-back.

One rather good joke that does the rounds online here is that if you drop by a friend’s place in Hanoi the response will be “Would you please come in for a cup of tea”, while in Ho Chi Minh City it will be “Let me just go over to Mrs 3’s and get a bottle of Pepsi and we’ll see what we can do, ya?”

Of course, as a foreigner, you don’t have to buy into the various value judgments relating to regional linguistic usage.

But you should spare a thought in all this for the Central Vietnamese.

Southern Vietnamese people can understand and sometimes do a pretty good impersonation of a “proper” Northern accent.

A few Northerners fence off the Southern accent with their prejudices, many just accept it for what it is. And a certain percentage of Northern men dream permanently of having a girl from near the Cambodian border pour warm treacle in their ears.

In the meantime, no one “gets” the Central Vietnamese.

To anyone from the North or the South, a strong Central Vietnamese accent is literally impossible to understand. If a Southerner heads too far north on a holiday, or a northerner too far south, then s/he will start to flounder. If either of them goes to Huế, the old royal capital right in the middle of Central Vietnam, they will flounder completely.

The Cosmo Kramer theory of Italian culture – that Italian life is like an opera in which everyone sings instead of speaking – has a direct analogue in the minds of Southern and Northern Vietnamese. The speech-patterns of Vietnamese from Huế are like music to the ear; but only real buffs have any idea what Huế people are actually going on about. . .

Vietnamese stage comedies produced in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, especially if they’re set in the past, often have a character from Huế who’s basically there to do a funny accent: to sound vastly poetic or vastly poofy – ultra-sophisticated, but totally incomprehensible. 


If those are the entry-level facts about the Vietnamese language, what does it feel like to listen to and – eventually, after years of stuff-ups – speak Vietnamese?

One thing you’ll have to get used to are the final particles (“sao”, “nhỉ”, “vậy”, “hả”, “chứ”) that they tack on to the end of sentences for the sake of feeling rather than meaning. Remember, every word in Vietnamese has its own intonation. So if you want to give a special twist of emotion or irony to what you’re saying, you do it by using extra words at the end of the sentence, not by adjusting your tone.

Everyday Vietnamese, even for advanced students, can seem like a largely random intermixture of the words:

“hết” (done completely)
“chết” (dead)
“rồi” (already)
“luôn” (or “liền”, “that’s it”, “for good”)
and “Trời ơi!”

“Trời ơi” is the most translatable of these five shape-shifters and it goes at the start of sentences rather than at the end like the others. It means “Good heavens!”, or, in more modern terms, “Wow!”, “OMG!”

Sitting on a bus listening to two old Vietnamese ladies begin every single thing they say with “Trời ơi” may leave you thinking that the Vietnamese live life in a permanent state of amazement. This is not so. “Trời ơi!”, like OMG, can cue sympathy or mild annoyance or just about anything. Or just about nothing;  in everyday conversation, the meaning is more like “Now I will say something. Here goes:”

One of the interesting points about the 4 other terms on the above list is that they can actually be combined to create funny-serious expressive effects.

Tell a Vietnamese he just missed the last bus and he will say “Chết rồi!” – “Dead already” (i.e. “I’m done for”).

Seriously get on the nerves of a Vietnamese girl and she will say “Anh làm em tức chết rồi”, which literally means “You have irritated me to death already”.

Whenever I disappointed my Vietnamese ex-girlfriend or made her angry, she would say “Buồn anh luôn” or “Giận anh luôn”: “You make me sad for good,” “Now I’m going to be angry with you forever”. Similarly, whenever I messed up a simple everyday activity (e.g. couldn’t fiddle the key into the lock of my front door, etc) she would say “Đuổi việc luôn.” “Đuổi việc” means “You’re sacked.” “Đuổi việc luôn” means “You’re sacked for good.”  In Vietnamese nothing beats a mild tautology for effective everyday cuteness.

Or take the phrase “Anh Cam hiểu chết liền” which became one of my gay landlord’s standing refrains, deliberately used to crack up himself and others, after he’d just said something in colloquial Southern Vietnamese and I, predictably, had failed to understand.

On paper, “Anh Cam hiểu chết liền” just means “Mr Cam doesn’t understand.” But it means a little more than that too. It seems to pick out a specific degree or hue of Mr Cam’s inability to understand.

