HCMC Dining Guide

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Deceptively similar

One of the tricky things about Vietnamese, since it is a monosyllabic language that relies on tones, is that there are many words that sound similar, or are even spelled the same way, but mean completely different things.

Sometimes this isn't that big of a deal. For example:
= avocado
= beef (or cow)

Note the difference in tones. Since my pronunciation is far from perfect, I often mix these up. Luckily I am still understood, since if I ask for a sinh to bò at a restaurant, the waiter will know I don't want a beef smoothie. Similarly, if I accidentally order mi xao bơ, the waiter knows I'm not asking for stir fried avocado.

Other words are more problematic, at least for me:
mát = cool
mắc = expensive
mập = fat
mắt = eye
For some reason I struggle to keep these four words straight in my head, even though none have even remotely similar definitions.

Similar problems occur with:
mùa = season, as in mùa hè (summer)
màu = color, as in màu cam (orange)
To add even more fun to this group we can throw in:
mưa = rain

So, rainy season is mùa mưa.

Also, just mua, with no tone, means to buy. Yay!

And don't forget:
chó = dog
chờ = to wait
chợ = market

Then there are words that have multiple meanings even though they are always spelled the same way.
hay = interesting, often, and or, depending on how it is used.
sống = to live (as in I live in Saigon) or unripe

Finally there are English words that have multiple counterparts in tiếng Việt:
sometimes = đôi khi or thỉnh thoảng. There is no difference between the two, so you have to remember that either could be used.
The same goes for often = thường or hay

We also have:
rửa = wash, as in your hands or a motorbike
tắm = wash, as in take a shower

I'm going to give two more examples and then stop, because your head is probably about to explode. There are also phrases that mean similar things, but have key differences.
đi tản bộ = to walk
đi bộ = to walk
The first one means to walk for fun, or because you have free time. The second means you HAVE to walk because you're too damn poor to be able to afford the bus.

Last but not least:
đi mua sắm = to go shopping
mua đồ = to go shopping
The first one means to go window shopping, or shopping for fun. The second means to go shopping because you have to.

Got it? Me neither.


  1. and then there's all the ones that with the wrong tone become highly offensive...

    1. Ah yes - a personal favorite is Hiep. It's either someone's name, or it means rape...

  2. Korean is similar. For almost a year, I was asking for female genetalia kimbap (like a sushi roll) thinking I was ordering tuna. You can imagine my embarassment after having that pointed out to me.

  3. Well, the boundary of language, anyone studies foreign languages must pass :)

  4. LOL! C'mon, English is just horrible. English has million of rules and billion of exceptions to those rules.

    1. I agree, English is ridiculously hard. I'm so glad it's my native language, otherwise I probably wouldn't have been able to learn it.

  5. Wow! I have learned a lot from this post. I should really expand my vocabulary.

    1. It is nice to learn and be able to use a bit.

  6. One of our TAs is called Mr. Boobs. Not really, but all of the teachers say it wrong....in front of a class full of kids.

  7. Hi Michael, really enjoy your blog. Just curious where you are studying Vietnamese? Private tutor or a class somewhere? I'm also thinking about taking some classes so if you have any recommendations for schools or tutors would be great.

    1. Thanks! I study at a school but the lessons are 1-on-1. It's Saigon Language School, website here: http://www.saigonlanguage.com/default.aspx. It's 8 USD per 45-minute session, and you can do either group or individual classes. I would highly recommend my teacher, Ms. Van.

  8. Learn the vowels and vowel+final consonant combinations first. Each vowel is completely different despite maybe having 'o' or 'a' as the base. But learn them as vowel+final consonant combinations.

    I used to pay $2/1 hour class. Prices have really gone up!