Oct 13 2011
Ask any foreigner in Hanoi, particularly one who’s already tried to learn the language, and you’ll be told how difficult it is to master. Well, not just to master: even to speak more than a few words.
I came to Hanoi full of positive expectations: I was top of the class at languages at school, surely I’d be able to pick up at least the basics? But school was a long time ago, and neither Spanish nor French had quite the same range of tonal differentiation as Vietnamese.
Despite that, for any visitor it’s worth having a go at at least the more common phrases. As with any country, a simple hello or thank you in the native lingo can make the difference between friendly and dismissive service.
Look in most guidebooks and you’ll find some of the basics — these will serve you well if you just want to show willing. Here are a couple of useful phrases, with my own interpretation of correct pronunciation (no criticisms please!):
Hello / goodbye = Sin chao (sin chaow)
Thank you = Cam on (cam ern – with a bit of stress on the ern)
Excuse me / sorry = Xin loi (sin loy-i)
I don’t understand = Toi khong hieu (Doy komb he-o)
Too expensive! = Dat qua! (Da kwa)
You can improve your pronunciation and expand your range a bit by using the language wherever possible: use it when shopping or sit at a tea stall or a bia hoi joint and talk to the locals. If you can’t remember the words, just read from your guidebook or phrasebook – it will come in time. Not everyone will engage, but those that do will happily point out your pronunciation errors.
If you want to learn a bit more than just the basics you really need to be willing to invest a bit of time and money. The problem with intensive learning is that without sufficient opportunity to put what you’ve learned into practice between lessons, it can easily go in one ear and out the other. Or is that just me?
Anyway, for the dedicated traveller or long-term visitor, one option is Hidden Hanoi, which offers a ‘Survival Basic Level 1’ 20-hour course for $200. It can also organise private lessons.
Or try Vietnamese Teaching Group: we had 12 lessons with Bach when we first arrived in Hanoi and found the lessons to be well structured, if a little rushed. Private lessons are available at home or in a café and cost from $3 to $9 per hour depending upon location and size of group.
VTG offers tourist courses which are for people who have “no knowledge of the language and want to know simple words and phrases for a short visit to Vietnam” and also provides online courses: so you can start to learn before you arrive. Not a bad idea in my view.
Standard Vietnamese Group also gets good reviews, and keep an eye on TNH (previously The New Hanoian) listings for other private tutors.
If you’re looking for something a little less formal, then pop along to Puku on a Wednesday night for their free Vietnamese group lessons (19:00 to 21:00) or head to LESH English Centre for free lessons in exchange for some English tuition.
147 Nghi Tam Road, Tay Ho, Hanoi
T: 091 225 4045
Vietnam Teaching Group (Ms Hanh)
T: 0972 369 842
Standard Vietnamese Group (Ms Hoa)
T: 0977 774 287
LESH English Centre
Alley 422 Le Duan, Đống Đa, Hanoi
T: (0915) 11 8608
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