Literally, what the phrase says is that Mr Cam doesn’t understand permanently, or “unto death”. It doesn’t mean that Mr Cam is any kind of dunce. (I hope it didn’t mean that.) Rather, it implies that, when something got said to Mr Cam, Mr Cam went from the top to the bottom of his mental lexicon, exercised his powers to understand Vietnamese to the full, and came up with . . . nothing.

Or that’s how I’m reading what Mr Trung kept saying to me, with my level of Vietnamese where it’s at at the moment.


One of the truly beautiful things about Vietnamese is that a lot of the low-level humour of the language comes from straightforward metaphors and rhyming effects which don’t seem to go stale after decades of use – unlike their English counterparts, which the passage of time has overlaid with radical scatological alternatives. Where some native English speakers nowadays manifestly think that an effective comeback is impossible unless they unleash a verbal tidal wave of piss and shit, in Vietnamese you can use a range of stock phrases to be cutting without being crude.

To say that someone is “lùn tịt như cái nấm” – as short as a mushroom – sounds naff in English, but funny in a normal way in Vietnamese. (Translated into Australian, the same person becomes a “shortarse”.)

To express the idea that someone is a bit thick, Vietnamese has the rhyming phrase “đầu to óc trái nho” – literally “big head grape brain” – which I suppose is on a par with the English “pea-sized brain” or “pea-head” (or, again, in Australian, “shit for brains”).

There’s nothing like being ripped off in Vietnamese. The phrase for this, “bị chém đẹp,” means “to have your throat cut the beautiful way”. As this will probably happen to you a fair bit when you first come to Vietnam, it’s worth knowing the Vietnamese phrase. Try it out at the market when you meet a stall-holder who’s a bit of an executioner and he’ll get the shock of his life.

A porn film in Vietnamese, which is normally called a “phim sex”, a “phim heo” (a piggy film) or a “phim nóng bỏng” (a film where nongs go boing!?!), can also be called a “phim nghèo”, literally a “poor film”. Poor people in Vietnam sometimes have large holes in their clothes. And the children of poor people sometimes don’t wear any clothes at all. Neither do the nongs who go boing in porn.

Don’t ask me why the Vietnamese word for taking selfies is also the Vietnamese word for wanking (tự sướng). Put it down as another example of language going on holiday and finding out a thing or two it never would have discovered if it’d stayed at home.

Joe Ruelle has made the point that Vietnamese men and women refer matter-of-factly to “tits”, “curves” and “arses” (“vòng 1”, “vòng 2” and “vòng 3”, literally “region 1”, “region 2” and “region 3”) in contexts where many English speakers would often use “chest”, “waist” and “backside” for the sake of decorum. Joe takes this as a sign that younger generations of Vietnamese are in some ways more upfront than Westerners when it comes to discussing the basic facts of sexual embodiment. One thing's for sure: being frank or effectively smutty doesn’t always mean saying what’s on your mind but twisting it out of shape a bit. Some metaphors are dirtier than their more literal cousins.

Which is not to say to say that sex doesn’t often disappear behind a veil of euphemism in Vietnamese. In newspapers and magazines, online and offline, sex is routinely referred to as “chuyện ấy” (literally “that story”). It is also sometimes called, in what seems like a deliberate caricature of lush Oriental poetry, “truyện trăng gió” (“that story of wind and moonlight”) or “giây phút mây mưa” (“those seconds and minutes of cloud and rain”): something which to Western ears sounds hopelessly brief and wheezy.

Silliest of all would have to be the classic euphemism for small breasts: a flat-chested woman in Vietnam has “đôi núi khiêm tốn” – “rather modest-sized double mountains”.

The exact flavour of this expression still eludes me after three years studying Vietnamese.

In English it sounds like the sort of thing that a young “maid” would say in Gilbert and Sullivan. But in Vietnamese I’m not so sure.

In Vietnam they talk about “modest double mountains” instead of “flat chests” or “small tits” not just in secondary school primers but in Cosmo Vietnam – a magazine which, like its Western equivalent, exists basically to advise Vietnamese women how to package their double mountains in a way thatwill make men drool.

In introductory history texts, you can learn that Vietnam once had a queen whose double mountains were not very modest at all. This is how the story goes: 

  1. Lady Triệu had an enormous pair of mountains.
  2. Lady Triệu became the leader of the Vietnamese nation after the Chinese bumped off her husband.
  3. Lady Triệu led an uprising against the Chinese.
  4. The uprising ended in tears.

