A Passport-sized Value: Lonely Planet's Vietnamese Phrasebook

by Steven K. Bailey, Dec 1, 1997 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi

One of the truisms of travel is that no matter how many languages you speak, eventually you'll end up someplace where you don't know the local lingo. For most western travelers, Vietnam is just that kind of place. The majority of Americans bound for Vietnam speak little or none of the language, and knowing this, they procure a phrasebook before getting on the plane for Saigon or Hanoi. I was certainly no exception to this rule; I took Lonely Planet's Vietnamese Phrasebook and it served me well.

Written by Nguyen Xuan Thu, the phrasebook (second edition, 1996) is divided into seventeen sections. These include chapters on pronunciation and grammar, as well as sections devoted to greetings and civilities, small talk, transport, time and dates, numbers, accommodations, shopping, health and a 26-page mini-dictionary. I found the food chapter to be the most useful as it helped me to decipher menus and order meals successfully. This highly detailed section covers all the culinary basics, but it also hits some fairly obscure items, such as chamomile tea (tra cuc la ma), Chinese parsley (ngo ta), pomegranate (trai) and mussels (con trai).

The phrasebook offers all the usual practical phrases a visitor to Vietnam might need, plus a few less obvious ones. Some of these may seem a bit dated to American ears, such as "Do you like discos?" Others you'll hope you never have to use: "I've been bitten by something!" Or, "I have lice!" Still others are good for a laugh in steamy Vietnam: "Will it be snowing tomorrow?"
The back of the phrasebook contains an easy-access section titled "Emergencies." The sentences in this last section read like a litany of travel disasters: "Call a doctor!" "I've been robbed!" "I'll get the police!" "I've lost my passport!" "My blood group is AB positive!" And the most useful and urgent of all: "Where are the toilets?"

The phrasebook is not meant to serve as a cultural primer, but the vocabulary and phrases contained in the book provide some interesting cultural insights. For example, Vietnamese do not use "thank you" (cam on) as often as Americans, who employ it frequently and automatically. Vietnamese will instead adopt an expression or attitude of thankfulness and say things like "You are very kind to me." Or, "You have fed me a very delicious meal." Another cultural insight lies in the use of titles like "grandfather" (noi), "father's younger brother" (chu), and "younger sibling" (en) to describe people who are not actually family members. This reveals the importance of family to the Vietnamese, who like to cast the umbrella of kin over anyone they know well. The marked differences between the northern and southern regions of the country are revealed by the fact that the phrasebook often gives both northern and southern dialect translations of the same word. The word "China," for example, is Trung hoa in Saigon and Trung quoc in Hanoi.

I do not speak Vietnamese and my attempts to master a few basic phrases met with limited success. I found the complicated tonal structure difficult to grasp and when I tried to speak the language the Vietnamese generally replied with smiles of utter incomprehension. Most of my fellow travelers fared no better with the language. The six tones of Vietnamese tripped us up but I can't blame the phrasebook for this. Getting the tones down simply requires both time and diligence. Depending on the tone used to pronounce it, for example, the word "ma" can mean ghost, mother, tomb, horse or rice seedling. This can lead to all kinds of embarrassing mix-ups, such as saying "Phuong rode her mother up the mountain." Or, "Phuong's horse fed me a very delicious meal."

Fortunately, my poor speaking skills presented no insurmountable difficulties. Vietnam's high literacy rate meant that I could simply point to a passage in my phrasebook and let the waitress or cyclo-driver read it. I also found that a surprising number of urban Vietnamese spoke English. They did not always speak it fluently or with a clear accent, but they could handle basic conversations, especially those involving business transactions. The vendors in Saigon's Ben Thanh Market, for example, could do numbers in English better than I could. These days everyone wants to learn English, and as is true throughout Southeast Asia, English schools are proliferating in Saigon.

The Vietnamese Phrasebook embodies Lonely Planet's practical attitude towards travel. At 3 1/2 by 5 inches, the book is exactly the same size as a US passport, so it can easily slide in and out of a shirt pocket when you need it most. This also means that it adds very little weight to your bag or backpack, an important consideration. After an hour or two of tramping about in the heat and humidity of Saigon, a bulky phrasebook can soon feel like it weighs ten pounds. More importantly, the book is a sturdy paperback that will take the worst abuse a traveler can dish out. You won't need to worry about this book falling apart. It may get stained with road dust and sweat, faded from equatorial sun, frayed from frantic thumbing for key phrases and marked up with your pen, but it will always hold together.

The phrasebook has two more things going for it. First off, unlike regular guidebooks, it won't be going out of date anytime soon. The Vietnamese language isn't evolving any quicker than English, after all. In fact, the last major change occurred at the turn of the century, when written Vietnamese shifted from a system based on Chinese characters-known as Chu Nom-to the Roman alphabet. Known as Quoc Ngu, this newer system was originally created by proselytizing Catholic priests in the seventeenth century. A second advantage is that being a wee little book of 172 pages, it's downright cheap at $5.95. I reckon this price makes the Vietnamese Phrasebook one of the best travel deals going.