Photo credit: Angie Hu
Chú; Cô; Bác – Uncle; Auntie; older Uncle or Auntie
A key aspect of Vietnamese culture is the way in which family members refer to each other and address each other, especially in ways that respect their relative age-difference, their sex, as well as their internal relationships.
Therefore, Vietnamese have many more words for uncle and auntie that are much more precise than their English equivalents. There are different words based on: i) which side of the family they belong to, and ii) whether they are older or younger than their siblings. This means that within a family, you can quickly deduce how members are related to each other based on which pronouns are used to refer to them (e.g. younger brother of a someone’s mother).
Here is a simple list of the words for uncle and auntie in Vietnamese:
- Cô – aunt, specifically father’s younger sister (pronounced like coh with a long-o)
- Dì – aunt, mother’s younger sister (pronounced like zee with a down-tone)
- Chú – dad’s younger brother (pronounced chu? with an up-tone)
- Cậu – mom’s younger brother (pronounced cow! with a short down-tone)
- Bác – sex-neutral older uncle or order auntie, for older siblings on either side.
- Bác trai – old male uncle (pronounced bac? chai)
- Bác gái – old female auntie (pronounced bac? zai?)
These words would be used to address and refer to the uncles and aunties. For example:
- Chú ơi! – Hey Uncle! (father’s younger brother).
- Đưa thức ăn cho dì – Pass the food to her (mother’s younger sister).
- Bác ở đây! – He/she is here! (older uncle or auntie).
It would be very rude to refer to family members by their first names, or to misclassify a familial relationship.
Vietnamese people instinctively know how to address each other within a family. For foreigners, it takes a lot of practice to learn the various pronouns and how to use them correctly. Fortunately, it perfectly normal to ask someone “how should I address you properly?” — even Vietnamese people occasionally ask this so that they are not unintentionally rude to someone older than them.
Older Strangers as Uncles and Aunties in Vietnamese
Vietnamese will also use the words uncle/auntie to refer to and address older strangers — doing so correctly is a sign of respect, considering how important aunties/uncles are within a family.
In this way, saying uncle/auntie to a stranger is like adding “sir” or “madam” in English. For example:
- Cô ơi, nhà vệ sinh ở đâu vậy? – Excuse me ma’am, where is the restroom?
- Chú ơi, mấy giờ rồi? – Hey sir, what time is it?”
- Bác ơi, tôi có thể giúp bạn?? – Hello sir/madam, can I help you? (older man or woman)
The above are for people who are much older than you, such as greater than 5 years older (i.e., the age difference for your own uncles and aunts). For strangers that are only slightly older than you, or who are the same age and younger, there are entirely different pronouns. See our articles about Anh ơi and Em ơi.
Interesting, because strangers don’t belong to a particular side of the family, there is no point in distinguishing between a chú vs cậu (father’s brother vs mother’s brother). However, Vietnamese have just settle on either side as a default to use with strangers — these differ slightly for North and South Vietnam:
- Addressing an older women in North Vietnam – use Cô (younger sister on mother’s side)
- Addressing an older women in South Vietnam – use Dì (younger sister on father’s side)
- Addressing an older man everywhere in Vietnam – use Chú if younger, Bác if older.
To politely address men and women who are older than aunties and uncles, you should learn the words Bà and Ông, which literally mean grandmother and grandfather. Listen to the audio and read our dedicated post here.
Fuzziness of Age: Difference in Males vs Females
The above system of age and sex-specific pronouns have some fuzziness when it comes to age, especially with strangers. Funnily enough, the Vietnamese like to error on the side of flattery for ambiguous situations, and this differs by sex!
TIP: For women, you should error on the side of younger pronouns. For men, you should favour older-pronouns.
This makes sense in most cultures, whereby women are more sensitive to being thought of as old, and men prefer higher-prestige designations (i.e. older). This is especially true in Vietnam.
For example, if a women has an ambiguously age that is between Cô and Chị (the age of your mother’s younger sister vs. age of your older sister), then you should use Chị, which is slightly more flattering and suggests that she is younger looking her actually age. In contrast, older is better for men.