The End

From this story we can glean two things. From 2 – 4 we can conclude that the Vietnamese don’t like the Chinese very much. From 1 we can conclude that the story is, quite possibly, apocryphal.

Because Vietnamese women in general have very modest double mountains.

Are you feeling wiser already?


The old-fashioned way Vietnamese packs words together, leaving out precise indications of relative position or logical connection, comes into its own in Vietnamese proverbs. 

Proverbs the world over give a sense of the shrewdness of normal people - not just their basic sense of seriousness, but their basic sense of fun too. Above all proverbs give a sense of the powers of common language. So here are a few samples to take home with you, or, if you want to be especially clever, try out on your Vietnamese friends.

In approaching Vietnamese proverbs, forget about the shonky fortune cookie wisdom that some Westerners lap up in their search for Eastern redemption whilst in Asia. Look out instead for everyday Vietnamese phrases that smack of normality, not profundity.

No Vietnamese saying sums up the basic mentality of the Vietnamese better than the simple 4-word combination:

Chuyến đò nên nghĩa.

A rough translation would be “A ferry trip across a river is enough to start a friendship” or “A ferry trip across a river is enough to create a connection.” But the keyword here, “nghĩa”, doesn’t mean “friendship” and it means a lot more than “connection”. “Moral obligation” is a little forbidding. Whereas “debt of gratitude” makes it sound as if “nghĩa” cuts mainly one way.

The “nghĩa” being talked about needn’t just run between the recipient of a good turn and the person who does the good turn (e.g. between a ferryman and his passengers), in which case the meaning would be something like “even small favours create obligations worth repaying.”

The idea is that human contact of any sort, however fleeting, creates a little kernel of totally meaningful experience. The proverb, in short, is a perfect summation of the legendary warmth, openness and politeness of the Vietnamese heart, the casualness within formality, the lightness in heaviness, that displays itself, in very different forms, throughout Vietnamese social life.

If you like, you could also think of it as an unspoken rebuke to Western complaints about the passing of time, the thought of which commonly becomes a source of sadness or a spur to Action (life is short, seize the day, etc). To which the Vietnamese essentially say: the most fleeting contact between human beings creates a bond that can do its thing throughout a whole lifetime and beyond: so on your way across time’s moving passage – get chatting!

In the book-length installment of this series of articles, I'll talk some more about the way the Vietnamese use food as a way of talking about everything. For the time being though, here's my favourite food related proverb:

Bưởi chua có muối mặn.

“Bưởi chua” means a sour grapefruit. “Muối mặn” means salty salt. Sourness and saltiness here are both bywords for shrewdness – the sort of morally unpretentious attitude to life that a lot of people think gives them the edge over pretty much everyone else in the world.

So the idea is – no matter how salty your attitude to life is, there’s always someone who’s got a saltier approach.

Along similar lines, there is:

“Vỏ quýt dày có móng tay nhọng”. For every thick-skinned mandarin there are a sharp enough set of fingernails: no one is invulnerable to the world around him - an expert set of claws is all you need to penetrate the toughest hide.

Along different lines, there is the classic Vietnamese image of a futile struggle with authority:

“Con kiến mà kiện củ khoai.” (The ant who starts a law-suit with a potato.)

Or take a Vietnamese proverb with just a light taste of fortune cookie to it:

Trời sinh voi trời sinh cỏ. (Heaven sends elephants, heaven sends grass.)

I have asked several Vietnamese friends what this means and I am yet to get a straight answer. The elephants, according to some, refer to a large family, which is a heavy burden, while the grass signifies having enough food to feed a large family. If that’s right, then the meaning would be something like “Heaven will provide, even if you’re not into family planning” or “A large family is a great burden which is worth bearing and which can be born because the bounty of Heaven/Nature is also great.”

But really it could mean anything.

I have heard it used to mean “pessimism and optimism are both handy in their way.”

I have also heard it used to mean “Heaven sends good and bad alike.”

But which is the good and which is the bad?

Does Heaven send elephants to chew peacefully on the grass or to trample it?

Are said elephants, appearing literally from out of the blue, something to welcome or something to worry about? Elephants are strong, rare and intelligent, but wild ones in Vietnam often get nasty, in which case they’re a handful.

What about the grass? Is it fresh, green, beautiful grass? Are we talking lawn here?

But grass could also be food for stupid sheep, in which case bring on the elephants. . .

