Should you learn northern or southern Vietnamese?

northernsouthernThe question in every Vietnamese beginner’s mind: should you learn northern or southern Vietnamese? Of course within those broad groups, there is more variation. But at this stage there is a choice to be made – just like choosing between British or American English, or different varieties of Spanish. Speakers should be generally able to understand each other but there are differences in the language.

So which should you pick?

Situation A: You live in Vietnam already

If you are in Vietnam already this choice is simpler – pick the one that matches your region. While northern Vietnamese is the ‘standard’, it’s rare to hear it being spoken in Ho Chi Minh City.

If you are not in Vietnam, the choice is a little harder. Let’s look at which kind of Vietnamese you are most likely to encounter.

Situation B: You’re planning to live in or visit Vietnam at some point

If you are likely to go to Vietnam in the future – which part? Again, pick the accent matching the region you’ll be in, or where you’ll be spending the most time.

Situation C: You’re planning to travel up or down the whole of Vietnam

If you’ll be travelling up or down the whole country and are just learning a few basics, be aware of the pronunciation differences. Some food words differ too. On the plus side, numbers are pronounced the same throughout the country (well, except for ‘thousand’).

Perhaps in this case, start with the accent of your arrival city and be prepared to adapt it as you travel.

Situation D: You’re not in Vietnam and not planning to go there soon

Are they any Vietnamese people in your local area? Which accent do they speak with? If you’re in the States, most of the overseas Vietnamese you’ll encounter will have southern pronunciation. Former Soviet countries may have more northern Vietnamese. If you know a student studying abroad where you are, ask which part of the country they come from.

Situation E: None of the above

If none of the above situations apply to you, then choose a course or tutor you like and study whatever accent you hear the most. There are more materials around for northern Vietnamese, but as I’ve lived in the south I try to highlight southern ones here too.


Don’t worry about the decision too much – I spent a couple of weeks in the north first so started with that and switched once I went down south. Admittedly this was very early on in my language journey, but I also had classmates who’d started learning northern Vietnamese in Korea. They moved to Ho Chi Minh City a year or two later and seemed able to make the adjustment to southern Vietnamese.

Over to you: which variety of Vietnamese did you choose and why?

{ Leave a Reply ? }

  1. Kieran Maynard

    Thanks for the helpful article!

    I was wondering this myself. Some of my friends studied Vietnamese at the University of Georgia, where they found the class to be quite confusing, since most of the students were heritage speakers of Southern Vietnamese, but the teacher taught the Northern Standard. But as you say, now I see that the difference is not so much of a problem.


      • Tess Tran

        I’m currently going to the University of Georgia. I didn’t know that people where teaching in a Northern accent… Could have been beneficial to me though as I’d like to understand the Vietnamese songs better without googling the lyrics.

  2. Ly Thanh Tung

    Northern Vietnamese is the “standard”, but more people speak Southern accent.

    South Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh city (Saigon) with about 10 millions people, Mekong delta with about 20 millions. Famous destinations in the South: Muine, Nha Trang, Dalat.

    The people in Central Vietnam (Hoian, Danang, Hue…) understand well and easily what Southern Vietnamese speak.

    Do business in the South? Then learn Saigonese accent.

  3. Lê Tố Quyên

    When you begin, the choice is hard. Although South Vietnamese is soft, North Vietnamese is standard and clear. If you are not in Vietnam, I think you should chose North Vietnamese.

  4. Kim

    It doesn’t matter which accent as they are mutually intelligible. But as a foreigner you should strive to pronounce the word as close to the spelling as possible so that native speakers have an easier time of guessing what you are trying to say.


    I like the “standard” and “clear” pronunciation more, and everybody listen and understand North Vietnamese language, So if I was chose, It actually would be North Vietnamese. And I see Almost people who started to learn the North easier than the South.
    Even so, welcome to Vietnamese language. recently posted…Utilizing the Method of Using Images in Teaching Vietnamese for Foreigners.My Profile

  6. michelle

    I am an American-born Vietnamese, and I grew up knowing both Northern and Southern Vietnamese. For example, in terms of family kinship terms, I referred to my (now late) dad as “ba” because he originated from the South (and he told me that was the word for dad before I learned about the Northern variant later on), and my mother as “mẹ” because even though she was born in the South, her parents/my grandparents came from the North. But I generally prefer Southern pronunciation (i.e. Southern y vs Northern z sound in dung).

