Family is super important in Vietnam. Travellers and expats wanting to learn the language should prioritize the vocabulary of family.
The Vietnamese words for “mother” and “father” vary by region, especially between the north, south and rural areas. In the north, the Vietnamese word for mother is mẹ (pronounced like fast may!) whereas it is má in the south. U is an older word for mother, and is popular in the country-side. Click on the green play buttons below to hear their pronunciations.
Likewise, to say “father” in Vietnamese, bố is used in the north, ba is used in the south, and thầy is an archaic and/or rural expression. Listen to the audio below.
Pronunciation of Mother and Father in Vietnamese
Click on the red play buttons below to hear the pronunciation of mother and father in Vietnamese:
· Mẹ – mother (north); short down-tone
· Má – mother (south); up-tone
· U – mother (archaic, country-side)
· Bố – father (north); up-tone
· Ba – father (south)
· Thầy – father (archaic, country-side); down-tone
How to say Grandmother and Grandfather in Vietnamese (pay attention to the sound Bà below versus ba above.
· Bà Ngoại – grandmother on mother’s side
· Ông Ngoại – grandfather on mother’s side
· Bà Nội – grandmother on father’s side
· Ông Nội – grandfather on father’s side
Notice the higher prevalence of the a sound in Southern Vietnam vs Northern Vietnam — that sound and dialect is considered to be easier and lazier. Overall, the south dialect is considered to be more natural sounding (or, as the North would say, lazier sounding), somewhat akin to the southern drawl of the USA.
The Most Useful Words in Vietnamese: Family Members
Of all the family-words a foreigner should learn to function in Vietnamese society, mẹ and bố are probably among the least useful (unless you are speaking to your in-laws).
In contrast, words like uncle, auntie, grandma, grandpa, are perhaps the most important to master in Vietnamese. Why? Because the Vietnamese are basically walking around referring to each other, strangers and neighbours alike, as uncle/auntie/grandpa/grandma/sister/brother, etc. This is key element of Vietnamese politeness.
If that wasn’t confusing enough, the familial terms, like uncle and auntie, are also used like second- and third-person pronouns. For example, instead of saying “what do you want?”, one says “what does uncle want?” depending on the age of the person being asked. Read more about these familial pronouns here (for uncle/auntie) and here (for sisters/brothers), and how they are used as second-person pronouns, as well as third-person pronouns. These familial-pronouns are one of the more difficult aspects of Vietnamese for foreigners to wrap their heads around.
The following is a big list of familial pronouns in Vietnamese:
- Em – younger sibling, any man/woman who is younger than you.
- Chị – older sister, woman who is older than you within approximately 15 years.
- Anh – older brother, man who is older than you within approximately 15 years.
- Mẹ – mother (North Vietnam).
- Má – mother (South Vietnam).
- Bố – father (North Vietnam).
- Ba – father (South Vietnam).
- Cô – aunt, specifically father’s younger sister (used in North Vietnam to refer to strangers).
- Dì – aunt, mother’s younger sister (used in South Vietnam to refer to strangers).
- Chú – uncle, dad’s younger brother.
- Cậu – uncle, mom’s younger brother.
- Bác – sex-neutral older uncle or order auntie, for older siblings on either side of the family.
- Bác gái – older auntie.
- Bác trai – older uncle.
- Bà – grandmother, generic.
- Ông – grandfather, generic.
- Bạn – friend, means “you” when referring to a stranger who is your same age, or a large anonymous audience.
How Do Vietnamese Refer to Fathers-In-Law and Mothers-In-Law?
Before marriage, you can refer to your girlfriend’s parents (or boyfriend’s parents) as uncle and auntie, which, depending on their age, could be Chú (younger uncle), or Bác trai (older uncle), or Cô (younger auntie), or Bác gái (older auntie). To do so is considered polite and formal, like saying “Sir” or “Madam” in polite English. In other words, there is no “Hello Mr. Nguyen” in Vietnamese, just “Hello Uncle”.
After marriage, you must refer to in-law parents as mother (mẹ) and father (bố). This is not considered an endearing gesture, but a formal convention.
The reason for calling in-laws literally mother and father is because, in traditional Vietnamese culture, you actually start living with in-laws! If you are a woman getting married to a Vietnamese man, then you should expect to move-in with his parents — they will lord over you as if you were their daughter, especially the mother-in-law. Think Cinderella-levels of servitude to the wicked mother-in-law.
If you are a Western man marrying a Vietnamese woman, well, she hit the jackpot. Why? Because assuming you’re not going to live in your parents basement, she gets to escape the subjugation under overbearing-parents, perhaps for the first time in her life.
How to Say Grandmother and Grandmother in Vietnamese?
The only tricky thing about saying grandma/grandpa in Vietnamese is that the proper term depends on the side of the family: there are different words for grandparents on the mother’s side versus the father’s side. Bà ngoại refers to the mother’s mother, whereas bà nội refers the father’s mother. Similarly, ông ngoại refers to the mother’s father, and ông nội refers to the father’s father.
Warning: Notice the difference between ba (father) in a neutral tone, versus bà (grandmother) with a down-tone, as signified by the ` diacritic.
This is very different from English where the grandparents on either side of the family are referred to in the same way, and they are generally on equal footing. In Vietnamese society, the two groups of grandparents will play different roles in the lives of their grandchildren, depending on whether they are their son’s grandchildren (in which case they will likely live with them) versus their daughter’s grandchildren (in which case they will be taken care of by the other side of the family).
Read more about grand-parents here.