Hello Vietnam – or as the locals would say, xin chao!
When you arrive in Việt Nam, as the native speakers of Vietnamese call it, the first thing you'll want to do is greet your new hosts. That means knowing how to say all the basic pleasantries such as “hello”, “nice to meet you”, and “how are you?”
On the surface, Vietnamese greetings are actually a pretty simple topic. There aren't a lot of different ways to say “hello” in Vietnamese.
What complicates things is that, in order to know how to say “hello” in Vietnamese correctly, you often need to include the right pronoun (he/she/you) – and in Vietnamese, there are a lot of potential pronouns to choose from.
In this article, I'll teach you all the basic Vietnamese words you need to know to successfully greet people and exchange niceties. I'll also cover the basics of Vietnam's pronoun system, as it's essential for Vietnamese greetings and much else.
Let's start with the most basic Vietnamese greeting that every textbook will teach you first:
“Hello” in Vietnamese – Xin chào
Xin chào is the safest, most polite way of saying “hello” in Vietnamese. You can use it to greet anybody.
It's easy to remember because chào sounds just like the Italian greeting “ciao”, which is often used in English. The accent on chào tells you that it's pronounced using the “falling tone”. (A full explanation of Vietnamese tones is beyond the scope of this article.)
With chào in our arsenal, it's time to take a brief detour into the bizarre world of Vietnamese pronouns.
Vietnamese Pronouns – a Basic Introduction
One of the strangest things about Vietnamese is that it doesn't really have a word for “you”. Yes, really. You'd think that this is quite an important word to have, but somehow the Vietnamese manage without it.
Instead, you address people (and refer to yourself) using familial words like “uncle”, “brother”, or “grandpa”.
These words aren't restricted to your actual family: you use them with everyone, even a stranger on the street. The specific word to use depends on the age, gender, and social status of the person you’re talking to.
So for example, if I want to ask you how you are, and you're a girl slightly younger than me, I could say em có khỏe không?, where em means “younger sibling”. To an old man, I would instead say ông có khỏe không? – “how are you, grandpa?” There are many other words to learn.
Here are a few you should know:
- em – “younger sibling”; said to someone slightly younger than you
- bạn – “friend”; said to someone around the same age as you.
- anh – “older brother”; said to a male slightly older than you
- chị – “older sister”; said to a female slightly older than you
- chú – “uncle”; said to an adult man
- cô – “aunt”; said to an adult woman
- ông – “grandpa”; said to an elderly man or someone much older than you
- bà – “grandma”; said to an elderly woman or someone much older than you
Those are just a few of the most common Vietnamese pronouns, and there are a few more dialectal variations.
If this sounds complicated, that's because it is. But don't worry too much. Vietnamese people won't get offended if you use the wrong word. They know that foreigners struggle with this stuff, and calling someone “grandpa” or asking them their age isn't considered impolite like the way it can be in Western culture.
In fact, if you spend time in Vietnam you'll notice that Vietnamese people tend to ask you bao nhiêu tuổi? (“how old are you?”) all the time. They don't mean to be rude; this question is extremely common in Vietnam because people need to know how old you are in order to know which pronoun to use for you.
Another quick note about pronouns: just as Vietnamese has no real word for “you”, it also has no real word for “I”. Once again, the word you use for “I” depends on who is speaking to you; you use the same word for “I” that they use for “you”.
So for example, a young man might say to his girlfriend: anh yêu em (“I love you”), literally “older brother loves younger sibling.” The girlfriend might then say back to him em yêu anh – “younger sibling loves older brother”. Note how anh means “I” in the first sentence but “you” in the second one.
There are some other ways of saying “I”, but we'll worry about them later.
Here's another fun fact about Vietnamese pronouns. You know how in English, we typically refer to people by their title and last name in formal situations? For example, in some situations you might be addressed as “Benny”, but in others, you might be called “Mr. Lewis”.
Vietnam isn't like this, and they don't really have “titles” in the same way we'd think of them in English. In fact, Vietnamese people don't really use each other's family names at all.
Like in many Asian cultures, Vietnamese names put the family name first and the given name last. So what Westerners call a “last name” is actually a “first name”, if you catch my drift. For the avoidance of doubt, I’ll refer to “family names” and “given names” instead of “first” and “last”.
So, if someone's given name is “Hiển”, others might refer to him as “Anh Hiển” – brother Hiển. This is roughly analogous to calling someone “Mr. (Family name)” in English.
I’ve only scratched the surface. The topic of Vietnamese pronouns goes much deeper. But the above should be enough to get started. Let's get back to chào and the question of how to say “hi” in Vietnamese.
“Hello” in Vietnamese Chào bạn/anh/chị
In general, xin chào can sound more formal than necessary. It's more casual to say chào followed by the appropriate pronoun, e.g.:
- chào bạn – “hello (person same age as me)”
- chào anh – “hello (young man, boy slightly older than me)”
- chào chị – “hello (young woman, girl older than me)”
If you want to greet a group of people, you can say chào các bạn – “hello all (my) friends”.
