Two of the best non-native Vietnamese speakers I’ve met during my time in Vietnam were from Eastern Europe. The first, a Bulgarian called Viet, had learnt Vietnamese at university in Hanoi but then moved to Saigon. We met once at a party and talked for half an hour in Vietnamese. He was having to learn new vocabulary and adjust his accent so he could understand and be understood by the Saigonese. “The problem,” he said, “is that when I open my mouth and speak Hanoi Vietnamese, no-one wants to talk to me.”
His experience was typical of not just Vietnam but indeed any country in the world: you’re judged by your accent and the way you speak. To this day there is a fair amount of negative prejudice in Saigon towards people with northern accents. Likewise, Saigonese coming to Hanoi complain of being overcharged or treated differently once locals hear their accent.
The other Eastern European was Romanian. I’ve met him a number of times now, but the first meeting left me speechless. It was at a bar in Hanoi and the moment he heard my Saigon Vietnamese he went on the attack. In Vietnamese.
“You should learn Hanoi Vietnamese,” he told me. “The way people talk down south is incorrect. Too many mistakes with the pronunciation. Too many words used incorrectly.”
He then went on to give me examples. The next time I saw him he apologised.
When in Rome…
As a way to justify my own language learning, for a long time I said you should learn the dialect and the accent of the place in which you live. I started learning Vietnamese in Vung Tau, in the southeast, and then continued in Ho Chi Minh City. So, naturally, I learnt Saigon Vietnamese. Good Saigon Vietnamese, I thought, although I’m often told that the language I speak is more akin to how they talk in the market.
The problem I have is that for Hanoians, this language I speak is just not chuẩn, or standard. I’ve tried to justify my choice (yes, a second justification) by saying that there is a standard language for each of the country’s three main dialects. It’s not the equivalent of something akin to BBC English, but it’s not far off. It’s clear, easy to understand, it suggests the speaker is educated and most importantly, has a nice ring to it.
Yet many Hanoians won’t accept this. When it comes to music, they tell me, the lyrics are sung in Hanoi Vietnamese. Newspapers, magazines and books — the writing is more formal, and is essentially Hanoi Vietnamese. So, I am mistaken to think that there is anything standard beyond what is spoken in the capital.
They are wrong.
Many years ago I interviewed Ms. Vo Thi Thanh Binh, the director of Vietnamese Language Studies (VLS) in Ho Chi Minh City. Her father wrote the first text book for teaching Vietnamese to foreigners, and she was leading the way to try and get more foreigners speaking Vietnamese. Her method was to offer courses in Hanoi Vietnamese, Saigon Vietnamese and even both.
Up north, she explained, people make many mistakes with the language. The classic error, she said, was the mixing up of the ‘l’s and the ‘n’s. So, you will hear people in Hanoi telling you they are from Hà Lội. If you ask them about where they work, instead of using the word làm they will say nàm.
These mistakes, however, are common to people from the provinces — the former province of Ha Tay as well as Ha Nam, Nam Dinh, Hai Phong and Ninh Binh. The original Hanoian does not make these errors.
But, she said, there’s much more.
In Hanoi they pronounce their ‘r’ as a ‘z’. They can’t say the ‘tr’ in words such as trả — they replace it with a ‘ch’ — and other pronunciation such as the ưu in bưu điện is pronounced as iêu, which is incorrect.
All meaning there is some hope for diehard followers of the Southern dialect like myself.
North or South?
My own experience has been complicated. When I first moved to Hanoi it took me well over a month to start understanding people. And even today, if I’m not tuned in, I’m lost. Yet having spent so much of my time in Vietnam up in the north, down south I am often accused of speaking Hanoi Vietnamese.
This is because I pronounce words such as về with a ‘v’ rather than a ‘y’, or say other words like hết with the northern pronunciation rather than that of the south. And yet the tones I use are distinctly those of the south.
My reason for this is that I want to be understood everywhere I go.
The problem is that colloquial Vietnamese spoken with a strong dialect is often mutually unintelligible. I remember our layout designer, Loc, who is from Ben Tre in the Mekong Delta flying up to Hanoi. Every time he opened his mouth, people just couldn’t understand him. And while his accent is pretty strong, it’s intelligible. Far more intelligible than the accents of most people living in the Mekong Delta.
Right or Wrong?
So, is Hanoi Vietnamese the correct dialect? When it’s spoken well, yes. It’s the language of culture. But more often than not it’s spoken badly.
As for myself, I find I speak more Vietnamese when I’m in Hanoi rather than when I’m in Saigon. Down south, people just want to speak English. So when they see my white face, they click into foreigner mode. No matter how much I try to speak the lingo, they reply in English. It’s frustrating.
Yet up north, once people get past the fact I’m a white guy speaking Saigon Vietnamese, a whole new world opens up. The amount of in-depth conversations I’ve had with xe om drivers, tea stall owners and taxi drivers still amazes me, and the topic of conversation has ranged from anything from Obama to war, to football through to history.
For me, as long as the Vietnamese you speak is intelligible, that’s all that’s required. As for what dialect you should learn and which one’s correct?
We Say, You Say
Hanoi and Saigon dialects have hundreds of words unique to their own city. Here are a few.
Hanoi: xì dầu
HCMC: nước tương
Baguette with egg
Hanoi: bánh mỳ trứng
HCMC: bánh mì ốp la
Hanoi: hoa quả
HCMC: trái cây
Hanoi: con lợn
HCMC: con heo
Hanoi: hai nhăm
HCMC: hai lăm
To be caught in a traffic jam
Hanoi: bị tắc đường
HCMC: bị kẹt xe
Photos by Julie Vola