April 2010
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Useful Words To Know In Vietnam

Restroom Sign in Vietnam

Here is a list of words that I think would be useful to know while traveling in Vietnam.  I am not going to write out a bunch of greetings and phrases you can easily find in most travel guides or Vietnamese language books….just words that you will often see on signs while traveling.  I’m also not going to bother to include the accent marks because it’s doubtful that non-native speakers will be able to say any of the words correctly anyways.  Just try to memorize what the words look like or write them down on flash cards that you can refer to when out and about…

By request, I added my interpretation of what these words sound like in parenthesis.  Vietnamese is so hard because it is a 6 tonal language….and even the slightest variation of the pronunciation changes the meaning of the word(s).  This is not even taking into consideration the many different dialects that can be found throughout the country.  For example, the people in North Vietnam (Nguoi Bac)  speak completely different than in the South (Nguoi Nam).  Then there are the other variations of people that live in the Central Vietnam (Nguoi Trung and Nguoi Hue).  My ex-wife’s family are Hue….and it took me a good year before I could understand 50% of my conversations with her father….and never could make out more than 20% of what her mother said.  🙂

I added question marks within some of the pronunciations….you should say those words as if asking a question.

Mien Phi (Mee-in Fee) – Free…..usually used in conjunction with “wifi” when in a hotel or coffee shop.

Sieu Thi (Seal Tee)- Supermarket

Thit Cho or Thit Cay (Tit Jaw or Tit Kay) – Dog Meat…..so that you can avoid eating it.

Sau Rieng (Sow Reeing) – Durian Fruit….this fruit has a really strong smell that I still can’t get past.  It is often available as a flavor in ice cream or in blended drinks so be careful before ordering any fruits you don’t know.  🙂

Nuoc Ep (Nook Ep) – Fruit juice – extracted by squeezing or blending fresh fruit

Trai Cay (Try Kay) – Fruit

Di Dong (Yi Dong)- Cell Phone Service (i.e. Mobifone, Vinaphone, etc.)

Han Quoc (Hang Wook) – Korea or Korean

Trung Quoc (Troong Wook) – China or Chinese

Quoc Te (Wook Teh) – International

Cafe Sua Da (Ka Feh Sooahh Daa)- Vietnamese Iced Coffee

Xe Om (Seah Um) – Motorbike Taxi

May vi tinh (May Vee Thin) – Computer

Nha Ve Sinh (WC) (Nyah Veh Sin)- Restroom……W.C. stands for Water Closet and is apparently a legacy of the French occupation of Vietnam.

Cong An or Canh Sat (Kong Anhg or Khan Sak) – Police

Benh Vien (Ben Vee-in) – Hospital

Cong Ty (Kong Tee) – Company

Nha or Phong Cho Thue (Nyah or Fong Jaw Tweh) – House or Room for rent

An Chay (Ang Chey) – Vegetarian

Thuoc Tay (Te-ook Thay) – Pharmacy

The Gioi (Te Yoi?)- The World

Kem (Kam) – Ice Cream

Gui Xe (Goi? Seah) – Park Car

Xe Honda (Seah Honda) – term used to refer to all kinds or motorbikes

Khach (Cat) – Guest…this word can be combined with others as shown below

Khach Du Lich (Cat Yoo Lit) – Tourist

Khach San (Cat Sang) – Hotel

Cap Cuu (Cap Koo?) – Emergency….should pronounce the last part as if asking a question.

That’s all I can think of on the top of my head…..if any fellow expats know of any other words they find useful to know please add it to my list.

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14 comments to Useful Words To Know In Vietnam

  • It would be cool if you could write down the (approximate) english pronunciation keys in brackets. Most of the times, the issue is that people don’t understand what I say. Thanks for your post! 🙂 Lets meet up sometime for more movies and food 🙂

    • odgnut

      I’ll try to add a basic approximation of how the words sound. Problem is, a lot of Vietnamese words sound like nothing an English speaker would ever utter. I remember reading another expat blog in which he says that speaking Vietnamese required him to create sounds from the back of his throat that he never before believed possible. 🙂

  • Chris

    Another important one is:

    cấp cứu

    Denotes the emergency entrance to a hospital or that a clinic offers emergency services.

  • Thach Tran

    Nice and handy list you got there. Here is just a few minor corrections.
    Quoc Te means International (an adjective) rather than Foreigner like you said.
    Cafe Sua Da means Iced Coffee with Condensed Milk (Sua means Milk) to be precise. The word for just Iced Coffee (the black one) is Cafe Da.
    Hope that helps 🙂

    • odgnut

      Thanks for the corrections Thach. I knew that “Sua” is milk and more specifically referred to condensed milk…but most Americans I speak to just call it Vietnamese iced coffee.