By the way, if you're not sure what all those weird accent marks mean on or under words like chị, or why Vietnamese sometimes has twố ằccents ọn the sẩme letter, you need to go back and learn the Vietnamese alphabet. While Vietnamese is difficult to pronounce, the writing system is actually fairly easy to learn. I’ll be publishing an article soon explaining how to read the Vietnamese alphabet.
“Good Morning”, “Good Afternoon” and “Good Evening” in Vietnamese
If your brain needs a break from juggling all these pronouns, you might want to play it safe with one of these options:
- chào buổi sáng means “good morning” in Vietnamese
- chào buổi chiều means “good afternoon” in Vietnamese
- chào buổi tối means “good evening” in Vietnamese
These greetings aren't as commonly used as a simple chào bạn, but they're still something you should know.
“Hello” (on the phone) in Vietnamese – Á-lô
I can only assume the Vietnamese got this one from the French. When you answer the phone in Vietnamese, you don't say chào but á-lô, just like how in Portuguese you say alô and in French you say allô, all of which are of course derived originally from the English “hello”?
Á-lô is also the kind of thing you might say if the line is patchy and you're not sure if the other person is there. Á-lô, can you hear me?
“Hey!” in Vietnamese – Ơi
Ơi sounds uncomfortably like the British “oi!”, which would be a rude way to address a stranger in English.
But in Vietnam, ơi is an extremely common and perfectly polite way to get someone's attention – on the street, in a shop, across the dinner table, or anywhere.
You'd usually preface it with the correct pronoun. For example, you might say anh ơi! to beckon the (male) waiter over in a restaurant.
You can also use ơi with someone's given name. So when Anh Hiển walks into the room, try getting his attention with a Hiển ơi!
“How are you?” in Vietnamese – Khỏe không?
In Vietnamese, to ask someone how they are, what you’re really asking is if they're khỏe – “healthy”.
So “how are you?” is khỏe không? (“are you healthy?”).
You can also use a slightly longer sentence with a pronoun. For example, you could ask an elderly man ông có khỏe không? (“are you (grandpa) healthy?”).
Vietnamese has no exact word for “yes”, so in order to reply to a question in the affirmative, you simply repeat the word from the question. So the positive response to khỏe không? is just khỏe! (“(I'm) healthy.”).
Không by itself just means “no”, so if “grandpa” is not feeling good, the conversation might look like this:
- Ông có khỏe không?
“What’s your name?” in Vietnamese – Tên của bạn là gì? / Bạn tên gì?
An important early step when getting to know someone is learning their name! “Name” in Vietnamese is tên, and to ask for it say tên của bạn là gì? (“name of friend is what?”), or the simpler bạn tên gì?
As I hope you've figured out by now, you'll need to replace bạn in the above examples with the appropriate pronoun for whom you're talking to. So you might instead ask tên của cô là gì? or bà tên gì?
Once you and your conversation partner know each other's names, it might be time to drop this pronoun malarkey altogether. It's common in Vietnamese to refer to yourself and others in the third person, even when it would sound strange to do so in English.
Phưc: Phưc là ngừơi Việt. George là ngừơi Mỹ, phải không?
George: Không phãi, George là ngừơi Anh.
Phưc: Phưc is Vietnamese. Is George American?
George: No, George is English.
This style of speech sounds weird to an English speaker, but in Vietnam it's considered friendly and respectful. Plus it means you can take a break from worrying about which pronoun to use.
“Nice to Meet You” in Vietnamese – Rất vui được gặp bạn
After greeting someone, and learning their name (and age), the next thing you might want to do is say rất vui được gặp bạn. This means “nice to meet you!”
Once again, replace bạn with the right pronoun.
“Goodbye” in Vietnamese: Tạm biệt / Hẹn gặp lại
We've covered how to say “hello”, but what if you want to say “goodbye” in Vietnamese? The most important phrase to know here is tạm biệt, which means, well, “goodbye”!
Another phrase you might say hẹn gặp lại, which literally means “(I) hope (we) meet again!”
More Ways to Say “I” in Vietnamese
Since knowledge of Vietnamese pronouns is so essential to a knowledge of Vietnamese greetings, I feel it's helpful to end on another quick pronoun-related point.
A ubiquitous pronoun that you absolutely must know is tôi, pronounced “toy”. Most “learn Vietnamese” books will tell you that this word means “I”, although its literal meaning is something more like “servant”.
As you speak with Vietnamese people, however, you'll quickly learn that tôi is considered a bit too formal for everyday speech. Really, you should refer to yourself as em/anh/chi etc. as described above.
Tôi is the kind of word you use in abstract situations with no specific audience, e.g. writing a newspaper article or addressing a camera.
It's also a word you could use in a crowd if you want to be absolutely clear that you're talking about yourself and not, say, someone else in the room who could conceivably be an em.
của ai? – “whose is this?”
của tôi! – “It’s mine!”
But tôi can still show up in greetings. For example, tôi rất vui được gặp anh (“I'm very pleased to meet you”).
Cảm ơn các bạn for reading! (That means “thank you, friends!”)
What are the other essential words and phrases for when you first meet someone in Vietnamese? Is there anything I've missed?
And do you have any tips for remembering the vast array of Vietnamese pronouns and knowing which ones to use? (The pronoun topic is much deeper than what I scratched upon here. It really is one of the unusual things about the language.)