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The Whole Anh Em Thing

"Anh and Em" Me and my little brother in 1975

Titles, titles, titles….everyone in Vietnam has one.  Adults, kids, teenagers and even babies have them….there are so many that it’s sometimes even confusing to the locals.  For instance, you generally use the terms “Anh”, “Chi”, and “Em” within your immediate family.  “Anh” is an elder brother, “Chi” is an elder sister and “Em” can refer to either a younger brother or sister.  Now if only ended there it would be so simple…but most people use the same terms when they address friends, boyfriends/girlfriends, husbands/wives and even strangers.

When you use titles like “Anh” “Chi” or “Em” with people that are not blood related, it is an issue of respect.  I think it’s kinda nice that people address relative strangers in such a manner.  When you use the same title with people outside the family as you do with your own blood…you are probably more inclined to be polite and kind to the person you’re speaking to.  I know that I would think twice before I raised my voice at someone I called referred to as “Anh” or “Chi”.

One of the most confusing aspects of these titles is that you can be a lot older than someone and still have to address them as “Anh” or “Chi”.  One of my cousins on my father’s side is much older than myself or my siblings….but he had to call us all “Anh” and “Chi” because his mother is my father’s little sister.  Another cousin in Vietnam is 4-5 years older than me….and a doctor…but he has to defer to me and call me by “Anh”.  It’s so weird.  It’s all about hierarchy.  Parents are at the top of the hierarchy, then it goes from the oldest siblings to the youngest.  The children of the older siblings are given a higher value than the children of the younger family members.

Drinking Buddies can call each other "Anh" and "Em" too

Your parent’s friends…or adults that are a generation or older than you are generally referred to as “Bac”….however if they are very close to your parents you might call the (“Chu and Co” OR “Cau and Mo”).  If your parents call someone “Anh” or “Chi”…then you automatically have to call them one of previous terms…doesn’t matter if they aren’t much older than you are.  My parents have friends that are a lot older than they are….and their friends’ children have to address my parents as “Bac”…even though they aren’t much older than the children.  I get to call the children….”Anh” and “Chi”…even though they are a probably old enough to be my parents.

In a more formal setting, IE. business meetings, weddings, etc. you should refer to adults as “Ong” or “Ba”….however it all depends on how people address themselves.  If someone addresses himself/herself as “Bac”or “Anh/Chi”…then it’s probably fine to use those titles with them in return.  But if you are not sure…it’s best to be on the safe side and call them “Ong” or “Ba”.  Some people get really offended when you address them by a more informal title such as “Chu” or “Co”.

When my father was younger…he used to really get pissed off when people called him anything other than “Bac Si” (doctor) or “Ong”.  There were countless times he kinda went off on a waiter or waitress at a Vietnamese restaurant when they addressed him “incorrectly”.  I don’t even want to imagine the stuff we must have had to ingest because he couldn’t let it slide.  It was very embarrassing and everyone else in my family always felt really bad for the people on the other end of my father’s verbal abuse.  I’m happy to say that these episodes are a thing of the past.  My father is now a Buddhist Monk and his temper is not so hot anymore.  🙂

I’ll admit that even though I’ve been in Vietnam for over 4 months now…I still slip up constantly and address people inappropriately.  Not on purpose of course!!  Living in the U.S., I only had to know one title really….”Bac”…..because the only people I ever had to address in Vietnamese were my parent’s friends.  Almost all their friends were “Bac” to me…with the occasional “Co” or “Chu” thrown in.

My brothers and sisters spoke to each other completely in English…so titles were never an issue.  We only called each other “Anh” or “Em” when referring to each other with my parents.  Even so…we screwed that up royally!!  For whatever reason, only my older brother Khanh was addressed as “Anh”….maybe because “Anh Khanh” kinda rhymed.  Every other sibling was “Em”.  I called my 2 older sisters “Em” and likewise my 2 younger brothers called me and my sisters “Em”.  My parents never corrected us and it became a habit.  Because I grew up pretty much only using “Bac” and “Em”….I am only comfortable when addressing Vietnamese people that way.  I remember when I came back to Vietnam in 2002….I slipped and called my cousin “Bac” even though she was only 19 and I was 30.  🙂

"Anh" and "Em" can also refer to sweethearts

My mom has been yelling at me everytime I tell her I call some person I just met “Em”.  I can’t help it…..it’s a reflex.  When someone calls me “Anh”….my first reaction is to address them in return as “Em”.  If you don’t want me to call you “Em”….DON’T call me “Anh”!!  My mom says it’s politically correct to call most young men “Anh” or “Chu” and young women “Co” or “Chi”….even if you know you are older than them.  And you should definitely NOT call your friends’ girlfriends or wives “Em”.  Oops.    My mom says she’s surprised I haven’t been punched in the face yet.  🙂  People in relationships also call each other “Anh” or “Em”….but I think in this context it is similar to Americans that call each other “Honey” or “Baby”.

