Birthdays have become a very big deal in Vietnam. From candle-lit cakes, to birthday balloons and themed-parties — foreign tourists visiting Vietnam will recognize common tropes from Western culture in the way that Vietnamese celebrate birthdays.
Chúc Mừng Sinh Nhật – Happy Birthday in Vietnamese
The Vietnamese expression for “Happy Birthday!” is Chúc mừng sinh nhật. The expression literally means…
- Chúc mừng – “congratulations”, pronounced like chewk? mung
- Sinh – “birth”, pronounced like sin
- Nhật – “day”, pronounced like nyat!, with a short down-tone
Listen to the audio by playing the green button at the top of the article
Chúc Mừng Xinh Nhật – A Vietnamese Play on Words
Chúc mừng sinh nhật sounds the same as Chúc Mừng Xinh Nhật. However, the former means “Happy Birthday”, whereas the latter roughly translates to “I wish you beautiful days everyday” … or something like that.
The point is that the word for birth (sinh) sounds the same as xinh, which is another word for pretty/beauty. As a result, the expression is a corny and common play-on-words for men to wish women on their birthdays. It seems to be well-appreciated by women.
As a tourist or expat in Vietnam, you can delight your female birthday-friends with this simple and effect play on words.
Birthdays in Vietnam – Past and Present
Many Western-born globetrotters are surprised to learn that birthdays are not traditionally celebrated in much of the world outside of the Euro-Anglosphere. This was true in the past in Vietnam, but affluent Millennial-aged Vietnamese parents have adopted the American-TV visions of birthdays for their children.
For example, there is gift-giving from the guests, balloons & decorations, birthday cakes with candles — there are even corny theme-parties where all the kids dress-up like fantasy-characters, such as Disney’s Frozen. Kids are spoiled with toys, clothes, lego, clothes, video games, etc.
In the past, no one could afford candy or presents so the party-guests would maybe get some fruit, and the birthday-child would be lucky to get a new pencil and notebook for school.
Important Traditional Vietnamese Birthdays – 1st Month & 1st Year
Traditionally, in Vietnam (as well as other East-Asian cultures), the most important birthdays were the 1-month birthday and 1-year birthday. The historical reason may be due to infant mortality being highest around birth, after which, if they baby survives after a year, they are much more likely to reach proper adulthood –and therefore, worthy of celebration as a future-person of the family.
The 1st-month and 1st-year birthdays are not just small family-affairs, but huge community events, especially in South Vietnam. For instance, the 1st-month birthday is so big it is almost like a wedding ceremony. There are lots of prayers and ancestor-offerings to be done. There will huge amounts of food to be made and given to hundreds of guests, including neighbours and community members. Guests will typically give the parents money in a little envelope, such as $500k VND – 1,000k VND.
TIP: So, if you are an expat or tourist in Vietnam, and someone invites you to a “1st birthday”, don’t find it so surprising: everyone is invited. You generally can’t refuse such an invitation. Also, don’t fret about what kind of present to get the child — just give the parents an envelope with money, and enjoy the food.
Different Way of Counting Age in Asia
Vietnam, like many East Asian cultures, has a different way of counting one’s age, as compared to the West. Basically, one adds another year for the time that the baby was gestating in the womb.
So, if you ask someone’s age, and they give you two answers, you may need to clarify whether they mean the Western or Eastern age.
Surprisingly, the Vietnamese, don’t seem to use the Lunar Calendar for determining their age. Birthday celebrations and official government documents will use the Western Gregorian calendar for birthdays — even though all the other important spiritual and ritualistic events are governed by the Lunar Calendar, like Tet.
Age is Super Important in Vietnam
Age is integral to Vietnamese communication and sense of politeness — for example, it changes the pronouns people use to address each other.
Therefore, as a traveler in Vietnam, don’t be surprised if everyone is asking for your age. It does not necessarily mean that they are so curious about you; rather, it is a basic unit of information in order to address you properly.
Read more about the Vietnamese age-based pronouns in our articles about second-person pronouns (“you”), third-person pronouns (“he/she”), how to say Auntie and Uncle (which are used like “Madam/Sir” in Vietnamese), how to say Grandma and Grandpa (which are also used like like Madam/Sir in Vietnamese, but for older people), and more. These age-determined words are very important in the Vietnamese language.
Likewise, learn how to answer people’s inquiries about your age by studying the Vietnamese Numbers.