Saturday, August 18, 2007

Third person I am - an introduction to Vietnamese language

So I have been in Vietnam for 9 months, but I still feel generally unqualified to comment much on the language. Yet it is such an integral and fascinating part of the culture that I really am compelled to do so at some point. I do find it a fascinating, and fascinatingly difficult, language. The difficulties are mainly due to my lack of practice – my study has been completely self-study and practice speaking is completely random and unstructured. I would love to learn more, and I hope with time and discipline that I will.

It's all in the way it sounds

First, the most essential aspect to the language is that it is tonal. Tonal means that the inflection that you give an individual word will change its meaning entirely. In Vietnamese there are 5 tones:

1) the up (rising) tone, indicated with a ³ mark over the vowel. It sounds like you are asking a question.

2) the down (falling) tone, indicated with a ` mark over the vowel. It sounds like a sigh.

3) the question (sqiggly) tone, indicated with a dotless ? over the vowel. It sounds like an "ah-hah" intoning in the letter (start low, rise to the top, fall back to the bottom).

4) the tripping tone, indicated with the ~ mark over the vowel. It sounds like your voice catches in the middle of the phrase, or "trips" over the letter

5) the short tone, indicated with a . beneath the vowel. This tone pulls the word up very short and sudden, almost a grunt.

Some books teach that there is a 6th tone, the no tone. This describes any word not having one of these accent marks, and is spoken flat, with no inflection. Actually, there is a bit of relaxed inflection to these words – it is only foreign words that are spoken with a jack-in-the-box robotic lack of inflection.

The tone itself can change the meaning of a simple word completely. Here is one popular example:





mother, cheek

which, but



rice seedling

There is often no logical connection among the meanings of the words with different tones, and there isn't necessarily a different meaning or even a true word for every tone combination for any given word/syllable.

Yet, each syllable has one tone, and all words in Vietnamese written as mono-syllables, but an entire word may need two syllables to be complete. So all words are very short, but it may take two syllables (and two tones), separated by a space, to give a word proper meaning. For example:

ăn means to eat, and ăn sáng, ăn trưa, ăn tôi, accordingly mean to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. But then it can get more confusing:

ăn anh: to be photogenic

ăn cắp: to steal

ăn chặn: to appropriate

ăn khớp: to fit together

ăn học: to study

nhà by itself means house, but when combined with other syllables, in additions to all the usual permutations and adjectival descriptions of a house/building (e.g., brick house, old house, unoccupied house and printing house, bank, restaurant, skyscraper), it can mean

nhà báo: journalist

nhà binh: military, army

nhà buôn: merchant, dealer

nhà chồng: in-laws

nhà chung: Catholic clergy, priest

nhà ngươi: thou, form of address to an inferior

nhà nước: state or government


nhà tôi: my spouse

There are a few annoying examples where the first word can have several different meanings, and the second word on its own means nothing. Each syllable may have its own meaning, or it may be a nonsensical syllable without a partner. For example, đồng means field, but when combined with hồ (meaning lake), it means clock or watch.

I am in the third person

One of the other extremely important cultural and linguistic aspects of the language is personal pronouns and forms of address. First, one helpful rule of thumb is to think of it as speaking in the third person all the time. There are multiple words for "I" – all depending on the social situation you are in at the time. There are a few more "neutral" options to express I or my, but much of the time several select words are used depending on your relative rank in any given situation. These also change depending on whether you are male or female.

This is a short list in order of increasing rank:


I used to refer to one's self when speaking to an old person. This is also second and third-person speak for child, so phrases might literally translate as, "Child wants [I want] to ask old person [you] a question," and "Child is [you are] welcome to ask old person [me] a question."


I used to refer to one's self around persons older in age than one's self, or to refer to those, either in second or third person, younger in age than yourself. Young men should not use this of young girls. Sometimes people use this to emphasize a lower rank, either of themselves or of the other person, regardless (but usually in general reference to) age. Third person pronoun adds the word em ấy to indicate he/she/him/her.


For young men referring to themselves or for second person pronoun for a young man; third person pronoun adds the word anh ấy to indicate he/him.


For women. Chi refers to oneself when around younger persons or for second person when a younger person is speaking to an older woman. is more formal and is used for teachers or any polite encounters with authority (or for expressing respect to an older woman or woman of rank). Like anh, add the syllable ấy to indicate she/her.


Used for first/second person for a middle-aged/older man. ấy is added to indicate he/him.