In the end it doesn’t really matter what it means. It can mean whatever you want it to mean, no matter what it means to the Vietnamese.

To wind up, here is a small handful of other Vietnamese proverbs which you can use to sound knowledgeable and wise.

On class and character:

Giàu sáng mà tham lam, nàn nghèo mà hào phóng. (Rich but grasping, poor but liberal.)

Romantic fatalism:

Ép dầu ép mỡ ai nỡ ép duyên. (You can get oil from a bean, but you can't charm eternity.)

Knowledge and self-knowledge:

Biết người biết ta. (He who understands people understands himself.)

Truth and humour:

Đùa mà thiệt, thiệt mà đùa. (The joke’s the truth, the truth’s the joke.)

Wives, your own and others':

Vợ đẹp là vờ của người ta.  (A beautiful wife is everyone’s wife – so watch out. Or: Other men’s wives always seem more beautiful than your own – so watch how you see her.)

Last of all, something to get into perspective all of the romantic kitsch you're going to be seeing in Vietnam:

Yêu thì khổ mà không yêu thì lỗ. (With love in your life, you’re miserable, but without it you feel like you’re missing out.)

Footnote: Love and Pronouns

While we're on the subject of love . . . In the olden days, when Vietnamese talked to their dearly beloveds, the words for “I” and “you” were “chàng/nàng” “ta/thiếp” – men called themselves “chàng” or “ta” and their wives “nàng” or “thiếp” and vice versa.

Both pairs of pronouns, it has to be said, are completely devoid of the mystique of older European terms for lovers and spouses, which usually filtered down into the body of society from aristocratic circles, with their elaborate cults of love. The first pair (chàng/nàng) sounds solidly rural: “chàng” literally means something like “stout fellow”, and “nàng” means “maid”. The second pair (ta/thiếp) has a distinctly chauvinist undertone: as well as being a word for a woman in the context of an intimate relationship, “thiếp” is also the old word for a concubine, while its masculine counterpart, “ta”, is the term a feudal lord would have used when talking to his underlings.The master/servant relationship is not very far in the background of certain Vietnamese words form male and female, I and you.

When the French ruled Vietnam, upper class Vietnamese took to calling each other “moa” and “toa” in imitation of the French “moi” and “toi”. The colonial rulers I guess must have found this cringe-worthy, given that the most common French words for “I” and “you” are “je” and “tu”. “Moa” and “toa” have the logical advantage of creating consistent words for “I” and “you” which don’t need to be tailored to age or social status. They have the practical disadvantage of going against the grain of French grammar, and so sound pretentious and clunky.

By contrast, younger generations of Twenty First Century Vietnamese use “tao” and “mày” to refer to “I” and “you” in the context of a love-relationship or a close friendship. When talking to her boyfriend, or the girls in her immediate circle of friends, a Vietnamese 23 year old will call herself “tao” and them “mày”; boys do likewise with girls they know well and with mates. Overcoming the habits of deference to age and status is probably only a small part of the point here though. The attraction of “tao” and “mày” is simply that they sound friendly and informal.

The normal way that young Vietnamese girls and boys handle the issue of love and pronouns is that boys call their girlfriends “em” (younger sister) and themselves “anh” (older brother), while the girl does the same, using “em” for herself and “anh” for her man; they reserve the casual terms for “I” and “you” (“tao” and “mày”) for use among friends. To add a sprinkle of sugar, “anh” becomes “anh yêu” (you, darling) and “em” becomes “em yêu” (you, darling). Or rather, it becomes this in Hanoi. In Ho Chi Minh City, forward-looking place that it is, you don’t call your darling (female) “em yêu”, you call her “bà xã” (“old woman”), and she calls you her “ông xã” (“old man”).

The Vietnamese word for “love”, "yêu", which you possibly just met for the first time, sounds like the English word “Eeeuw!”, as in “Yuk!”.

Ask a normal Vietnamese girl what her favourite word in the Vietnamese language is and she will probably tell you it is “yêu”. (Some people would never have fallen in “eeeuw” if they had never heard of “eeeuw”, etc)

And for the record, a hooker propositioning a guy on a Hanoi street-corner appeals to the bogan bad boy in him by asking “Chơi gái không đại ca?” (“Want to come out to play, big boss?”). On a Ho Chi Minh City street-corner, the same girl appeals to Southern family values: “Anh hai có xài em hông?” (Does brother 2 have money to spend on me, huh?)

Or so the joke goes.