15 Important Vietnamese Phrases for The Clueless Foreigner
If you clicked on this after reading the title, there’s a pretty high chance that you’re either new to Vietnam, planning to visit soon, or just keen to learn the language. With some of us being (clueless) foreigners ourselves, we know what it’s like to stand in wide-eyed wonder as a street vendor gives you a dish you didn’t ask for, or the taxi driver makes a left turn when you were meant to go right.
So with the help of some of our Vietnamese colleagues (for whom I still feel bad for answering all my annoying questions), here’s a list of phrases and words that should get you by in Vietnam; even if it’s the only Vietnamese you know. The list is also numbered with numbers written in Vietnamese, so you can learn how to count at the same time too!
Một (1) - xin chào (hello)
The most basic word that everyone should, and will, know. You will hear it a lot whether you’re walking into a restaurant or getting into a cab, and it’s only polite to reciprocate.
Image source: quacuabo.com
Hai (2) - cám ơn (thank you)
Another common and basic word that you will often hear, and should use. Bonus points if you say it with a smile.
Ba (3) - xin lỗi (sorry)
One of the most important words to know if you’re learning a foreign language. Hopefully, you don’t have to use this word often, but if you’ve accidentally bumped into someone, or spilled something, just look at them with your puppy-dog eyes and say it.
Bốn (4) - Bao nhiêu? (How much does it cost?)
This is a question you’re probably going to ask a lot. Most products in Vietnamese shops have price tags on them, but there are smaller stores which may be exceptions. So, this is the question you should ask them.
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Năm (5) - Mắc quá! (too expensive), Tôi không mua (I don’t want to buy it)
These are two phrases lumped into one because they work in similar settings, albeit in a different context. “Mắc quá!” is what you say when you’re haggling with a street vendor or a place without proper price tags and you’re offered a price that seems unreasonably high. Of course, do it in a friendly tone, with a smile, and you’ll see how the price magically drops thereafter.
If you’re a foreigner walking through a touristy area like Ben Thanh Market, there’s a high chance you’ll get approached by sellers hawking random items. Just politely say “Tôi không mua” and move on. As annoying as it can get after a while, these people are just trying to make a living, so even if you’re not interested, at least be nice.
Sáu (6) - Rẽ trái (turn left), Rẽ phải (turn right), Đi thẳng (go straight ahead)
This is crucial when you’re in a taxi or on a xe om (motorbike taxi) and you need to give the driver directions. Usually, most drivers will indicate with their hands to confirm what you’ve just said, but do it before you reach the intersection, not on it, for safety reasons.
Bảy (7) - ở đâu? (where?), Đây là đâu? (where is it?)
It can be really annoying when you want to get somewhere but factors like a dying mobile phone battery or an unresponsive GPS keep you from reaching your destination. Just remember “-- ở đâu”. If you’re looking for an ATM, just ask “ATM ở đâu?”, if you’re looking for a toilet, you can ask “WC/toilet/nhà vệ sinh ở đâu?”.
If you already have a map, or a picture of the place you intend to visit, then you can point at it and ask “Đây là đâu?” Then it’s all up to your comprehension skills (see above) and sign language if the person you’ve just approached doesn’t speak English.
Image source: vnhog.com
Tám (8) - cửa hàng tiện lợi (convenience store)
There are plenty of convenience stores in Vietnam’s cities, but unlike in Japan or Korea, unless you’re in the city center, they aren’t that close to one another and may require some walking. As a foreigner, convenience stores will be your best bet to get what you need. So if you’re looking for one, just ask “cửa hàng tiện lợi ở đâu?”
If, for some reason, that didn’t work, you can try your luck with Circle-K/Family Mart/7-Eleven/B’s Mart/Mini-Stop/Vin Mart ở đâu?”
[Pronunciation: ker hang tein le-ai]
Chín (9) - nước (water)
It can get really hot in Vietnam and if you’re out on a long walk, and really need some water but there are no convenience stores nearby, you’ll probably be able to get it from one of the many pushcart vendors along the street. Usually it’s displayed close enough for you to just point towards it, but if it isn’t, then “nước” will do.
Mười (10) - mấy giờ rồi? (what time is it?)
A fairly straightforward one if you need to know the time but your watch or mobile can’t help you at that moment. Just ask “mấy giờ rồi?” while tapping your wrist for best results.
[Pronunciation: mai yer roy]
Image source: youtube.com
Mười Một (11) - sân bay (airport), xe taxi (taxi)
This will be most relevant on your first and last day in the country. If you’re in the taxi, just say “sân bay” and the driver should know where to bring you, especially since the major cities in Vietnam only have one airport each.
[Pronunciation: say taxi]
Mười Hai (12) - đau quá (I’m in pain), mệt quá (I’m feeling sick), bệnh viện (hospital)
Hopefully you don’t ever need to use these, but if (touch wood) you happen to be in pain, or feeling sick, then these three phrases should be able to get you some help.
[Pronunciation: dow wear]
[Pronunciation: mud wear]
[Pronunciation: burn vein]
Mười Ba (13) - Cứu tôi! (help me!)
Another word that you hopefully don’t have to use, but it’s useful nonetheless. It’s applicable in any setting, be it at work, or if you’ve got a foot stuck in a hole. Just use this phrase and you’ll see a throng of people rushing out to help you.
[Pronunciation: kou toy]
Image source: dayboisaigon.com
Mười Bốn (14) - Ừ (yes), Không (no)
The most basic, yet useful words in any language. They are applicable in any setting and can simply be used on their own for yes/no questions.
Mười Năm (15) - Tôi muốn đi — ăn sáng (breakfast) / ăn trưa (lunch) / ăn tối (dinner)
If you’re staying in a hotel, hostel or an Airbnb and you’re feeling hungry, and assuming the person you’re speaking to doesn’t understand you in English, then simply say “Tôi muốn đi —” which means “I want to go to” and complete the sentence with either of the three options, depending on the time of day.
[Pronunciation: toy moon di]
[Pronunciation: ang sang]
[Pronunciation: ang chuer]
[Pronunciation: ang toy]
Keep This Handy
I would suggest either printing this out, or showing these phrases from your phone screen if the person you’re speaking to still doesn’t get it. Vietnamese is a tonal language and some words may sound similar, but a change in tone could change the entire context, leading to confusion.
And regarding the numbers? Just watch this video…
Video source: Vietglish Fun
Enjoy Vietnam and hopefully this list has taught you something new. If you want to know more words and phrases, we can always do a sequel to this article—just let us know.
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