One thing I don’t like about the whole hierarchy thing (which exists in pretty much all Asian societies) is that it teaches you to  defer to the person higher up on the totem pole.  The person at the bottom is often too afraid to question the authority of the person higher up….so mistakes are made that could be corrected….but are often not, and in a way I think it also helps reinforce the elements of corruption within society.  The older and more powerful feel that they can take advantage of those beneath them because of their elevated position….and the lower classes are too afraid to speak out.

There have been a few times I’ve seen a teacher in Vietnam make mistakes that some students or other teachers will catch….yet no one dares mention the error to the offending teacher.  People that are younger or lower in the hierarchy will rarely ever question their seniors.  My parents taught us that we have to obey whatever they say…no questions asked, and that the older sibling has the right and duty to “teach” the younger siblings.  Anh Khanh used to beat up on me and my other siblings when growing up….and would lie and say that we did something we did not do to justify his actions.  My parents always took his side because he was older than us.  I thought that was a pretty shitty deal.  It’s great to teach kids to have respect for their elders….god knows that kids nowadays are lacking much of that…but teaching respect should never come at the expense of common sense….and allowing anyone regardless of  their age the ability to voice their thoughts and opinions.

I could go on and on about this stuff, but for now I will just list the most commonly used titles (pronouns) in Vietnam….

Em – generally used to refer to someone younger than you…although sometimes you might call an older person “Em” because they are “lower” than you.  Men also usually address their girlfriends/wives as “Em”

Em Bé – general term for baby, also used as a term of affection for the youngest child in a family

Em Trai – little brother

Em Gái – little sister

Anh – generally used to refer to a male that is older than you…but as with “Em” you might have to call someone “Anh” because you are “lower” in the hierarchy than they are.  Women also call their boyfriends/husbands by this term.

Chị – generally used to refer to a female that is older than you.  Similar scenario as above.

Ông – a more formal way of addressing an adult male.  Equivalent to “Mr.”

Ông Nội – Grandfather on your father’s side of the family.

Ông Ngoại – Grandfather on your mother’s side of the family.

– a more formal way of addressing an adult female.  Equivalent to “Ms”

Bà Nội – Grandmother on your father’s side

Bà Ngoại – Grandmother on your mother’s side

– in a family setting it is your Aunt on your father’s side, but it can also be used as a respectful way to address an adult female without being too formal.  When used with a young unmarried woman….it is equivalent to calling someone “Miss”.

Cô giáo – a female teacher, but she is often just called “Cô”

Thầy giáo – a male teacher, but he is often just called “Th?y”

Chú – in a family setting it is your Uncle on your father’s side, but it can also be used as a respectful way to address an adult male without being too formal.

Cậu – in a family setting it is your Uncle on your mother’s side.  It can also be used in a similar way to “Chú” however according to my mom C?u is used more often if the person is an especially close family friend.

– in a family setting it is your Aunt on your mother’s side.  It can also be used in a similar way to “Cô” however like “C?u”  it probably is used when the person is an especially close family friend.

Dượng – is your Dì’s husband.  He is your uncle but not blood related.

Mợ – is your C?u’s wife.  She is your Aunt but not blood related.

Thím – is your Chú’s wife.  She is your Aunt but not blood related.

Bác – generally used as a formal way of addressing an adult male or female that is a generation or older than you are.  Your father’s older brother is also called “Bác” instead of “Chú”.

Bác Sĩ – Doctor

Bạn – literally translates into “friend”.  I believe it is used mostly to address people that are your peers…in school or work…but not someone that you are especially close to.

Con/Cháu – “con” literally translates into “child”.  If you speak to someone that is old enough to be your parents…you probably would refer to yourself as either “con” or “chau”.  I often interchange the two terms and I’ve never been corrected.  My mom says that if I were to use the terms correctly…”con” would probably only be used when addressing your parents, but I’ve heard it used with non-relatives also.

That’s pretty much all I can come up with right now…any other additions or corrections welcome.

