Vietnamese is one of the most spoken languages in the world, with around 90 million native speakers. It is the official language in Vietnam and also widely spoken in places where the Vietnamese have immigrated such as the United States and Australia. Vietnamese grammar is very simple: nouns and adjectives don't have genders, and verbs aren't conjugated. Vietnamese is a tonal language; the meaning of a word depends on how high or low your voice is. Vietnamese is not related to Chinese, though it contains many loan words from Chinese due to centuries of Chinese rule in Vietnam, and even used Chinese-like characters as its writing system, called "chữ Nôm", until Vietnam was colonised by the French.
Vietnamese spelling is more or less phonetic, and generally similar to Portuguese (which it is based on). Once you figure out how to pronounce each letter and tone, you have a pretty good idea of how to pronounce Vietnamese, which has very few exceptions compared to English.
Unless otherwise indicated, pronunciation throughout this phrasebook is for Northern (Hanoi) Vietnamese, which is quite different from Southern (Saigon), North Central (Vinh) or Central (Hue) Vietnamese.
One important difference between Vietnamese and Western languages is that Vietnamese has no polite equivalent of the second-person pronoun, "you." Only very close acquaintances and friends use the second-person pronoun "May" (pronounced "mhay" with a heavy A and accentuated Y), as it is considered very impolite between strangers. It is roughly equivalent to the pronoun "Omae" in Japanese. Consider it the extreme version of misusing "Toi" in place of "Vous" in French, except there is no equivalent of "Vous" in Vietnamese. Like with many other Asian cultures, it is more socially acceptable to be aware of your formal/informal relationship to another person, and imply it through the word you use to address them.
Strange as it might sound, conversational Vietnamese takes place almost entirely in the second and third persons. For example, instead of saying "I think you are very beautiful" to a girl you like, you might say, "This older male thinks you (the younger female) very beautiful" or abridge it to "You (the younger female) are very beautiful." There is always an overt implication in how you address someone according to their age and sex.
To Western ears, talking in the third person sounds stilted and pretentious, but to Vietnamese ears, it is the social norm. Vietnamese has a word for "I", tôi, but Vietnamese would use it only in abstract or formal situations (such as public speaking, addressing a television camera, or writing in a book.) Only foreigners use tôi in conversation, which sounds stilted to Vietnamese, but they understand why it is done and come to expect it.
In conversational Vietnamese, the proper way to refer to yourself and others depends on a hierarchy of age and sex. Many of the terms have a literal meaning of family relationships, though they are used for all people on all occasions. Options include:
Ban (friend, pronounced "bhang" with a heavy A. Easily confused with the word "table" to hilarious effect.)
Con (child, pronounced "kon", and – parents will be amused – also means animal, for example "Con chim" literally means "(that) animal (which is a) bird", and as comedic sex slang, "Con chim" also means "young boy's penis".)
Em (literally, younger person, generally reserved for a younger sister, younger female relative, or a female acquaintance whom you consider equal to or younger than you – refers to anyone younger than you but older than a child. It is the usual way to address your wife, girlfriend, or female lover, regardless of your own age or sex, with implications of endearment beyond daily usage of the word. Can be considered the equivalent of "my dear".)
Anh (older brother – man older than you by up to 10-20 years depending on how close they are. Or refers to a man of the same age as you, but whom you hold in high regard even if you are slightly older. It is also the usual way to address a husband, boyfriend, or male lover, regardless of your own age or sex, with implications of endearment beyond daily usage.)
Chị (older sister – woman older than you by up to 10-20 years depending on how close they are, with the implication that you feel the age between you and her does not matter. Generally only used for females slightly older than you.)
Chú (literally, "Mister" with implications toward "uncle". Also used to address your father's younger brother – man older than you and who you feel deserves the distinction beyond "Anh".)
Cô (literally, "Miss" or "Young Mrs." – woman older than you by 10+ years, or your female teacher prior to college. Implies that you feel she is a generation older than you, but you still think she is too young to be called "Madam" or "Mrs.")
Bác (unisex term, used for both Sir and Madam, – refers to a mature person, generally 40 to 60 years old. Polite in that it implies you do not think the person is a senior or elderly yet.)
Ông (literally, "old gentleman", grandfather – refers specifically to a senior man, 50-60+ years old depending on how close you are.)
Bà (literally, "Madam" or "elderly lady", grandmother – refers specifically to a senior woman, 50-60+ years old depending on how close you are.)
Choose one from the list to represent yourself, and one to represent the person you are talking to, depending on sex and relative age. For example, to get the attention of a waiter or waitress in a restaurant, say em/anh/chi oi (oi being the ubiquitous Vietnamese term for "hey"). If you listen closely, when people address you or talk about you in Vietnamese, they will be using these terms. They will be very impressed if you can master this! Nonetheless, even between natural Vietnamese people, it can get awkward when you try to figure out how to address someone who appears to be the same sex and, as far as you can tell, about the same age as you. Once you figure out their age and sex, they may have you use one of the above terms, or simply be amiable and ask you to call them "Ban", or "friend".
For simplicity, however, many phrases below are are translated without the relevant terms for you and/or your listener: For example, "How are you" is literally translated as "Healthy or not?" It is generally impolite to speak to a person without directly addressing them unless they're a subordinate, but Vietnamese usually don't take offense when foreigners omit this. Wherever you see tôi below, you can substitute one of the words above according to the circumstance.
What is your name? (formal, to a man (forties or older, depending on the sensitivity of the person you address))
Ông tên là gì? (ohng ten la zee)
What is your name? (formal, to a woman (forties or older, depending on the sensitivity of the person you address))
Bà tên là gì? (ba ten la zee)
What is your name? (informal, to a male who is not quite middle-aged AND/OR is not significantly older than you)
Anh tên là gì? (ang ten la zee)
Note: Anh is an umbrella term for any older male figure. It's literal meaning is "older brother".
What is your name? (informal and also flattering, to a female who is not quite middle-aged AND not significantly older than you)
Cô tên là gì? (koh ten la zee)
Note: There is a distinction between this and the last phrase, because in Vietnamese culture, one generally assumes that a woman, regardless of whether she looks middle-aged or not, is either not yet married, or does not yet have children, or is younger than she looks. Using "Cô" instead of "Bà" implies that you are giving her the benefit of your lack of knowledge about her. Thus, if she feels the need, she will (as a result of your flattery and politeness) correct you to use the mature "Bà" or the gender-disregarding term for an adult who is anywhere in their late thirties to fifties, "Bac" which is equivalent to "Sir" or "Madam". Some men and women prefer to be addressed as the polite and age-ambiguous "Bac" indefinitely, until they feel it is appropriate to be addressed in more mature terms.
My name is ______ .
Tôi tên là ______ . (Toy ten la _____ .)
Làm ơn. (lam uhhn)
Cảm ơn. (kuhm uhhn)
Không sao đâu. (kohng sao doh)
Yes (affirmative, respectful)
Dạ (Northern : zah, Southern : yah)
Xin lỗi. (seen loy)
Tạm biệt (tam byet)
I can't speak Vietnamese [well].
Tôi không biết nói tiếng Việt [giỏi lắm]. (thoy kohng byet noy tyeng vyet [zoy luhm])
Do you speak English?
Biết nói tiếng Anh không? (byet noy tyeng ang kohng)
Is there someone here who speaks English?
Có ai đây biết nói tiếng Anh không? (KAW eye day byet noy tyeng ang kohng)