One of the more confusing aspects of Vietnamese is the ordering of nouns and adjectives.
In Vietnamese, adjectives come after nouns, and they are often placed at the end of a phrase. This is unlike English where adjectives are placed before a noun. For example, “tall man” would literally translate to “man tall” in Vietnamese. Likewise, “women beautiful” or “shirt red” or “head painful”.
Here are some helpful examples to learn the placement of adjectives and noun.
Examples of Vietnamese Adjectives
A tall man – Người đàn ông cao
Notice that the word for tall (cao) is placed after the noun for man (đàn ông, which is a compound word).
Người đàn ông cao person man - tall
Also notice the strange pronoun/indefinite article người. The word literally translates to people, however, in this sentence, it serves as a placeholder for an indefinite article like the English (“a”).
A beautiful women – Người phụ nữ đẹp
This phrase has the same construction as “a tall man”, in which the adjective đẹp (which means beautiful) comes after the noun phụ nữ, which means female (and like đàn ông, it is a compound word).
Người phụ nữ đẹp person female beautiful
Notice also the strange word người which somewhat serves as an indefinite article for people.
Modifier “lắm”: The cafe is very faraway – Khách sạn xa lắm
Khách sạn xa lắm Hotel far very
The adjective xa (far) comes after the noun Khách sạn (hotel, which is a compound word).
Notice also that the modifier “very” (lắm) comes after the adjective “far” (xa). According to this ordering, expressions like “very big” or “very far” are literally ordered as “big very” and “far very”. This ordering isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but it is the most common — sometimes modifiers can precede the adjective (which we discuss next).
Modifier “lắm”: A very tall man – Người đàn ông cao lắm
The modifier lắm (very) comes after the adjective cao (tall) which itself comes after the noun đàn ông (man).
Người đàn ông cao lắm person man tall very
However, it isn’t a universal rural that modifiers must follow an adjective. We could also write người đàn ông rất cao in which case the modifier rất (which means “very”) precedes the adjective cao.
Người đàn ông rất cao person man very tall
This modifier rất is considered more literary, and isn’t commonly used in speech. Therefore, it is better to learn the modifier lắm and its construction.
Colours: I want the red shirt – Tôi muốn một chiếc áo sơ mi đỏ
When colours are used as an adjective, they are placed after the noun. For example, “red shirt” is “áo sơ mi đỏ“, in which đỏ (red) comes after the noun áo sơ mi (which means shirt, and is a compound word; read more about áo here).
Tôi muốn một chiếc áo sơ mi đỏ I want a (article of) top shirt red
In this example, notice the strange word chiếc serves as something like “this/that” or a “grouping word” — which includes expressions like “piece of” , “bunch of”, “article of clothing”, “bit of”, etc.
In English, these grouping-words are usually optional, or they are used to emphasize a small or large quantity. In Vietnamese, grouping words like chiếc are very common and sentences sounds unnatural without them — although they are effectively optionally. For articles of clothing, chiếc roughly translates to “article of”, but it has many more uses beyond clothing.
This/that: This bicycle is expensive – Chiếc xe đạp này đắt
Notice that the adjective đắt (expensive) comes after the noun xe đạp (which means bicycle, and is a compound word). Note that xe literally means vehicle.
Chiếc xe đạp này đắt (An item of) vehicle bicycle this expensive
Notice the word for “this” (này) is placed after the noun for bicycle (xe đạp), and before the adjective for expensive (đắt), unlike in English. Therefore, “this bicycle” has a literally ordering of “bicycle this”.
Finally, notice the omnipresent word chiếc which seems superfluous when literally translated into English (“an item of” or “a unit of”), but it is necessary in Vietnamese.
I have a headache – tôi bị đau đầu
In Vietnamese, one does not literally “have” a headache, one “is” a headache. In other words, the verb “to be” should be used, rather than the verb “to have” when talking about pain and hurting.
Tôi bị đau đầu I am hurting cranially
Therefore, the corresponding phrase tôi bị đau đầu literally translates to “I am hurting cranially”.
Be careful, đau may translate to “head”, like a noun, but in Vietnamese it is acting like an adverb. In fact, adverbs and nouns often have the same spelling (i.e, cranium and cranially are the same). Therefore, the adverb đầu (head/cranially) occurs after the verb for hurting/pain (đau).
Multiple Adjectives in Vietnamese
In Vietnamese, if you want to combine multiple adjectives, you simply add them after the noun. Their order doesn’t matter (unlike in English), except that the first adjective is considered to have more emphasis.
For example, “small brown dog” is “chú chó nhỏ màu nâu“, but could be “chú chó màu nâu nhỏ”.
In contrast, in English, there are complex rules for which adjective must come first, e.g., “small brown dog” vs “brown small dog”: the former is correct, while the latter sounds unnatural. This doesn’t matter in Vietnamese.
chú chó nhỏ màu nâu dog small brown colour
RELATED: How to say “bad dog” in Vietnamese?
Comparatives: How to say “as good as” in Vietnamese?
To make comparative statements like “as good as” or “as big as” is very simple in Vietnamese: one adds the word như after an adjective.
- tốt như – as good as
- đẹp như – as beautiful as
- rẻ như – as cheap as
Như is pronounced like nyew where ư is like a French u.
Comparatives: How to say “more” or “better” in Vietnamese?
In English, the construction “more [adjective]” can sometimes use the comparative-word “more” (such as “more beautiful”) or sometimes the adjective ends in “-er”, like “better” instead of “more good”, and “larger” instead of “more big”.
In Vietnamese, the grammar of such comparatives is much simpler: one places hơn after an adjective to make it more of something. There is no “better”, only “good more” (tốt hơn).
- tốt hơn – better
- đẹp hơn – more beautiful
- rẻ hơn – cheaper
Superlatives: How to say “most” or “best” in Vietnamese?
Some superlative-adjectives in English can end in “-est” to convey “most something” (such as largest or best) while other adjectives require the word “most” and cannot end in “-est”.
In Vietnamese, one simply adds the word nhất (pronounced like nyut) after an adjective, in order to make it the “most something”. There is no “best” — only “good most” (tốt nhất). According to this ordering, “most beautiful” is literally translated as “beautiful most”.
- tốt nhất – the best
- đẹp nhất – the most beautiful
- rẻ nhất – the cheapest
List of Common Adjectives (and Antonyms) in Vietnamese
- beautiful – đẹp
- ugly – xấu
- complex – phức tạp
- simple – đơn giản
- correct – đúng
- wrong – sai
- difficult – khó
- easy – dễ
- expensive – đắt
- cheap – rẻ
- fast – nhanh
- slow – chậm
- friendly – thân thiện
- mean – khó tính
- good – tốt
- bad – tệ
- honest – trung thực
- dishonest – dối trá
- loud – ồn ào
- quiet – yên lặng
- many – nhiều
- few – ít
- skinny – gầy
- fat – béo
- smart – thông minh
- stupid – ngu ngốc
- tall – cao
- short – ngắn