The ancient Vietnamese language, though not complex structurally (subject, object, verb with no plurals), is tonal and therefore difficult for Westerners to master. In its earliest written form, Vietnamese was based on the Chinese pictographic writing, called Chu Nom, and you'll see remnants of that tradition on temple walls -- in fact, young people still study written Chinese in school. But in the 17th century, a French missionary named Alexandre de Rhodes developed Quoc Ngu, the Romanized Vietnamese alphabet that's used today. Unlike other languages in the region, many of which use Sanskrit as a base, Vietnamese looks almost readable to a Westerner, and though the easy recognition of Romanized letters makes finding street addresses much easier, the system of accent marks is complex and pronunciation is difficult. There are no dialects of Vietnamese, but regional accents are quite distinct.
To really learn Vietnamese, you'll need to work with a pronunciation coach, and the best part about traveling in Vietnam is the willingness of people to listen, laugh, and correct or model for you as you bludgeon their precious language. Learning just a little goes a long way.
Today most city dwellers seem to speak at least a little English, and the older generation speaks some French. With increased influence from China -- the Chinese comprise well over 50% of international visitors in Vietnam -- younger people are increasingly studying Mandarin. Students especially will be eager to practice English with you (as well as French or Mandarin). Solo travelers, being less intimidating, are at an advantage; you'll have many opportunities (and invitations) to have a squat on a street corner, drink a bia hoi (local draft beer), and practice pronunciation.
Laugh from Your Mistakes -- The Vietnamese language, with its six tones, has an enormous capacity for puns, and Vietnamese people get a kick out of foreigners' mistakes. Words that mean "progress with sales," if pronounced incorrectly, come out as "very hungry." Bawdy mistakes by foreigners who think they're ordering pork but are naming a human body part, for example, send Vietnamese people into a tizzy.
Who Do You Think You're Talkin' To?
It's important to know who you're speaking to, especially in Vietnam, where the pronoun you is used widely and denotes the relationship of the two people speaking. If you're just saying "Hello" to someone, you need to say the equivalent of "Hello older man" or "Hello young person." In fact, when peers meet, there's a moment of figuring out who is older/younger -- sometimes folks even ask so that they know what to call you. The second-person pronouns are important and easy to learn. Say hello as follows:
- Use Chao ong for a man significantly older, an elder or grandfather.
- Chao ba is polite for a married woman older than you, an auntie or grandma.
- Anh is the word for a young man (only if older than you) or brother; if you're elderly, everyone is Em and Anh to you.
- Say Chao chi to an older or middle-age lady.
- Use Chao co when referring to an older single lady or teacher.
- Chao em is the proper pronoun for someone younger than you, male or female. Note: A man saying this to a woman is considered too informal -- as if it were a come-on -- so the more neutral Chi or Co is better. Also note that shouting "Em" or "Em oi!" is the best way to get a waitress's attention. If the waitress is much older, though, be sure to use "Ba oi!" instead.