Language & Culture

How to politely say “I’m leaving” in Vietnamese

If you’re visiting a Vietnamese person’s house, when you leave you must tell you host this. Even if it’s obvious, it’s necessary to actually say “I’m leaving” – especially to those older than you.

It might be obvious but you should still tell your host you’re leaving.

Usually this is with the verb “về” (as in, I’m going home). For example:

Chị, em về.
Chú, con về.

But there are times when đi (to go) is used, for example if you’re heading to the bus station to leave town.

Bà, con đi.
Anh chị, em đi.

In my experience, Vietnamese people love it when you follow this custom. Next time you’re visiting someone’s house or leaving a party, try it and see.

Language & Culture

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?

Language & Culture

The Beginner’s Guide to Vietnamese tones and accent marks

The first time you look at Vietnamese writing, you might well be surprised at all the accents on and under the letters. Some vowels have not just one but two marks per letter – for example, in Việt Nam. Why is that?

In this post, we’re going to take a look at the Vietnamese tones and accent marks, and how to pronounce them correctly.

Part 1 – Vietnamese tones

Vietnamese is a tonal language. That’s why it can sound musical or melodic. There are six tones (though some parts of the country don’t pronounce them all) and they are represented by symbols that actually quite closely match their sound.

Each tone has a different pitch and intonation, and these tones can a large part of the meaning. So it’s important to learn the tones and try your best to pronounce them well if you want to be understood when speaking Vietnamese.

What are the 6 Vietnamese tones?

Example Tone name* My nickname My notes Some common words with this tone
la ngang high, flat tone Remember this is not toneless, it’s a high, flat tone. anh, em, không, tên, xem
huyền low tone, down tone Start low and stay low. là, gì, và, làm, gà
sắc up tone Start high and go higher. có, nói, sống, cá, nóng
lạ nặng dot tone Short and low. chị, được, một, học, lạnh
lả hỏi question tone Your voice goes up like you’re asking a question. Eg. Really? phải, nhỏ, ở, của, trẻ
ngã tilde tone Similar to đả but there is a short break (see the video below). In the south there is no break – ã is exactly the same as ả. cũng, sẽ, cũ, sữa, mỗi

If you look closely, the symbols used for each of the tones represent the sound they make. The sắc symbol goes up, just like the tone. Hỏi looks and sounds like a question. And nặng, the heavy tone, is the only tone written below the letter.

* The full name for the tones includes dấu (eg. sắc is dấu sắc), but a lot of the time they’re just referred to by the names in the table above (eg. we usually just say sắc).

Vietnamese tones and accents: la

Are Vietnamese tones hard?

Vietnamese pronunciation can be tricky for foreigners. Tones appear hard but I assure you, they are manageable.

First, it’s important to remember that no language is completely flat. English uses sentence intonation to express meaning. For example, when we ask questions the intonation goes up or down. We also emphasise words in a sentence to show annoyance or surprise.

So, tones are not so strange after all.

That said, it takes some time and effort to get used to them.

Many people give up at this point. That’s a real shame because besides tones, Vietnamese is a relatively easy and amazing language. You will need to practice to improve your pronunciation but if I can do it, so can you.


Resources for Vietnamese tones

Learn more about the tones here:

Part 2 – Vietnamese accent marks

Some vowel letters in Vietnamese are pronounced differently depending on whether or not an accent mark is used. If you’re familiar with a language like French, you’ll have seen accents like é and ê that change the sound of the letter ‘e’.

Vietnamese also has some accent marks to represent different vowel sounds.

Let’s look at an example:

ô, o and ơ are totally different sounds.

ô – eg. bộ (walk) – oh like in the English word ‘go’
o – eg. bò (beef) – o like in ‘hot’
ơ – eg. bơ (butter) – er or ir like in ‘bird’

Mixing ô and o is the most frequent mistake I heard in my Vietnamese classes.

Vietnamese vowels

Vietnamese has 12 vowels: a, ă, â, e, ê, i, y, o, ô, ơ, u, ư.

You can listen to all of these in this alphabet video. Pay attention to the speaker’s mouth as she makes each sound. For example, to make the ư sound, you have to smile a little when you say it.

I absolutely have to mention the name of two of the accent marks in Vietnamese:

ơ, ư, and ă have an accent called móc (hook)
â, ê and ô have an accent called mũ (hat)

Yes, ^ is called dấu mũ – literally ‘the hat accent’!

