How to speak Vietnamese

Don’t. Even. Try. Ever. I’m serious. Unlike Khmer, Thai and Laotian, Vietnamese uses latin script, instilling a false sense of confidence and ability in the traveller – you can read it, after all, so what could possibly be difficult? It is also monosyllabic, further tempting the naive backpacker into attempting to communicate in Vietnamese.

However, while Vietnamese might use only 24 latin characters and have no long words with complicated spelling, it is also a tonal language, and uses what looks like half a million different tonal marks to denote different ways of pronouncing the same word with completely different meanings. Actually, there are only five of what the experts call diacritical marks (or so I’m told), and what everybody else calls tonal thingies. Only five but there might as well be a million, as your average European doesn’t stand a chance of distinguishing even half of the different tones.
Lest you think I exaggerate, here’s an example or two (due to technical difficulties minus the tonal marks, I’m ever so sorry). The standard guidebook example is the word “ma”. Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it. Well, it can mean any of the following, depending on the way you say it: ghost, cheek, mother, which, horse, tomb, rice seedling. Things aren’t that bad, as even the most tone deaf foreigner will probably get the point across just thanks to context I guess – not many foreigners are interested in rice seedlings and are probably just trying to track down so-and-so’s grave. Easy peasy.

Here’s an altogether more difficult problem. Faced with a fruit shake vendor who doesn’t speak English, what could make more sense than a bit of miming followed by an attempt at the Vietnamese name. Want a coconut? Well, mime a big round think, and say “dua”. Which will get you absolutely nowhere, as “dua” can mean watermelon, coconut or pineapple.

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Just give up. You have no hope. Stay away even from basic niceties, as even hello can sound like something else. I wondered why my valiant attempts at even the most basic everyday expressions were always met by blank, nonplussed faces. Here’s why – every time I said hello (“xin chao”), I probably told them my hat is full of rice. You’d be confused too.

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