Language & Culture

ơi is an endearing word in Vietnamese

ơi is one of my favourite Vietnamese words.

Why do Vietnamese people say ơi?

Let’s look at the most common uses of the Vietnamese word ơi.

1. Em ơi

(Or anh ơi or chị ơi.)

A common phrase and essential to anyone spending time in Vietnam, yelling ‘anh ơi’ or ’em 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.

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”.

I miss this simple but clear way to get someone’s attention. In English the best we have is ‘excuse me’.

2. Trời ơi

If you spend any time in the south of Vietnam, you’ll hear a universal exclamation trời ơi.

Literally speaking, ơi is used when addressing the heavens. This meanis something like OMG or “heavens!”.

This southern phrase is a mild phrase, widely used by young and old alike.

In the north you might hear ối giời ơi.

3. To show affection

So far we’ve seen ơi used to get attention.

It may surprise you 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’.

Related post: The Quick Guide to Vietnamese names, titles and what to call someone

Over to you: Did you know all of these meanings of ơi?

9 replies on “ơi is an endearing word in Vietnamese”

Most interesting Ruth. Turns out – “em ơi” was the very first Vietnamese expression I learned (from my VN chum Hang).

And it never occurred to me that it might be rude ‘cuz I presumed it was much like the waiter attention/check-getting gesture in Latin America where one purses one’s lips and makes an inward sucking “kiss” sound.

Furthermore – I only learned the “em” version (never before heard of an “anh” variation) – likely b/c I’m so old, my friend Hang knew that I’d never have use for a version addressing an older person(?) 😉

It’s a bit murky, but if you’re in the same age bracket it’s polite to use anh and chị. I address wait staff, bank tellers this way to be polite unless I’m certain someone is quite a bit younger than me.

Yes most of the time em would be correct for you but say if you encounter a lady in the market who’s a similar age range, it’s more polite to call her chị.

How to translate it depends on the situation. It can mean “brother, dear” or “boyfriend/husband, dear” (especially with soft intonation) but in other situations, ơi is just a way of calling attention. In a restaurant for example, it is the normal and polite waiting of calling the attention of an older, male waiter.

Thảo ơi,

I recently stumbled on your great site, when I was looking for the correct diacritic mark for ơi. I lived in Saigon for many years and speak some Vietnamese, although it is embarrassingly little considering how long I was there.

I know most of the polite forms of address and am always very careful about whether or not to address an older women as bà. I usually err on the side of caution and use cô.

I have a question though. Several of my female friends have told me that it is not appropriate for me, as a male, to say ” chi ơi ” when addressing a younger female. They say I should use ” em ơi ” instead.

What is your opinion?
Simon recently posted…My language learning in 2018My Profile

Hi Simon,

“Em” is correct for people younger than you, for both female and male.

As a man, if you’re not sure if a woman is older or younger than you, it’s of course more flattering (usually!) to assume she’s younger – so, “em” rather than “chi” as a default.

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