The 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?