  • Thuy

    Stumbled upon your site by accident. Im hoping to learn how to take that bus that you took to Vung Tau from Saigon but instead take it to Phuoc Tinh. How much do you suppose that would cost me? And how long would the ride take?

    Ill be there for over a month, heaven forbid I dont faint from the heat.

    Ive read all of your blogs and Ive enjoyed it all. Maybe you should consider getting a job teaching english or something to keep from being bored. It doesnt have to be fulltime could be just on your own time.

    Hope to meet up with yall during my stay.

    • odgnut

      Hey Thuy…I’ve never traveled to Phuoc Tinh so I couldn’t tell you exactly how much it costs to get there….however since it only costs about 55,000 (less than $3) Dong to go to Vung Tau (115km from HCMC), I imagine it’ll probably cost about the same to go to PT. It takes the bus about 2 1/2 hours to get to Vung Tau….so maybe 2 hours to get to Phuoc Tinh I would imagine since it’s closer than VT.

      I am already teaching English to at a disability center in Saigon. Email me when you’re in town.

  • Minh

    I enjoy your blog and wish you all the best in Viet Nam.

    Regarding the language, it is not true that people in North Viet Nam “speak completely different than in the South.” Unlike China, where there are numerous dialects from different regions, and real language barriers, 90% of the Vietnamese people speak and write the same language. There are variations in the vocabulary, of course, and the pronunciation is slightly different for each region, but Vietnamese is spoken and understood from North to Central to South. (Similarly, in the US, for example, Southerners have a different accent and their own peculiar terms, or the British people have their Scottish, or Irish, accents and speak variations of the English language.)

    For a South Vietnamese, like myself, it does take some exposure to understand the heavy accent from Hue and Central Viet Nam. (That means, at first, you might catch only 70 % of what is said.) Northern Vietnamese is easier to familiarize with. The same applies to North Vietnamese or Central Vietnamese visiting other regions. Thus, it is a matter of time to get used to the pronunciation. It does not mean that people in the 3 regions of Viet Nam speak different dialects. Not at all. I thought I should correct this misconception.

    • odgnut

      Thank you for the detailed explanation on the variations of the Vietnamese language. I agree with your description of the differences in the many areas in Vietnam. My use of the word “dialect” in this scenario was incorrect….what I should have said was that there is a huge difference in the way people pronounce things in the North, South and various areas in the middle. A different dialect entails changes in grammar…which is not correct. The way people pronounce the accents are what separates the way people speak in Vietnam.

      But I stand by my assertion that the differences between how people speak in the North versus the South, etc. are pretty distinct and that it is very hard for many people in the South to understand those in the North and Middle areas of Vietnam. My family in Saigon constantly tell how hard it is for them to understand Nguoi Bac and Nguoi Hue.

      When I was having dinner in Vung Tau, a family sitting at the table next to us were speaking pretty loudly and I could not make out a single word of what they said. I asked my Di Tu what language they were speaking and she laughed and said they were from up North.

      My father is Nguoi Bac…but he lived in South Vietnam so his accent is nowhere near as strong as those in Hanoi. A person would definitely need a lot of exposure, as you say, to have any hope of understanding clearly the way people north of Hue speak. Maybe the locals in the south can understand 70% of Nguoi Bac and Hue because they watch TV and are exposed to the Bac and Hue accents every now and then…for me….understanding 10-20% is generous.

  • Craig

    Although I only speak English, I must agree with odgnut. I have tried 3 different audio sources for learning Vietnamese, and my wife (who was born and raised in Saigon) cannot understand much of what is said on these tapes and computer programs.

    Learning English as a second language in other countries is also interesting. All of my wife’s books and tapes on English were the Queen’s English (British) and not American. My guess (as a totally un-informed observer) is that North/South Vietnamese are more divergent than British/American English.

    Can any of you bi-linguals weigh in here?

  • Pat

    Craig, if you find a audio that works for the Saigon region, please share. I too know somone who speaks Vietnamese from Saigon and she can not understand the google translation english to Vietnamese audio. I like the top examples how Odgnut helps with the pronounciation. Thanks

  • Mike

    Hi Craig and everybody else here reading this, stumbled onto this site by looking to learn to get the basics on speaking the language, if you are the same person then you must now be in Honoi, if not someone with the same name as you. I have been here for nearly a week so still getting my feet on the ground to settle is etc. Hope to really fit into a group of friends soon.

  • Jason

    đi bộ (“Dee Baww”) – Walking – You will need this word so you can walk the streets so men with motor bikes will back off and know you want to work to where you are going. Plus they like the effort.

    (I’m Aussie-Vietnamese)

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