Why do some Vietnamese words have two accent marks?

We’ve seen how Vietnamese tones work and how the different accents work. These can be combined – a vowel can have both a tone and an accent.

Here’s a video combining some different vowels (a, o, ô, ơ) with the various tones.

Let’s look at an example – the word phở .

phở (Vietnam’s most famous noodle soup)

Accent: Smile a little to say the ‘uh’ sound, ơ
Tone: Say the whole word like it’s a question “phở?”

What does this look like in practice?
Let’s look at a short sentence:

Học tiếng Việt hay lắm. (=Studying Vietnamese is very interesting.)

Some words have one mark on the vowel(s) like học.
Others have two marks such as tiếng and Việt.
And some vowels have none like hay.

Regional variations

The tones and accent marks used in Vietnamese are the same throughout Vietnam. However, regional and dialectal differences can affect the pronunciation of these sounds.

The main difference you may notice is that southern Vietnamese only has 5 spoken tones. Ngã is pronounced the same as hỏi.

If you visit central Vietnam, you may notice some vowel differences. For example, ê is pronounced differently. But that’s getting well beyond beginner level.

In summary

Vietnamese has a unique writing system that can look a little confusing for beginners. However, with a little practice, you will be able to read, write and pronounce Vietnamese with ease.

If you want to pronounce Vietnamese well, you should practice repeating the sounds and use lots of audio material like Pimsleur* or VPod101*.

Over to you: How did you feel the first time you saw written Vietnamese? Was it reassuring to see a romanised alphabet or confusing to see two accent marks? Are you impressed by how phonetic Vietnamese is?


Language & Culture

Drinking beer in Vietnam: how to say cheers

Whether attending a wedding or eating snails, the Vietnamese are fond of drinking beer. Let’s look at how to say cheers in Vietnamese, and some other vocabulary that might come in handy if you find yourself drinking beer in Vietnam.

Drinking beer in Vietnam

How to drink beer Vietnamese-style

Every time you take a sip of your beer, you must clink glasses with your companions.

Sometimes you just clink and drink, but often you’ll hear one of the following.

How to say cheers in Vietnamese

How to toast in Southern Vietnam:

một, hai, ba, vô! (always pronounce vô as /yo/)
= 1, 2, 3, cheers!

Northerners have adapted this toast into their own:

một, hai, ba, /zo/! (often written as dô)
hai, ba, /zo/
hai, ba, uống!
= 1, 2, 3, cheers!
2, 3, cheers
2, 3, drink!

Other common drinking phrases

Somebody may well clink glasses (cạn ly) with you and say:

một trăm phần trăm
= 100% (they want you to down the glass)

You may be able to get away with:

năm mười phần trăm (= năm mười)
= 50% (they want you to drink half of your glass)

If you can’t or don’t want to drink:

[Anh/Chị/Em/…] không uống bia được.
= I can’t drink beer.

In Vietnamese culture, drinking beer goes hand in hand with eating food. Beer snacks vary from peanuts to seafood. Beer is also common at celebrations and festivals. Wherever you’re drinking beer, you’ll be encouraged to eat, or you can invite others’ to eat with:

ăn đi!
= eat!, please eat

Or if you spend too much time eating, you may be told to: uống đi!

Over to you: Have you ever drunk beer with Vietnamese people? Share your experiences in the comments!

Photo credit: dantri website

Language & Culture

The ‘no’ tone is actually…

You might think that the so-called ‘no’ tone (known as ngang) is the easiest of Vietnamese’s 6 (or 5) tones, however I was having problems with it until a fellow learner gave me a gem of information…

The ‘no’ tone is flat, but it’s high.

If you look at this graph plotting the sound of the six Northern tones from Wikipedia, you’ll see that the ‘no’ tone starts higher than any of the other tones, but stays more or less flat.

Tone Chart

Well, there we are! Try taking words with this tone up a scale but keeping them flat. For example, đi.

Now try a sentence, keeping each word high but flat: Em đi ăn cơm. In natural speech the tones aren’t so defined but it’s good to get your voice used to making this high, flat sound.

Over to you: Have you had problems with the ‘no’ tone? Have you tried our suggestion and noticed a difference?