Vietnamese is one of a few languages in Asia that uses Latin alphabet instead of symbol. This makes it a lot easier to interpret street signs and even to learn to speak. The modern Vietnamese was created by a Spanish Missionary to facilitate the process of French colonization. As a result, it is a no big surprise that the pronunciation resembles that of Spanish.
The major difference between these two languages is that Vietnamese has 6 intonations in speaking and writing. You might not be able to master Vietnamese in your short traveling period. However, knowing some basic words will impress the local and make yourself more friendly and approachable than a passer-by.
You will not have much difficulty traveling in Vietnam, since many Vietnamese, especially young people, can speak English quite fluently (learn whether you can get by with just English in Vietnam). Even though some of them are shy to foreigners, they will readily help you if you get lost and ask for direction. Some others are keen on speaking to you because that helps them improve their communication in a foreign language.
The Nôm - Ancient Vietnamese script
Not only foreigners take Nôm (ancient Vietnamese script) for Hán (short of Hán Việt, ancient Vietnamese-Chinese script) but most of Vietnamese think that Hán and Nôm are one thing. Actually, like Japanese script, Nôm used to be ancient Vietnamese script, which was used widely by Vietnam ancestors. Yet, it is dying very fast.
Not only foreigners but many Vietnamese still take Nôm (ancient Vietnamese script) for Hán (short of Hán Việt, ancient Vietnamese-Chinese script), due to their similarity in using symbolic scripts. In fact, like Japanese script, Nôm used to be ancient Vietnamese script, which was used widely by Vietnam ancestors. Yet, it is dying very fast.
A hard lot of Nôm
Like Japan and Korea, which created their own scripts by adapting from Chinese characters, Vietnam had its own script named Nôm as well. Although dominated by Chinese feudal regime for almost a thousand year, the old Vietnamese manage to come up with their own system to record all the local words, and through time, Nôm has come to record almost every Vietnamese particular features, from language to culture, politics to economy.
Though Nôm had strong vitality among people, it was not used at important function in court. It had experienced a disdained lot during thousand years of feudal regimes. One who could not use China script fluently was not considered knowledgeable while a Nôm-fluent scholar is underestimated. A long time in the past ancient Vietnamese is disregarded by their own people.
The idea that Hán Việt is superior to Nôm was deeply engraved in minds of many Vietnamese people at the time. Even when Nôm was at its golden age, it could not assume its true value.
Later on, when modern Vietnamese used Latin characters as the Vietnam national script (quốc ngữ), Hán Việt and Nôm were quickly forgotten by people. A long time after the appearance of Quốc ngữ, Vietnam people did not have any Hán Nôm class, even mentioning Hán Nôm was considered backward.
After the advent of the national reunification, the government realized the importance of preserving the heritage and started to reopen Hán Nôm classes. Unfortunately, too many things had lost and with Nôm in particular, the hard lot now comes to its peak.
A lost Nôm and precious things went with it
Coming to Văn Miếu street, Hà Nội on Tet holiday one can witness the once prime time of Nom. “You can see a colorful street and think that Hán Nôm is being restored to former prosperity. However, people like me see something else”, said Văn Hợp, a Hán Việt writer on the street.
The street is full of traditionally red color paper and people coming asking for pieces of calligraphy. However, among nearly 60 so-called calligraphers there, there is only one man giving Nôm calligraphy. The rest gives Hán Việt calligraphy.
How come things end up that way? Does the above hard lot have anything to do with the situation? Actually, there are many factors contributing to “help bring down” the precious script. One of them is the bias long existing in the past.
Everyone knows what can be lost when a language dies. The remains now of Nôm literature are what can be called real Vietnamese language. However, few people can read Nôm, let alone their ability to write Nôm and especially, draw a piece of calligraphy.
“Many cultural traits had gone with Nôm, the features that tell us about what a pure Vietnam is, how our ancestor lived and behaved in the past, the way they cured common illness through their own characters”, said Hán Nôm Doctor Cung Khắc Lược.
According to this heading calligrapher in Việt Nam, Nôm is considered more complicated than Hán Viet, and that is one of the reason makes it so unpopular. However, Nôm contains in it numerous cultures, Vietnam economy feature in the past and reflecting the people daily life lively.
For a foreigner, she can find a pure Việt Nam though a Nôm word. However, many scholars are scary when thinking of Nôm future. For Nôm, time is running the shortest.
Vietnamese Tones, Pronunciation & Alphabet
There are six tones in Vietnamese, each of which is represented by a different diacritical mark. Depending on the tones, the word “ma” can mean ghost, mother, which/but, tomb, horse or rise seedling. The six tones are:
Mid tone: produced at the relative middle of your voice range. No tone mark is used. (ma = ghost)
High-rising tone: begins high and rises sharply. (má = mother)
Low- falling tone: begins low and falls lower. (mà = but)
Low-rising tone: begins low, dips lower, then rises sharply. (mả = tomb)
High-broken tone: begins above middle, dips, then rises sharply. (mã = horse)
Low-broken tone: begins low then falls sharply. (mạ = rice seedling)
a ă â b c d đ e ê g h i k l m n o ô ơ p q r s t u ư v x y
a- like a in part
ă- like u in cup, cut
â- like (?)
b- like b
c,k- like k
d- like z in zero
đ- like d
e- like e in lend
ê- like ai in plain
g- like g in gain
h- like h in house
i,y- like e in me
l- like l in live
m- like m
n- like n
o- like o in core
ô- like oh
ơ- like in nerd
p- like p
qu- like q
r- like r in really
s- like sh in she
t- like t in total
u- like oo in cool
ư- like u in huh
v- like v
x- like s in so
gi- as z in north or y in south ng- like the -nga- in long ago nh- like ni in opinion ph- like f
tr- as ch in north and tr in south th- like th in thanks
ch- like ch in chew
Most Essential Vocabulary for Travelers
Conversation & essential
Hello: xin chào (sin chow)
Goodbye: tạm biệt (dam bee it)
Please: làm ơn (lam earn)
Thank you: cám ơn (kam earn)
Excuse me = Sorry = xin lỗi (sin lõ-ee)
Yes: Vâng (vang), dạ (ya).
No: không (kom)
How are you: bạn khoẻ không (ban káw kwoir kom)
Fine, thank you: khỏe, cám ơn (kwoir, kam earn)
I don't understand: tôi không hiểu (doy kom hie-oo)
1: một (mot)
2: hai (hi)
3: ba (ba)
4: bốn (bón)
5: năm (numb)
6: sáu (sów)
7: bảy (bay)
8: tám (túm)
9: chín (jín)
10: mười (mù - ee)
1x: mười + x ( 1,2,3,4...9)
x0: x (2,3,4...9) + mươi
x00: x (1,2,3,4...9) + trăm
x000: x (1,2,3,4,...9) + nghìn
x000,000: x (1,2,3,4,...9) + triệu