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  8. Joe

    Hi I have a question to everyone. I am learning Vietnamese on my own, but my question is, has anybody experience the “the vietnamese-do-not-understand-foreigners-and-mock-them” situation or is it a myth?

  9. Thỏ

    I found your post is interesting about the discussion about the dialects in Việt Nam. I am a Vietnamese American who was born in Đà Nẵng and lived in Đà Lạt and Went to School in Sài Gòn before 1975. I speak a mixture of a northern and southern dialect that is slightly deviated from the northern one and sounds much lighter where’v’ sound is not ‘z’ or ‘y’. If you want to learn the “proper” (“tiếng Việt sang”) southern dialect, this is the one. You can hear a sample of the southern dialect at the “Vietnamese language, alphabet and pronunciation – Omniglot” link. Hope that helps

  10. Tess Tran

    Growing up in Germany, I was surrounded by people who spoke in a Northern accent. It was frustrating as I grew up with a Southern accent and seldomly understood what my Vietnamese community was talking about. I dosed off in church as the sermons were in a Northern accent (I’m awful)and never understood what happened in Paris by Night/Thuy Ngay. I felt like my Vietnamese was just… wrong and out of place. It doesn’t help that my parents had these hostile and stereotypical views towards Bac people. Ironically, they understand Bac people perfectly though. My brother and I just had a lack of exposure to the Northern accent.
    Then I moved to the US, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out the majority of the Vietnamese in the Diaspora were Nam people. I’m not gonna lie: It felt nice to hear the same accent as I could better identify myself with my community.
    Which accent do I like more? Southern. That’s the one I grew up with and feel more comfortable with. I like the soothern and sort of “slang” tone. But I would personally recommend a newcomer to learn the Northern accent as I feel like the nuances in the different tones are better to hear in the Northern accent.

  11. Kyle Lin

    Living in California, I started to learn Vietnamese because a lot of my friends are Viet and the culture is similar to my heritage Chinese culture.

    In class, my teacher is from Ha Noi and the textbook is structured in the Northern way while most, if not all my classmates are from the South. This phenomenon definitely presents a challenge for me to adapt.

    I believe most non-Viet people(including me of course) find Northern accent easy and clear to learn because it is standard and accurate and the pronounciation of the word sticks to the way how it is written. It is also official, which means you hear that in most songs and official media and broadcast. My personal opinion: Northern accent is elegant!

    But I do get frustrated for not being able to understand what my friends and classmates are talking so I have been trying hard to mimic and get used to it.

  12. Thessfy

    Người miền Bắc Việt Nam không cần phải học nói phương ngữ miền Nam cũng hiểu được hầu hết những gì người miền Nam nói. Người miền Nam không cần phải học tiếng miền Bắc cũng hiểu được hầu hết những gì người miền Bắc nói.

    Nếu bạn đang học phương ngữ tiếng Việt miền Bắc và cảm thấy khó hiểu lời người miền Nam nói thì đó là do bạn đã phát âm sai, phát âm sai thì chắc chắn là cũng nghe không được. Nếu bạn đang học phương miền Nam và cảm thấy khó hiểu lời người Bắc nói thì cũng là bạn đã phát âm tiếng Việt không chính xác.

    Nếu bạn không có ý định đến sống lâu dài ở Việt Nam thì nên học phương ngữ nào ở nước bạn có nhiều tài liệu để học nó hơn, dễ kiếm hơn, đừng học phương ngữ mà các bạn của bạn học nhưng lại có ít tài liệu để học hơn. Nếu tài liệu học phương ngữ miền Bắc nhiều hơn, dễ kiếm hơn hãy học phương ngữ miền Nam. Ngược lại, nếu tài liệu học phương ngữ miền Nam nhiều hơn, dễ kiếm hơn hãy học phương ngữ Nam. Các bạn của bạn cũng đang học tiếng Việt học tiếng Việt, họ không thể giúp bạn phát âm tiếng Việt chính xác được. Dù bạn có học phương ngữ miền Bắc hay miền Nam thì cũng chỉ có học cách phát âm tiếng Việt sao cho thật chuẩn thì mới nghe hiểu tiếng Việt được.

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