Used for first/second person for a middle-aged/older woman. ấy is added to indicate she/her.


Refers to a person of very old age. ấy is added to indicate he/she/him/her.


I, my, myself, you all generally used between persons of the same age, closer friends, or more informal situations. There are some additional ones used between schoolchildren, etc.


One all-purpose, I'm-not-sure-what-the-rank-really-is, first-person pronoun. However, it's not commonly used…or at least people aren't generally as comfortable using it, and neither am I.

Also, people will just refer to themselves using their names. "What are you doing today?" "Erica will go to the market and then Erica will go home and clean her house." The Vietnamese do this a lot, but I'm about as comfortable doing this as I am using tôi. It just feels strange. Sometimes I do a bit better using my nickname, sếp, which means boss or chief and is what the staff seem most comfortable using around me. I think this developed out of 1) them not being confident pronouncing Erica in the beginning, and 2) a general shyness about using my name when I have a higher rank than them and 3) knowing that I would get confused if half of them called me bà, half chi, and half em. So, they stuck with calling me boss, which works for me.

Not using the right rank is generally considered very disrespectful – and respect is a cornerstone to culture here. I've also heard it used quite explicitly to remind a person of their relative rank. I've intentionally used a specific one or another a few times when I want to assure a person of what relative status should be – or to drive home that I am now speaking as the "boss" or as an older woman. And several times to tell a person that I respect their ideas as my elder. I still get laughed at for using them both correctly and incorrectly.

Well, that's only scratching the surface. And also a disclaimer – this is only my understanding as an extreme amateur at this language. I may have made grievous mistakes just in describing some things above, but I would like to give you a taste for how the language and the culture here are intertwined.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Do I like Vietnam better than Madagascar….?

So a few days ago I was asked the $64,000 question: do you like Vietnam better than Madagascar?

The easy answer is yes – life here is in general much more comfortable. There’s electricity almost everywhere and it’s much more reliable, the roads are in better condition, there’s hot water and a good toilet in every hotel I’ve stayed in, and the general quality of life is much higher. Buildings are large and well-built and the floors are all done in tile (for choosing styles and colors, not saying that the Vietnamese taste is better than the Malagasy in decorating, but it’s a step up from dirt). The number of children is generally manageable – the population is still skewed heavily to the youth, but family planning is a big thing here and there’s a general 2 child policy encouraged by the government. It makes a huge difference everywhere from meetings (mothers don’t have 2 crying babies each hanging off of them) to prenatal care (you can actually find all the pregnant women in a community and bring them to a meeting) to schools (almost all the kids actually are in school here because the government can afford to build enough schools and hire teachers) to driving on the streets (kids still play in the streets, but they don’t LIVE there…so it’s not a lifestyle hazard to drivers) to the number of feet in shoes (with few children families can actually afford to buy shoes for all their children – and make sure they wear them).

People here are also generally very friendly. They don’t call me names or stare at me or shout at me in quite the same was as in Madagascar. I still definitely stand out in a crowd, but people are generally more respectful and are honestly friendly if you (try to) talk to them. They’re really hard workers (or at least the women are) and are peaceful and I don’t have to be afraid of random acts of violence or crime (which is the same as in Madagascar).

Hanoi is a tree-filled city with wide streets and parks surrounding the many lakes (err, big ponds) in the city. People appreciate beauty (even if they don’t appreciate clean floors…ironic with all the nice tile) and relaxing and exercise. People wake up really early and gather in the public park areas to do aerobics and tai chi and to play badminton (the national sport) or to run or walk. The streets in all towns are cleaned and swept daily by teams of street sweepers and trash collectors. And the scenery outside of the suburbs of Hanoi is fantastic. The mountains are the real Asia (if you watch the movie The Painted Veil it’s exactly like that), and people are as colorful as the scenery. In many places up where I work they still wear the traditional dress as daily wear and most of them up here are ethnic minorities and speak ethnic languages.

The traffic is crazy, but I don’t know of anybody who’s traveled to a developing country (or even other developed countries such as in Europe) where they don’t say the traffic is crazy. Vietnam is unique in its craziness for the sheer number of motorbikes. In Hanoi there’s probably 50-75 motorbikes for every car on the road. Warm Friday and Saturday nights in Hanoi during the school year are especially nuts when all the students go out cruising on motorbikes all night. It sounds like a Sturgis rally at every traffic light (when the majority of the drivers actually bother to stop). I think it just adds an element to the character of Hanoi and the whole country.

