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?

41 replies on “Should you learn northern or southern Vietnamese?”

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.


Actually as your friends found, the difference can be jarring. For example if they spoke to those heritage speakers with the northern accent they learned in class, they would probably be understood but when they had to listen and understand the heritage speakers, your friends would find it very difficult.

It is possible to change but not without any effort, same as it would be if someone wanted to switch between Australian and American English for example.

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.

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.

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.

In my opinion, You should learn North Vietnamese firstly. You will raise your level easy. Wish you success.

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 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).

Thanks for your comment, Michelle. Interesting you also prefer the /y/ sounds even though you’re used to both.

In Saigon, kids seem to use “mẹ” unlike other southern regions where it’s “má”.

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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?

“vietnamese-do-not-understand-foreigners” is sadly a common experience, especially in the cities or touristy areas. A lot of Vietnamese assume foreigners can’t speak Vietnamese so they simply don’t listen.

As for being mocked? No, I don’t think so. Sometimes someone might repeat what you said in an amused way, but I don’t count that as mocking.

That said, it’s important to work on your pronunciation from the beginning – much easier than trying to correct it later on!

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

I kind of referenced there are differences within each ‘accent’ in the introduction – schools and teachers in Saigon teach with v as v not y and you hear that a lot in Saigon (eg. where I’ve heard people say both tieng Viet and tieng /Yiet/, for example, but Viet more often). It’s become a bit of a melting pot as people have moved in from various parts of the country.

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.

Thanks for your input, Tess. I’m glad you’ve found your place.

I agree there are benefits to learning the northern tones, but actually I agree more with the point you made – it’s frustrating not understanding the people around you so if what someone hears day to day is southern Vietnamese, I’d recommend focusing on learning that accent.

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.

It’s great to hear you find it interesting and similar to your own background. I’ve only met a handful of Chinese learning Vietnamese in Vietnam, but usually they find it fairly straightforward to pick up.

> it is standard and accurate and the pronunciation of the word sticks to the way how it is written
So does the standard southern accent! It’s very clear and phonetic. I would argue as much if not more so than the north – for instance people in the south don’t mix up n/l like some Northerners do.

I’ve heard there are Vietnamese diaspora media (especially in California!) which use southern Vietnamese so there’s still chance to get exposure to news etc in a southern accent.

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.

Những bạn bè của Thảo không đồng ý. Người đó sinh ở miền năm, lớn lên ở miền nam, nói tuy hiểu người Bắc được nhưng không hiểu hết.

Ngoài ra, cám ơn bạn vì dịch nhũng ý kiến của mình sang tiếng Việt. Nếu mình viết bài để khuyên người Việt học tiếng Anh nên chọn giọng nào, đoạn cuối cũng của bạn sẽ rất hưu ích!

I live in HCMC and I’m studying the Southern variety, not really by choice, but because it is what my language school teaches. I would have preferred to study Northern Vietnamese, actually, because I feel that the pronunciation relates more closely to the spelling. Also, many useful resources – such as Google TTS – use the Northern pronunciation.

Both accents are very phonetic. Try learning something like French or Russian which is not phonetic at all (or English, for that matter)…

No matter your preference, it’s best to get used to the accent where you’re living. That is, assuming you’re learning the language to communicate with people! It would be weird for a learner to insist on learning British pronunciation in the US. They can – it’s a preference – it wouldn’t always be helpful when they listened and spoke to Americans outside of lessons.

I am a Vietnamese-Canadian. I am from the North, but my wife is from the South, so I am able to speak & undestand both accents. Generally speaking, the North accent is more grave, and the South more sharp. (There is also a Central accent).
It is incorrect to say that Northerners and Southerners will understand each other at 100%. For example, if this is the first time that a Northerner speaks to a Southerner, the former will understand the latter at 80% only, and vice versa. There is tone difference, pronounciation difference, and also ~10% vocabulary difference.
BTW, even being Vietnamese, I can barely understand Central accent (from Huế, Đà Nẵng, Hội An Provinces).
My 2 daughters here in Canada learn Vietnamese on weekends in a school board, there are teachers speaking north or south accent. My 2 daughters do not have the choice to select which accent they want to learn, that is assigned by the school.
Another thing to note that nowadays, Vietnamese people travel a lot within Vietnam, the accent & vocabulary differences will be less & less relevant. Many of them are able to understand both accents (not necessarily speak both accents though).

I don’t think anyone’s claimed northerners and southerners will understand 100%. My southern friends have said as much. I’d liken it to English accents of different countries – like British, American and Australian accents. Sometimes the pronunciation throws you and sometimes the vocabularly’s different.

Of course, as you mention there are more regional accents – even Huế and Đà Nẵng are quite different from each other. But I think the “z” versus “y” and the presence/absence of ngã are the biggest distinctions for learners.

