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“Hey Mister” – Anh ơi (pronounced like Ang Oi; flat-tone)
Anh literally means “older brother”, but it is used much more generally as a pronoun for men slightly older than you. According to the Vietnamese custom of referring to everyone (including strangers) as family-members, it is best to think of Anh like “he” or “Sir” or “Mister”.
“Anh ơi” is a popular expression that means “Hey, excuse me Mister!” or “Hey Mister, can you help me please?” It can be used to get the attention of a man who is your age or older, within approximately 15 years age difference.
In contrast, if you want to get the attention of a man who is more that 15 years older than you, you should use “Chú ơi”. In fact, whether older or younger, or male or female, Vietnamese have different expressions for each situation.
These age-dependent Vietnamese pronouns are just the tip of the iceberg of a huge collection of societal rules governing how one Vietnamese person addresses another based on their relative social status.
To Address Females in Vietnamese
- Em ơi – woman/man who is younger than you
- Chị ơi – woman who is older than you within approximately 15 years (like an older sister)
- Cô ơi – woman who is older than you by more than (approximately) 15 years but younger than your parents (like an aunt)
- Bác ơi – woman/man who is older than your parents – like your parent’s older sibling
- Bà ơi – old women who are at your grandma’s age
To Address Males in Vietnamese
- Em ơi – man/woman who is younger than you
- Anh ơi – man who is older than you within approximately 15 years (like an older brother)
- Chú ơi – man who is older than you by more than (approximately) 15 years but younger than your parents (like an uncle)
- Bác ơi – man/woman who is older than your parents – like your parent’s older brother
- Ông ơi – old men who are your grandfather’s age
Pronouns Benchmarked to Familial Relations
Notice that the age-differences are very approximate, and roughly correspond to differences within a family: parents, uncles, grand-parents. The Vietnamese do not use a mathematical formula to know when to use “Ông ơi” (very elderly) or when to use “Bác ơi” (uncle, such as father’s older brother). Instead, they just have a natural intuition of which pronoun to use.
Foreigners in Vietnam have a lot of trouble understanding this system, and Vietnamese people have difficulty in teaching it as well (it just comes naturally to them). But, don’t neglect these expressions, because they are incredibly important in Vietnamese culture. For example, Vietnamese people are known to introduce themselves to strangers by declaring their age, so that people can address each other properly and not be rude.
These interesting linguistic rules are one aspect of Vietnamese culture that made our list of 14 Fun and Unusual Facts about Modern Vietnamese Culture.
Short-Cut to Vietnamese Pronouns
To get a functional amount of knowledge about Vietnamese pronouns, focus on these higher priority expressions. Listen for them in your day to day eavesdropping — try to see if you can hear how people talk to each other differently.
Em ơi – as a foreigner, you are probably going to interact with a lot of younger people (e.g., staff at a cafe) in which case you need to know “Em ơi” more than anything else (see our post here). Here is a helpful mnemonic: Em ơi is reminiscent of Elmo who is meant for younger people.
Chị ơi – next, you’ll need to interact with all the 30-45 year-old women serving delicious food — in which case you need to know “Chị ơi”. Even old ladies may feel a tiny bit of glee in being confused as a younger women, even if technically they should be address with the older Bác ơi or Bà ơi.
Anh ơi – next, for all the 30-50 year old men doing manly things, you should know “Anh ơi”. This can work for men who are slightly younger than you as well, because for men (unlike women) it is more complimentary to be confused as older (and therefore more respectable).
Bác ơi – Finish your crash-course in Vietnamese pronouns with “Bác ơi” for the 50+ elderly men and women still slogging it out dutifully in the marketplace, especially the men.
Ông ơi – For very old men, it is better to address them as “Ông ơi” — it conveys more authority and respect. Err on the side of “Ông ơi” rather than “Bác ơi”. However, this rule doesn’t apply to women, for whom it is complimentary to be confused as younger, even if it makes them chuckle at your linguistic error.
To really understand these pronouns is to really get inside the Vietnamese mindset and culture.
Read more about the importance of these pronouns in our post on “Em ơi”, where we provide examples and scenarios of how important these pronouns are.
Scenario: Meeting someone through a close acquaintance
Two young male friends have the same birth-day and are going to get bia (beer) at a local cafe. When they arrive, there is a cute waitress who could be the same age as the two boys.
One of the boys knows the staff very well, while the other one doesn’t. The former boy orders bia and addresses the waitress as Chị ơi — this immediately collapses all uncertainty and conveys a wealth of information to the other boy, even though he has never met the waitress before. He now knows that she is older, and to some degree, the other boy and she have a strictly formal relationship.
If the new boy were to playfully address the waitress as Em ơi, it would be ridiculous and awkward, because he knows that she knows he knows that she is older.
See more of these scenarios here.