So, yes, I do like it. But your first country is like your first love – you never quite let go or get over it. I’ll probably never have a country that I understand like I understand Madagascar. I sacrificed a lot of time and personal comfort to get that understanding, so I just don’t think I could ever develop that kind of relationship again (I hope that’s not the case in love! J). In Madagascar, I know the language, I know how things work, and while I may not like it or understand what makes the people tick (I’ll never understand the sheer determination to underachieve the population as a whole seems to experience), I at least know how they tick. I had my social networks there and I could fend for myself outside of the main city. I knew what a good price for something was, I could bargain in the markets, I knew where to go to get shoes repaired, I could buy rat poison if I needed it. Here, I’m still pretty much dependent on a translator or a Vietnamese friend to know all that stuff or do it well. I’ve given up a lot of independence moving here.

Work-wise, I’m definitely a lot more fulfilled here. I’m in charge of my own projects and own work and instead of debating the philosophy of how to do it, I’m actually doing it. It’s extremely challenging to juggle things, but Cao Bang in general is a good working environment with the government and other regulating parties. Still, I know I’m only seeing/understanding maybe 10% of what’s really going on. Between language barriers and just not having a lot of day-to-day contact with policy, I know I’m missing out on a lot here. It took me 4 years in Madagascar, but I had a pretty good idea about government policy and (even if it drove me nuts), I was tuned in to the politics. I might not have had any more control over it, but at least I knew what was going on. But then again, sometimes ignorance is bliss.

Well, there, you have a very long answer to a very short question. I can’t believe I typed all that. But I think I needed to think through it myself. I’ve been missing Mada a lot lately, but I think it’s mostly about the communication. Yes, I’m learning the language, but with my other work it’s really slow going because it ends up being lowest on my priority list. And until you learn the language, you never really get to know a culture. I’ll always be more of a stranger here, but at least I’m a more comfortable stranger!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Sultry Summertime

It’s hot. No, that’s not right – hot is Baghdad in July mid-day sun. It’s stifling and sticky. Muggy. Oppressive. Moist and dank, even.

But it is also sultry. Tropical. Steamy and exotic. But exotic in a way that only southeast Asia can be. Rather than the lazy tropical heat that saps the energy and drives grown working men under shade trees for days at time, the flavor of the spiced heat in Hanoi stirs a latent uneasiness, an itch, a tropical restlessness that drives people out of their stupor into a flood of motorbikes filling the late afternoon and evening streets on weekends like so many loud-mouthed parrots being roosted from their afternoon perches.

The afternoon stirring here seems to take on an intensity of movement, less the party-like atmosphere of second-ring-of-hell Antsohihy that came with the break of heat, and more a desperate search of relief somewhere, anywhere but here. The heat never really breaks here – not until late, late at night, and the evenings become even more oppressive as the humidity descends in visible clouds that hover under streetlamps.

I’ve often thought that Hanoi has a magical glow about it at night. Bright streetlights shining down through hundreds of full-leafed trees give the impression of an eternal full moon on cobblestone walkways that are softened into a state of romantic disintegration and caged birds hung in the trees call out to give the impression of walking on a stone pathway in a tropical rainforest. But the frenzy of the motorbikes swarming like so many oversized mosquitoes drives you to seek out cafés and hiding places far from the edge of a road or on air conditioned balconies, just to escape the jarring reality that is the city refusing to give in to the magic.

I walked out of one of these air conditioned restaurants the other afternoon to be hit with the intense mid-afternoon squalor. It suddenly reminded me so strongly of the cafeteria dishroom with its industrial strength sanitizing dishwasher at my college that I almost thought I had taken a wrong turn and had actually walked into the kitchen at the restaurant rather than out the front door. As I stood there for a moment puzzling over the sensation, I was quickly swept away in the tide of restless people searching for relief from the heat that they would not have the fortune to escape until October.

Every once in a while the intensity of the weather congeals into a tropical thunderstorm that brings momentary torrential rains, but no lasting – or even momentary – relief. All that is left when the resounding booming and blinding flashes cease is a dank reminder of what caused the scene to begin with.

I have the fortune to be able to seek some relief up in the mountains. I will spend a week with my clothes glued to my body and my feet sliding in my moist sandals, but then I will head back up into the mountains where the evenings bring cooler air that both calm and rejuvenate. It’s still balmy enough to walk about without a jacket or even a long-sleeved shirt, but balmy is a welcome adjective after just plain sultry.