One last funny story before I call it a night.  Awhile back when I was just engaged to my now ex-wife….she took me to meet her father’s younger brother…who she addresses as “Chú”.  Back then I had never heard of the term “Thím” which is what Chú’s wife is called.  Anyways, one day my ex tells me “we’re going to go visit Chú, Thím today”.  I stupidly thought that “Thím” was his name.  So as we are leaving, I turned to politely say goodbye to him and said “Chào Chú Thím”….even though his wife wasn’t present!!  My ex-wife and her family got a big kick out of that.

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35 comments to The Whole "Anh" "Em" Thing

  • banhxao

    Cô can be a female teacher.

    And there are those that mix the with the Chinese sound, like

    Co (high pitch) older brother.

    Thanks for the list. It really help. Now I have a better understanding of when to said what.

    I never did understand why I need to call a waitress Chị when apprearently she is much younger. Now I know.

    Next time you should help us with the “tone” signs. You know, those wiggely thing on top of the letter 🙂

    • odgnut

      In the context of a school setting “Cô” is short for “Cô Giáo” which is a female teacher.

      I don’t think there is any tone (accent) signs that can make “Co” to mean an “older brother”. You might be mistaking it for “Cậu” which is uncle….or “Ông Cố” which is a great grandfather.

      As for explaining the “tone” signs….I think I should be the last person that you ask. I still have yet to get a grasp of all the accent marks and what they sound like. When I first arrived in Saigon….I pronounced Hai Bà Trưng ST. (two ladies from Trung street)….as 2, 3 eggs Street. 🙂

  • yo

    I lived in Viet Nam last year, and I could never get anyone to explain pronouns to me in such a detailed way, so thank you.

    I’m a white guy. I’m sure I misused many pronouns, but no one really said anything. I think many Vietnamese people are forgiving of foreigners who use the wrong pronouns, and are too polite to correct them.

    One thing I never got: are two men, who are about the same age and who just met suppose to call each other Anh?

    About the hierarchy: it’s not that “the whole hierarchy thing” doesn’t exist in the West, just that it’s not acknowledged. In that sense, Vietnamese culture is refreshing. The same dysfunctions happen in the U.S. too. I don’t know where it is more prevalent, or to what extent language plays a role in reinforcing dysfunctional institutions.

    A funny story: I was at a birthday party of a female college student. We were all drinking rice wine. One of the girls wanted to invite me to drink a shot of wine and called to me “cu ?i” (the accents are correct). Everyone had a good laugh when they realized *I* knew what she meant.

    • odgnut

      When two men of similar ages meet…they might not be sure who is older than whom….so to avoid offending the other person…they just call each other Anh.

      I had always assumed that between 2 people, when someone was an “Anh” or a “Chi”…one person had to be an “Em”…but apparently that is not the case. My mom says she has friends she calls “Anh” that in return call her “Chi”…just a show of respect.

  • hien

    great info, i have hella struggling with this subject so long.

  • Thuy

    funny but oh so true regarding the shitty side of address people by anh, chi, etc…they may be your Anh, but dat dont mean they always right—-true dat!!!!

    Apparently your viet is good enough for you to put together this blog entry I am impressed, so what do we do if it’s not a bac si, but a pharmacist or a lawyer. How would you address them? Is it the same way as greeting a doctor?

    • odgnut

      I think you would just call the Pharmacist, Lawyer, Engineer, basically anyone with a professional title…..”Ong” or “Ba”….unless they address themselves otherwise.

    • mekimchiie

      I don’t remember the tone marks for lawyer, but it’s luc su (unless I’m also spelling it wrong). I don’t know what pharmacist is.

      • Benny

        Luật sư is lawyer. Lục sự (as you have written without VNese tone marks) is court clerk. Dược sĩ is pharmacist.

        In the old days, a gentleman will address a younger lady as “cô”, and a younger man as “chú” as refer to him as “tôi”. The same gentleman will refer to an older lay or man as “bác”, and refer to himself as “em”. Marital status is inconsequential within this scheme.

      • Fred

        I know it is years late, but in case anybody else is reading this helpful page, they may be interested to know that the “tone marks” are called diacritics.

