Language & Culture

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.
Language & Culture

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?

Language & Culture

Vietnamese age and birthdays

Your Vietnamese age isn’t what you think it is.

In Vietnam, it’s common to be asked your age. Though Westerners may be shocked by this at first, it is an important question to choose the correct way to address someone for example – chị for a woman a little older than you or em for a woman a bit younger.

But before you go about answering that question, there are two important differences when it comes to counting age in Vietnam.

1. Your age is based on the year you were born, and changes at new year.

So say you’re 30 and living in Vietnam over new year. From the first day of Tết, you now give your age as 31. However…

2. At birth you start counting from 1.

Say your birthday is in September. So in the Western calendar you’d be turning 31 next month. However since Vietnamese count you as 1 when you’re born and you get older at Tết, you’d have been 32 years old since the last Tết anyway.

And next Tết you’ll be 33 in Vietnamese years. Sorry about that!

Honestly, though, it sounds more confusing than it is.

A quick way to work out your age

If you’ve already had your birthday this year,

Vietnamese age = Western age + 1

If you haven’t had your birthday yet,

Vietnamese age = Western age + 2


Birthdays are not usually celebrated in Vietnam. While children do receive lì xì (lucky money) at Tết, my students were quick to tell me this isn’t in celebration of their increase in age per se.

As Vietnam is modernising some people in the cities are adapting the Western concept of age, or least birthday celebrations, but whenever I’m asked “bao nhiều tuổi?”, I always give my Vietnamese age.

Over to you: Bạn bao nhiều tuổi? 😉

Photo credit: ngould

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

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