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Why is kitchen ‘nhà’ bếp not ‘phòng’?

Most rooms in the house have ‘room’ (phòng) as part of their name. Phòng ngủ (bedroom), phòng khách (living room), phòng ăn (dining room) but bathroom and kitchen are a notable exception: they use nhà (house or building).

This seems weird in this day and age where houses and flats are self-contained but think back several years to when outhouses were the norm, and it starts to make sense.

Traditionally Vietnamese people also cook outside of the main house, usually in outbuildings to protect the cooking area from wind and rain.

Not really the picture I was looking for, but the building on the left could be the kitchen... Source.

Not really the picture I was looking for, but many countryside houses have outbuildings… Source.

Having outbuildings is still a really common set-up in the countryside. In cities, where space is an issue, these facilities have been taken inside yet the names remain: nhà bếp (kitchen) and nhà vệ sinh (bathroom).

Is it phòng tắm or nhà vệ sinh?

Nowadays phòng tắm (where tắm means shower or wash) is often used for an inside bathroom, like you’d find in a house or hotel room. Whereas, like in English, toilet facilities in restaurants or other public places would be nhà vệ sinh.

Vietnamese names, titles and what to call someone

Have you ever wondered what to call your Vietnamese friend? Which name to use? Or why there are so many Nguyễns?

Read on to find the answers to all these questions and more.

Vietnamese surnames

The most common Vietnamese surname is Nguyễn. About 40% of Vietnamese people have this surname, taken from the Nguyễn Emperors, the last dynasty of Vietnam. Back in those days, the surname of the Emperor was often used like a clan name. Other common surnames such as Trần and Lê have a similar origin, which is why these names are so common.

The most common Vietnamese surnames. Source.

The most common Vietnamese surnames. Source.

Vietnamese titles

However this homogeneity is not that important as in Vietnam surnames are not really used, aside from official paperwork and when filling in forms. You’d never address someone as Mr or Ms Nguyễn.

In informal situations, given names are used as expected. (Eg. You’d call me Thảo.)

In formal situations you’d call them Mr or Ms Forename. For example, Ms Thảo (chị Thảo or cô Thảo depending who’s talking) or Mr Vũ (anh Vũ).

In very formal situations you may use Ông or Bà instead, or you may include the person’s title like the late General Giáp (Đại tướng Giáp).

Full names and their order

Another difference is that names are written the opposite way round to Western names, with the surname first and the given name last. Vietnamese usually have 3 or 4 names in total.

Let’s look at an example: Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai. This common street name comes from a historical figure of that name.

  • Nguyễn is the surname and that comes first.
  • Thị is a common and traditional middle name which denotes that the person is female. The male equivalent of Thị is Văn. Many years ago almost everybody had a name like this (especially Thị). They are still used nowadays but not to the extent they were before.
  • Minh and Khai are given names. Sometimes people have one, sometimes they have two. While each name has its own meaning, certain combinations of names have special meanings.

Most Vietnamese people go by this final name – so in this case we’d usually call this person Khai (or Ms Khai). However, some people prefer to use both given names. This is often happens with very common names like Anh: people will introduce themselves with the two used names together like Vân Anh or Minh Anh.

This second given name can also be useful if there are several people with the same given name (eg. 2+ Khai’s in the same class/office), we can be specific and refer to her as Minh Khai.

A little help with pronunciation

To wrap up, here’s a video from Every Day Viet covering the pronunciation of some common given names in Vietnam.

Over to you: What do you think about Vietnamese names? Did you know the story behind Nguyễn before?

ơi is an endearing word

You should address him as "anh ơi" unless you're sure he's younger than you. If that's the case you can use "em ơi".

Getting a waiter’s attention. By the way if you’re not sure about your relative ages, it’s politer to address him as “anh ơi” rather than “em ơi”.

A common phrase and useful to anyone spending time in Vietnam, yelling ‘anh ơi’ at a waiter to get his attention sounds rude to an English speaker’s ear because the word ‘oi’ in English has negative connotations.

Not so, for ơi. It’s used all the time for getting someone’s attention but also can be used when talking to someone – such as to address your teacher. Or, literally speaking, to address the heavens in the universal exclamation ‘trời ơi’.

Even more surprising is that ơi is used as a term of affection. Between parents and children. Between friends. Between lovers. Calling your special someone ’em ơi’ or ‘anh ơi’ is actually very sweet and endearing! Like saying ‘dear’.

The story behind street names in Vietnam

The streets in every town and city in Vietnam all seem to have the same names: Hùng Vương, Lẽ Duẩn, Lý Tự Trọng, Nguyễn Trãi, Nguyễn Huệ, Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai…

The reason being that their names are taken from important people or events from Vietnamese history. (Aside from Hanoi’s old quarter where the names take after the trades that could be found on those streets.)

Hai Bà Trưng – two sisters who fought against the Chinese way back in the 1st century AD.

Đinh Tiên Hoàng – the first emperor of Vietnam after 1000 years of Chinese dominance. 10th Century.

Mạc Đĩnh Chi – a court official and ambassador to China. 14th Century.

Bùi Thị Xuân – a woman general who fought against the Nguyen army. 18th Century.

Nguyễn Du – one of Vietnam’s most famous poets. 19th Century.

Even a handful of Europeans who made waves in Vietnam such as Pasteur, the famous microbiologist, and French-Swissman Yersin, credited as the founder of Da Lat, get on the map in some cities.

But it’s not just about people.

Điện Biên Phủ – the location of a notable battle which signalled the defeat of French forces in Indochina in the 20th Century.

Cách Mạng Tháng 8 is a large and busy road in Ho Chi Minh City. Due to the long name, many expats refer to it as ‘CMT eight’. I never gave the name any thought, until one day I found out that the name meant ‘August Revolution’.

Want to know more about street names in Vietnam? Check out this labelled google map of HCMC:

Street names in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Interactive google map explaining the meaning behind street names in Ho Chi Minh City. Source.

Pronouncing brand names and other foreign words in Vietnamese

As Vietnamese is a monosyllabic language with different sounds and without consonant clusters, brand names and other foreign words can be pronounced very differently.

Words like passport and visa should generally be understood if you pronounce them as they are. Some brands such as Nokia or Coca-Cola sound more or less the same. Many Korean and Japanese brands are also pronounced similarly, like Samsung and Yamaha.

There are however some foreign words so different that you may face communication problems. The differences are best explained through examples, so let’s take a look at some common ones.

If you ever find yourself laptop shopping, prepare for confusion between these two brands. Both often referred to as a-sờ, or sometimes a-si for Asus, but either you or the sales assistant will confuse them at some point!

If you ever find yourself laptop shopping, prepare for confusion between these two brands. Both often referred to as a-sờ, or sometimes a-si for Asus, but either you or the sales assistant will confuse them at some point!

Over to you: Have you had problems pronouncing foreign words in Vietnamese? Have you got any more examples to add to this list?