  • Toan Nguyen

    Hi,
    Great post. It’s really funny to think about it. I experienced this problem of label thing last year when I was in Vietnam. My cousin who is much older than me called me “Anh” because my mom is older than her mom. So I called her “Em”. Her husband, who is much older than me and a doctor called me “Anh” also. It was weird. Then, they try to hook my up with the daughter of their friend. So, I had to go to the house to meet them. The father of the girl called the husband of my cousin “Anh” because they worked in the same hospital and that’s the hierarchy of the place. But because they tried to hook me up with the daughter, I had to call the father of the girl “Bac”. So, it is totally weird and freaky. The father of the girl called my cousin’s husband “Anh” while I called the father of the girl “Bac” and the husband of my cousin called me “Anh”. It’s just strange and funny at the same time. hope you can follow the confusion. hehe…
    Thanks for the post again. Make me miss Vietnam more.

    • odgnut

      So if you married the girl…that would make you your cousin’s friend’s “con”….which would in turn require you to call your cousin and her husband….”Bác”?!!

      I think I just gave myself a headache.

  • banhxao

    Ha…ha…ha…

    2, 3 eggs, that’s totally funny.

    I know about the “Hai Bà Tr?ng” thing. I always took it as two ladies with two legs. “Hai Bà” means two ladies. “Tr?ng” means legs.

    But, the real Hai Bà were two sister warriors who fought some kind of war in history.

  • Wil

    WOW, thanks for clearing that up.
    Just wondering about your friend’s gf/wife calling her “chi” even though she is a lots younger and then you. Even though she called you “Anh” and referred herself as “Em” when speaking to you. Is that appropriate and correct? I find it very weird.

    • odgnut

      One of my friends is older than I am by a couple of years so I call him “Anh”….his wife is about 6 years younger than me and since I call my friend “Anh” I should call his wife “Chi”.

      Of course, I slipped and called her “Em” the first few times I met her so I just continued doing it since it’s would be so weird for me to suddenly address her differently. I don’t know if she took offense to it at all but she never said anything.

      My mom kinda yelled at me for it though. Oh well. 🙂

  • Wil

    How do you address your gf’s parents when her parents are younger then your parents? Do you still address them as “Bac” or “Chu and Thim”?

    • odgnut

      You always would address your gf’s parents as “Bac”. There was a skit on the latest “Paris by Night” variety show where a girl about 18 years old met this old geezer and they decided to become bf/gf.

      The old man comes to the girls house and meets her mom who is young enough to be his daughter but he calls her “Bac”. Yeah…Vietnamese people are weird.

  • Huy

    Man, I’ve been in Vietnam for over a week (I’m Vietnamese-American visiting the country for the first time), and I’ve been confused as hell over the title system over here. My parents taught me most of these titles when I was little, but I still get so frustrated over whether to call this person this or that.

    This one really beautiful girl about 1.5 years younger than me (gotta love crushes) called me “anh,” and I was so tempted to call her “em,” but apparently that’s wrong according to your mom. Darn.

    LMAO, over here in America, I lived my entire life under the assumption that “ong” and “ba” are titles to the old aged people, like the seniors. Proof? My fellow Vietnamese friends at my temple getting upset as hell whenever someone calls them “ong” or “ba” as if being called old is an absolutely insult. So when I read what it actually meant on this page, I was like, “WHAT. THE. FUCK. My childhood has been a lie. Haha!”

    But yeah, thanks for clearing up most of this confusion. I’m still going to have a million problems figuring out what title to give to who out here in Vietnam, but it’s definitely an interesting experience.

  • j

    I am Chinese and find this topic very confusing. I have recently become close to a Vietnamese woman 15 years my junior, who I have known for 15 years. We are not dating, but have been talking or texting nearly every day for 2 months. In one of her texts, she called me “Anh J (my name).”

    Since these kinship terms can be used by friends and lovers, does adding a name after anh have a specific meaning, ie. does it make it more platonic than romantic? I read that bf/gf and husbands/wives just call each other “anh” and “em” without adding a name.

    Basically, I am too chicken to ask her if she has romantic feelings for me for fear of ruining the relationship.

    • odgnut

      People in Vietnam usually don’t address other people just by their name….so adding a pronoun in front of the name is common. I don’t think you can read too much into something like that. Only your friend knows what she means when she calls you “Anh”.

      Maybe you can invite her to have coffee…or just to come over and hang out and watch a movie. According to Aunt (among others) if a girl is willing to hang out with you alone, especially if she comes over to your place….she is almost definitely interested in something more than a friendship. A proper Vietnamese girl/woman would never come over alone if she didn’t like you.

