Two of the most useful expressions in Vietnamese are I don’t understand and I don’t know:
• I don’t understand – tôi không hiểu
• I don’t know – tôi không biết
Both expressions have the construction of “I no [verb]”. In other words, “tôi” means “I”, “không” means “no”, and “hiểu/biết” are the verbs.
Tip: most people will just get agitated if you answer in Vietnamese tôi không hiểu — they may talk louder, get annoyed, or point frantically at things, instead of solve your communication problem.
The correct thing to do is to strategize an alternative way of communication (e.g. use drawings, google-translate, etc). So, after you utter I don’t understand, try to immediately offer an alternative way for them to express themselves, such as giving them your phone with google-translate loaded.
Pay attention to the tones of hiểu/biết…
- Hiểu – Notice the “?” diacritic above ể in hiểu. This is a special tone that we call the weird tone: it is like a slightly downward, nasal sound that can only be learned through audio. Be sure to listen to the tones on our page: Introduction to Vietnamese tones.
- Biết – If you listen carefully, you’ll notice that biết has an upward pitch, like you are asking a question. This is the up-tone, as denoted by the accent on ế.
Other Helpful Vietnamese Expressions
Interested in learning more? Please see our Word Of The Day blog that provides more expressions and key cultural insights about Vietnam, through the lens of helpful words and phrases.