I happened to stumble on your blog because I’m helping my American-born niece learn Vietnamese. (I’m a Saigon-born American citizen living in San Francisco. I came to the US in 1986, when I was 12.)

The last time I had been back to VN was in 2003, so I don’t know how it is over there today in terms their speaking styles. When I was in elementary school shortly after the Communists took over the South, there was a massive campaign by the government to northernize verbal and written Vietnamese in the South. Many teachers in my school were Northerners. TV and radio programs were broadcast mostly in Northern accent. So the South (at least my generation) had been exposed to the Northern accent and thus have never found it difficult to understand it.

For better or worse, the South has lost a lot of their regional ways of saying certain words. Other than the d/v/gi distinctions already mentioned, there were many others: e.g., “Hoa” was pronounced “wa”; we called sweet potato “phai lang” not “khoai lang”; we said “tui” not “tôi” and “nhứt” not “nhất”. Wa, phai, Diệt, etc. pronunciations were not allowed in school because they were considered incorrect. However, many of my parents’and grandparents’ generations still continued to pronounce these words the Southern way.

Thanks for the blog and for serving as an example to my niece that it’s possible for a foreigner to master Vietnamese. I tell her that it’s probably easier for an American to learn Vietnamese than the other way around (I wonder if you’d agree?).

My wife is from North Vietnam. But she doesn’t enjoy teaching. So I have a tutor in Vietnam via Skype. I have had 3 tutors now. They were all from the South. It’s a little confusing. I think later I’ll try to get a tutor from the North.

hello! this article is so interesting, i think i’m going to learn the southern accent first, then learn the northern accent. first language is cantonese so i think vietnamese would be easier to pick up

Great! I spent a couple of hours in Hong Kong on a layover and from my perspective, felt that Cantonese intonation was somewhat similar to southern Vietnamese. Sometimes my ears would think I heard Vietnamese (for example maybe they were speaking with a central accent that I’m not as familiar with), but when I listened closely I didn’t understand anything and realised it must be Cantonese (as I haven’t felt that way when I hear Mandarin).

I’d be interested to hear how you get on with it, Cherie!

For those who are interested… a great cheap venue to learn the southern dialect can be found at Learn Vietnamese with Annie.

Weekly podcasts with snippets of daily everyday conversation come with spoken dialog, text, vocabulary… (audio and text).

Helps you appreciate everyday conversation in the Southern Dialect.

I enjoyed Reading the comments. I just started December 31, 2020 for my New Year’s resolution, to learn a Little Vietnamese. I live in the San Diego area, and world like to speak the dialect that is the majority here. Not sure if that’s Southern or not? If HomeOne knows for shure, please email me and len me know. I’d appreciate it before I go “head on” info tackling this difficult Language.

Hi Thảo, thank you for such an informative post. I would like to add an insight explaining where the so-called “standard” northern accent came from. Generally when people compare the two accents, they’re usually not aware that they’re comparing southern peasants against northern scholars. This unfortunately leads to the illusion the southern accent is somewhat less sophisticated to some degrees. If you listen to southern traditional music, you’ll find that most of the song lyrics have a lot of fancy, and sometimes archaic words (and there’s reasons for this). The southern accent has a set of words for intellectual and technical uses, but due to political reasons, it was discarded and might have become obsolete. For example, hardware, software, and data are, respectively “cương liệu, nhu liệu and dữ liệu” in the southern vocabulary, having a little flavor of Sino-Vietnamese influence. Those terms in northern vocabulary (and now widely used) are “phần cứng, phần mềm, and dữ liệu”. Most people would agree that those southern words are more fancy but probably awkward because most don’t use them in their communication. Southern scholars are often seen as a threat to those in power in the communist north. Therefore a good number of southern intellectuals were amassed in the concentration camps after the war and forced to give up their intellectual freedom, especially those in political and educational fields. That’s why it’so so rare to hear from a southern political figure, while children are forced to watch documentaries that feature leaders mostly in the north. You would hear the voices of Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap, but not many are allowed to watch the speeches of Ngo Dinh Diem or Nguyen Van Thieu. The textbooks which use dominantly northern vocabulary are also forced upon children in schools. The TV and Radio are controlled by the government and obviously they’re mostly in northern Vietnam. What worse is many children of those who served the RVN are banned from schools or higher education postwar. The bottom line is there might be a disruption in the use of southern vocabulary, and southerners might find it hard to be eloquent because it’s not natural to them. In other words, they can’t relate. I know political talk is probably a taboo, but sometimes it might help explain the present society.

Very interesting insight there, K Tran. It makes sense that there were other southern words that have been overlooked or suppressed. Language, Culture, History and Politics are more closely related than we might first think.

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