      • Keith

        Haha, I love that team ‘proper’ Vietnamese girl/woman, especially in the context of what such a person wouldn’t/shouldn’t do. Once you’ve gone through the list it makes for a very boring person. But every Vietnamese girl thrives to be proper 🙂

  • cnv

    Your last paragraph described exactly what I did, but add one more thing to the embarassment. When I greeted Chu’s wife I called her Co Thim. Lol.

  • And don’t forget about chú em and cô em. I got really confused once when a much older woman called me chú. I asked her about me and then she explained the whole chú em thing to me. And I was also addressed by an even older woman as cậu; I didn’t see that one coming and it really took me by surprise.

    Very nice post.

    • odgnut

      Thanks Eric. I think “chu em” and “co em” falls under the same category as just “chu” and “co” by itself. Some people like to address an adult male who is too old to be called “anh” as either “chu” or “cau”…it also just a polite way to respectfully address an adult male (non-relative) that you don’t know very well.

  • Alex

    I have an issue with my current gf who keeps calling her ex boyfriend “anh” even though he is also younger than her. She has flirted with him via chat and email and I confronted her. She gives me excuses such as she sees him as a brother and he sees her as a sister. But sister and brothers don’t flirt that’s incest am I correct? The flirting has stopped and I convinced her to write him a serious Elian explaining to him they will no longer cal each other em/anh. However since couple months later she has done it again quite often. Like when they chat online she calls him anh ALOT. it’s annoying and fustrating and I am wondering whether this girl is even worth my investment into a serious relationship. Maybe treat her as a side kind of thing til I find the right one who respects me. Anyway I need some serious feed back on this on whether I’m on the right or wrong or if I’m overreacting. I’m pissed.

  • Cuc

    Similarity: Both Con & Chau are used when you speak to someone that is old enough to be your parents. “Con” is popular in Saigon accent. “Chau” is usually used by people from the North. However, there no matter if you make mistakes in these words, cos the meaning won’t change much.

    Difference: When you speak w your parents, just use con.

    ===> The easiest way is to use con all the time 🙂

  • tho tan

    hello Alex,
    Ok,here are few rules:
    1)A girl call a guy “anh” when he is older than her.(everywhere in society)
    2)A girl call a guy “anh” when they are related to each other (brother/sister)NB!.the guy must be older than her.
    3)A girl call a guy “anh” when the girl and the guy are related to each other like cousin to cousin.(But only parent to the girl are younger than parent to the guy.)

    My advice to you Alex! dont hung up too much with the word “anh”. Look closer to the reactions and behaviour.
    Good luck.

  • I

    Hi, I know this is an old article but I really need help with this “anh-em” and pronoun thing. I am in a serious relationship with a Vietnamese guy (I’m Asian but not Viet). He is younger than I, but I call him anh anyway. Would that be weird?

    We are planning to be married next year. When I meet his family, what do I call my (future) father/mother-in-law, whom I’ve never met before? Do I call them Ong (sorry I don’t have the diacritic keyboard), then their first name? Or Ong, then their first/middle name? What do I call my bf’s sister? Would it be too familiar to call her Em Gai right away? Please I really need your help.

    • odgnut

      You would call your father/mother-in-law “Bac”. It’s a respectful way of saying “sir” or “ma’am”. You wouldn’t have to add their name at the end of the title at all. If your bf’s sister is older you would just call her “chi” and younger “em”….don’t need to add “gai” at the end of “em” at all.

  • I

    Thank you for the reply. My future in-law’s family are Northern Viet, though. But I suppose the same rules applied. I listened to tapes of Northern and Southern dialects, and for the life of me, I cannot tell the difference. Is there any way to learn Vietnamese quickly? It is very difficult.

  • Emerald Nguyen

    Great post. I’ve trying to explain this to my friends in the US. Whenever they told me to teach them Vietnamese, things got complicated:)). But I love our language, super unique and beautiful!

  • baddy

    i am in love with an Vietnamese girl….but i found out she has been on the phone with a guy called “anh”….please advice

  • baddy

    i am in love with a Vietnamese girl….but i found out she has been on the phone with a guy called “anh”….please advice

    • Sa

      Baddy

      Maybe bring it up with her. If you can deduce it’s not her brother, cousin, or friend. You might have to ask her directly who this Anh is.

      • baddy

        hi sa,
        she named him “a ut ” last time, and he is one of her friends…..but resently i found out she changed it to “anh”…..guess this is abnormal huh!?

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