One of the most interesting (and sometimes very frustrating) things about the Vietnamese language is all the different Vietnamese accents. People in the north speak differently from people in the south, who don’t sound anything like people from central Vietnam. Even in Da Nang, you can tell which side of the river people are from by their accent. So what is different exactly? Well, accents are usually based on groups of phoneme substitution. If that sounds confusing, it just means that certain sounds are replaced with other sounds to create the different accents. I’m from California, and when I meet someone from the Midwest, I’m always surprised to hear them pronounce ‘mom’ as ‘mam’. So for those very ambitious learners out there, here’s my (admittedly incomplete) guide to Vietnamese accents.
Vietnamese Accents – North to South
North of Hanoi, almost near the Chinese border, lies the city of Cao Bang. The accent here is like Hanoi, but everyone seems to talk much faster. When I asked a local about this, they just smiled and said “Zes!”
Ah, Hanoi, the phổ thông, or ‘popular’ accent, is widely accepted as being THE standard of Vietnamese accents. But it has quite a few unusual features that make it stand out.
N becomes L
That’s right, hard to imagine, but it’s true. So you’ll sometimes hear ‘Hanoi’ pronounced as ‘HaLoi’. Go figure.
The one feature of Northern Vietnamese no one likes to talk about: the relative pitches of tones here are VERY similar to Chinese. Consider:
- very high flat tone (compared to the Central and Southern relatively lower flat tone) = Chinese 1st tone
- gradually rising sắc tone (compared to the much higher spiking in Central and South) = Chinese 2nd tone
- low, dipping hỏi tone (compared to most of Central and all of South smooth rise) = Chinese 3rd tone
The Vietnamese D (pronounced like an English Y) becomes a Z in the northern accent. Oh, and so does the R for some reason.
Nghe An – Hue
This a big range of provinces with lots of smaller differences, but I’m talking about the North-Central accent in general. These Vietnamese accents are notoriously difficult to understand, even for Vietnamese people.
When you get north of Da Nang, all the tones get reinterpreted. It goes something like this: ‘No tone’ becomes sắc, sắc becomes Central/Southern hỏi, hỏi gets really flat, nặng becomes hỏi, ngã becomes hỏi… Basically all the tones get squashed down, so nothing spikes too high and nothing drops too low. Everything is very flat and, in a tonal language where tone gives meaning, it can be very difficult.
New, fun-to-say Vocab
The word mô gets used a lot here. It is closest in meaning to ‘where’ but get used pretty liberally for things like:
- gì = what
- khi nào – khi mô = when
- cái nào – cái mô = which
Keep in mind that when you’re saying something like cái mô, because of the tone shifts from earlier, it actually sounds like cải mố. Very confusing, I know.
Also the word đó (over there) gets changed to rứa.
The classic way to imitate the Central accent and make Vietnamese people laugh (it works every single time) is the question Đi mô rứa? = Where are you going?
I swear there’s no Da Nang accent; everyone hear is perfectly intelligible all the time. OK not quite…
Ă becomes E
That little smiley face above the A makes it a shorter A. In addition to six tones and lots of new sounds, Vietnamese also has vowel length. Which means you have to say this Ă shorter than a normal A. But fear not, because in Da Nang you can differentiate your A sounds be turning this one into an E. See how much easier that is? So đi thẳng (‘go straight’) becomes đi thẻng. And best of all, Đà Nẵng becomes Đà Nẽng.
O becomes Ô
This one is subtle but it’s there. The O with no hat is pronounced like the dog. Put a hat on it, and it sounds like go*. Words like món (food) change to mốn.
*Unlike Vietnamese, English doesn’t have a monopthong O sound, that is, a phoneme that is pure, single vowel sound. The vowel sound in ‘go’ is actually a dipthong, a combination of two vowel sounds.
Quang Nam & Quang Ngai
You’re in the real countryside now. Listen up!
Convergence towards Ô
Like Da Nang, the O moves towards the Ô sound. But south of Da Nang, the A also moves to Ô. Vietnamese people’s favorite example of this is đạp xe đạp (ride a bicycle), which becomes độp xe độp. After hearing it every day for 6 years, the joke has worn a bit thin, but it’s still a good illustration.
Phu Yen Province
A becomes E
Counting to three just got a bit more interesting: một, hai, ba! is now một, hai, be!
V becomes D (which is pronounced like Y)
I had a problem trying to get my bike painted the right color. I wanted it yellow (màu vàng) but the guy at the shop kept telling me he was gonna paint it màu dàng. Well, I had no idea what color THAT was, but I was sure it wasn’t a color I wanted. In the end, the bike turned out OK.
Bouncy heavy (nặng) notes
Normally the nặng tone goes down hard and stays down. But it Saigon it seems to bounce back up. It’s not quite a hỏi, but sometimes it sounds close.
Ê becomes Ơ
The Ê is normally similar to an English E, but in Saigon it is pronounced like a nasally short U. Hết rồi (finished) sounds like hớt rồi.
Me Kong Delta (Mien Tay)
Keep all the Saigon rules, plus add in this stumper:
R becomes G
Good luck ordering that Larue beer in the West Vietnam. It’s now called LaGue. Or Vietnamese people’s favorite example, a fish called cá rô is now cá gô.
So there you have it, my guide to Vietnamese accents. Armed with these tools, your ready to imitate anyone from anywhere and really impress the locals! Want to practice your best Da Nang accent at some local restaurants? Come on a food tour!