The official language in Vietnam is Vietnamese. Like Thai and most Chinese dialects, Vietnamese is a tonal language that uses a change of tone to inflect different meanings, which can make it difficult for Westerners to master. Although very different from Western languages, a traveller may be surprised to find that the basic grammar is quite simple. Verbs are static, regardless of past or future tense, and the parts of speech are quite simple. The main difficulties lie in the pronunciation of the different sounds and certain sounds.
Vietnamese consists of four main dialects: the northern dialect spoken around Hanoi, the central northern dialect spoken around Vinh, the central central dialect spoken around Hue, and the southern dialect spoken around Ho Chi Minh City.
While the Hanoi dialect is considered the “norm” and is widely used in broadcasting, there is no de facto standard in the education system. Northerners naturally think that the southern accent is for “hai lua” (country people) and will always advise you to stick to the northern accent, but the choice of accent should depend on where you plan to live. If you work in Saigon, the economic centre of Vietnam, the southern accent is the one you will hear every day.
For students of the language, the written Latin alphabet is a relief. Unlike English, the Vietnamese orthography faithfully reproduces the pronunciation, although the sounds of the letters are different or absent in English.
Although Chinese characters are no longer used to write Vietnamese, the Vietnamese lexicon is still heavily influenced by the Chinese language. Some words are loan words from Chinese such as “hotel” (khach san), “children” (nhi dồng), “communist party” (dang cong san); others are formed from Chinese roots/characters such as “representative” (dai dien) or “bird flu” (cum ga). Any knowledge of the Chinese language makes learning Vietnamese much easier. Vietnamese is also full of loan words from French and English.
Although Vietnamese appreciate every effort to learn their language, most Vietnamese rarely experience a foreign accent. As a result, it can be frustrating for learners that no one can understand what they are trying to say. Hotel staff and children tend to have a more tolerant ear for foreign accents, and it is not uncommon for children to effectively help translate your poorly pronounced Vietnamese into authentic Vietnamese for adults.
In addition to Vietnamese, Ho Chi Minh City also has a large ethnic Chinese community, many of whom speak Cantonese. In the most remote areas of the country, there are also many ethnic minorities who speak a variety of languages belonging to the Mon-Khmer, Tai-Kadai and Austronesian language families.
Most young Vietnamese learn English at school, so many young people have a basic knowledge of English, but English skills are generally low. However, most hotel and airline staff know enough English to communicate. Signposts are usually bilingual in Vietnamese and English.
Despite Indochina’s colonial history, where French was the medium of education, French is no longer widely taught in Vietnamese schools and, apart from a few educated elites among the elderly, is far less useful than English in communicating with the local population. In major cities, some of the large international luxury hotel chains have staff who can speak other foreign languages such as Mandarin, Japanese or Korean.