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Ăn cơm chưa? (flat-tone) – How are you? (lit. have you eaten yet?)
There are multiple ways to say “how are you?” in Vietnamese. Here, we discuss a few populars expressions, for both formal and informal situations.
A fun and popular expression among friends is “Ăn cơm chưa?”. It literally means “have you eaten yet?”, but this is not what Vietnamese friends are really asking. They are really saying “how are you doing?” or “how is it going?” or (in Australia) “how you going?”
Have You Eaten Yet?
Some English speakers find this expression peculiar. How can asking about food be equivalent to an English “how are you?”
If you’ve had this thought, you are probably overthinking how language-evolves: in most circumstances, language-conventions do not literally make sense, they just are.
Nonetheless, we try to deconstruct this fun expression below — it provides some insights into Vietnamese culture and history.
Other Ways to Say “How Are You?” in Vietnam
“Ăn cơm chưa?” would be used among family members, friends, acquaintances, and neighbours. But, it would not be used in formal situations (like speaking to a boss).
Here are some other ways of asking “How are you?” in Vietnamese, some of which can be used in both formal and informal situations:
- Bạn khỏe không? – How are you?
- Đi đâu đấy – literally “Where are you going?”
- Dạo này thế nào – literally “How have you been lately? or, “How has life has treating you?”
- Khi nào thì cưới? – literally “Hey, when are you getting married?” (meant for young-adults)
- Bố mẹ đâu rồi? – literally “Hey, where are your parents (meant for young-adults)
Aside from the last two phrases, the above expressions can be modified for formal sitations, by adding the respectable pronoun for you, such as anh/chị/bà/ông. For example:
- “Bà đi đâu đấyor?” – Dear old woman, how are you?/where are you going?
- “Ông dạo này thế nào?” – Dear old man, how have you been lately?
How Did “Ăn Cơm Chưa” Became a Greeting?
We have three plausible explanations for how “ăn cơm chưa?”/”have you eaten yet?” became a type of greeting. These are just speculations based on our experience with Vietnamese culture.
i) The Centrality of Food in Vietnamese Hospitality
Food is very important in Vietnamese culture, especially for greeting guests. Meals aren’t just sustenance: they are a time to gather, chat, and socialize.
For example, when a neighbour casually visits one’s house, it is customary to invite the person into the receiving room and serve them tea and small snacks (e.g., in-season fruits, dry-foods, etc). They may be offered a full meal as well (although guests will usually politely refuse).
Such customs almost absent West (especially USA and Canada), where people only dole-out the wine and cheese when it is an arrange meeting. “Drop-in” guests will usually not want to go into a host’s house, nor inconvenience them with serving food. In Vietnam, such encounters are more ritualized and normal.
Given that social-visits are so tightly coupled with food-offerings, it is easy to image how “have you eaten yet?” became synonymous with “Hello, how are you today?”
Not even the thunder should interrupt lunch
“Trời đánh tránh miếng ăn” is a Vietnamese expression that loosely translate to “not even the thunder (god) can interrupt food”. It expresses how important meals are to Vietnamese people — how nothing should disturb meals.
ii) Private/Public Separation, or Lack Thereof
The above explanation for “Ăn Cơm Chưa” only really makes sense if the majority of social encounters happen within arms-reach of food and drink. This may seem incredulous to a Westerner, where vast segments of business, enterainment, and civic-life occur far away from the pantry.
However, in Vietnam, there is much less division between one’s work-life and private life. The “home-office” is the norm in Vietnam. But, more importantly, the implicit privacy that comes with distinguishing between “work” and “home” is much less prevalent. For example, it is very common in Vietnam that the ground floor of one’s house is a public-facing business and/or side-hustle, often with personal implements lying around, while the upstairs would be the domestic quarters (even these would not be totally off-limits to customers, if pressed).
This non-division between work-life and private-life was also the norm in the West until the end of the Victorian Age, when the concept of “privacy” became fashionable and common. In Vietnam, it has been only recently that, for example, franchise-businesses have established a clean separation between work-spaces and living-spaces.
The point of the above history-lesson is to emphasis the idea that, in Vietnam, the majority of interpersonal and professional encounters would have occurred in close proximity to one’s home and pantry, in terms of both physical-space and personal-space.
In other words: say hello, offer food.
iii) Mandarin influence
We recently learned that “have you eaten yet?” is also a type of greeting in China. Vietnam and China share a lot of ancient culture, so it is possible the greeting has its origin in a proto-Sino-Viet culture.
However, this explanation doesn’t answer why the expression originated in the first place, whether in China or Vietnam. We defer to the (in)famous Sino-commentators and fluent Mandarin-speaking duo ADVChina: they’ve speculated that “have you eaten yet?” became a greeting in China due to the frequency and prevalence of mass-hunger, such that asking some-one if they had eaten was akin to checking-in whether they were okay.