Communicating with Vietnamese

Many languages and dialects are spoken in Vietnam, but Vietnamese is the official language and the language of most people. Many older Vietnamese are familiar with French or English. Interest in English has been rising, with language schools opening throughout the country.


Like English, Vietnamese uses the Roman alphabet, but otherwise the languages are very different. Every word in Vietnamese has only one syllable, and the language is based on tone. There are up to six tones, and what looks like the same word can have different meanings according to the tone used by the speaker. Tones are high, low, falling or wavering, like notes on a scale. For example, the word ma has six different meanings: “mother” with a high falling tone, “ghost” with a high flat tone, “grave” with a low to rising tone, and so on. In writing, one of five accents (or none) is placed above or below a word’s vowel to indicate the tone.

The Vietnamese value modesty and humility about one’s accomplishments, and harmonious relations with others. Seeking to avoid conflict in relationships, they often prefer to speak about sensitive subjects indirectly. Outside of large cities, making direct eye contact when talking to someone is considered impolite; similarly, Vietnamese usually speak in a low tone. Although when shopping the Vietnamese barter over prices, this process is done politely; aggression is considered rude.

The Vietnamese sometimes appear to answer “yes” (dạ) to all questions. However, this yes may be a polite way of saying “Yes, I am listening,” or “Yes, I am confused,” or “Yes, I do not want to offend.” Similarly, the Vietnamese smile can be used to show all sorts of emotions, from happiness to anger or even grief. Strong emotions are shared only with family or close friends. Humour, however, is freely expressed.

Traditionally, Vietnamese greet each other by joining hands and bowing slightly; however, in cities some men have adopted the Western practice of shaking hands. In public, men often hold hands as an expression of friendship. Hugging, however, is reserved for relatives.