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Sorry / Please Excuse Me – Xin lỗi (pronounced as sin loi-ee; up-broken tone)
The way to say “I am sorry” or “Please excuse me” is Xin lỗi. However, because of Vietnamese manners, it isn’t used in the same way as in English.
- Vietnamese people never apologize for minor impositions (like in England or Canada).
- Vietnamese people in authority do not apologize verbally (such as a boss or parent) even when they do something wrong (however, they may express their apology through a gift or changing their demeanor).
No “Sorry to bother you” in Vietnamese
If you are English or Australian or Canadian, you may feel a desperate need to apologize for minor impositions and inconveniences, which is considered good manners in the Anglo-sphere. For example, when a British person wants to slip past two other people talking, they will say “please excuse me” or “sorry to bother you”, even though they haven’t really done anything wrong.
This type of apology for minor impositions and inconveniences does not exist in Vietnam. There is no equivalent Vietnamese expression.
“Xin lỗi” is the closest expression. But, it strongly implies that you actually did something bad, and does not convey the same sense of politeness that is common in England.
Instead, you can just barge through crowds, grab people with whom you want to speak, interrupt others recklessly — in such situations you do not need to excuse yourself or beg for forgiveness. This can be almost painful for Canucks or Brits. Therefore, you may feel a strong temptation to say “Xin lỗi”, but doing so may actually make things worse…
Causing Confusion by Apologizing in Vietnamese
Failing to understand this, I would often say “Xin lỗi” in crowds, trying to be polite according to my Canadian good-manners. Instead, people just looked at me quizzically: “Why? What did you do?”, “Is something wrong?” It would cause more confusion, and didn’t convey the sense of politeness that I thought it would.
However, don’t neglect this important expression. As a tourist in Vietnam, there is a high likelihood that you will do something gravely wrong or culturally inappropriate. For example: returning a broken motor-bike to the rental shop. In such cases, “Xin lỗi!” goes a long way.
Culture of Apologies
Vietnamese people don’t like to apologize, in general. This is especially true for people in some position of authority, like a boss, a parent, or an elder. But even among friends, people generally do not vocalize their apologies.
Consider the following scenario:
A husband forgets his wife’s anniversary. She is angry and berates him. Instead of saying Xin lỗi, he does not admit wrong-doing. However, the next day, he may buy her an exceptionally nice bouquet of flowers.
His behaviour is understood to be an apology.
Other Helpful “I’m Sorry” Expressions
- Sorry, I forgot – Xin lỗi, tôi quên mất
- Sorry, I forgot to pay – Xin lỗi, tôi quên thanh toán
- Sorry, I ruined it – Xin lỗi, tôi đã làm hỏng nó