To learn a functional amount of Vietnamese, you should study everyday real-world conversations. Even the simplest conversation has a wealth of insights into culture and customs and the ins-and-outs of Vietnamese grammar.
Below, we walk-through an example conversation between a couple shopping for food at a Vietnamese wet-market. We use the dialogue to highlight key insights into Vietnamese culture and language.
Where to start? Quickly read the next section to get a sense of the scene, then jump to the annotated version for important notes and exposition.
“Let’s Go Shopping” Example Dialogue — Quick Version
The following Vietnamese dialogue is presented in conversational English. Be sure to study the notes in the next section for deeper insights into the language and culture.
Girl: Anh muốn đi chợ với em không? / Hey, do you want to go to the market?
Guy: Ừ. Mình cần mua những gì? / Okay. What do we need to buy?
Girl: Gạo và rau / Rice and veggies.
Guy: Mua ở Vinmart hay ở chợ? / Should we go to Vinmart or the wet market?
Girl: Ở chợ. Giá ở đó rẻ hơn / The wet market. It has better prices.
Guy: Ok, đi thôi! / Okay, let’s go!
Scene: the couple arrives at the wet-market and finds a rice-vendor
Girl: Chị ơi, gạo bao nhiêu tiền? / Excuse me, ma’am, how much for rice?
Vendor: Em muốn mua gạo nào? Gạo ngon hay gạo thường? / What kind of rice do you want? Regular or premium?
Girl: Gạo thường / Regular.
Vendor: Hai-mươi nghìn một cân. Em mua mấy cân? / Twenty thousand per kg. How much do you want?
Girl: Năm cân / 5 kilograms
Vendor: Một trăm / That’ll be one-hundrend thousand.
The girl hands the vendor 100k VND in cash
Vendor: Thank you / Cảm ơn.
End scene. Be sure to read the notes in the next section for more insights into Vietnamese culuture and language — there is a lot beneath the surface!.
“Let’s Go Shopping” Dialogue with Expanded Notes
In this section, we annotate the above conversation with additional notes on the Vietnamese language and culture.
Anh muốn đi chợ với em không?
Literally: Older-brother want go to market with younger-sibling [no?]
- Note on “you” in Vietnamese: The Vietnamese don’t literally say “you”. Instead, they use familial pronouns (e.g. older brother, younger sibling) to say you. In this case, the girl is speaking to a male who is slightly older than her, so she uses Anh (which literally means “older brother”) for you. Likewise, the guy will refer to her as Em (which literally means “younger sibling”). Weirdly enough, she also refers to herself (“with me”) with the third-person familial pronoun em.
- Notice that “do you want to go to the market” must be followed with “with me” (với em) in Vietnamese. Unlike in English, the listener may not assume that the speaker is inviting the listener to go together. Instead, the listener could interpret it as “do you (and only you) want to go to the market (without me)”.
Another hilarious example is asking someone out to dinner: an English-person would say “Hey, do you want to have dinner?” and drop the implied “with me?” (với em) — this is very confusing for Vietnamese: they won’t understand you’re asking them out on a date!
Ừ. Mình cần mua những gì?
Literally: Okay. We need buy things what?
- Mình is the informal version of “we”, to be used among family/friends/lovers.
- Ừ is a highly informal way to say “yeah” or “okay”. If the boy was much younger than the girl, he’d have to use a different, formal version of. Read more about other formals ways to say “yes” in our article about yes/no.
Gạo và rau
Literally: Rice and veggies.
- Note on rice: uncooked rice is called gạo, while cooked-rice is called cơm. This is like the difference between pig vs pork in English.
Mua ở Vinmart hay ở chợ?
Literally: Buy at Vinmart or at wet-market?
- Vinmart is a big, Western-style supermarket chain with lots of processed food, whereas chợ refers to cheaper, open-air, street-markets that focus primarily on fresh veggies, grains, and meat, and are usually within a walkable distance from peoples’ residence.
Ở chợ. Giá ở đó rẻ hơn
Literally: At wet-market. Price at there good more.
- Note: rẻ hơn should be translated as “better”, or “more good”, but literally means “good more”. In Vietnamese, you can modify an adjective into the superlative by adding hơn after the adjective (e.g. fatter is “béo hơn”, taller is “cao hơn”)
Ok, đi thôi!
Literally: Okay, let’s go!
- Note: the Vietnamese use and understand “okay” much like the English do.
Scene: the couple go to the wet-market and talk to a rice-vendor.
Chị ơi, gạo bao nhiêu tiền?
Literally: Older-sister hey, rice how much money?
- The vendor is clearly a woman who is ~5-10 years older than the girl. We know this because the girl addresses her as Chị ơi which means something like “Dear Madam”, but literally means “older sister”. Had the vendor been an older man, or a much older woman, she would have used a different pronouns as appropriate. For example, to an old women, she may have said “Bác oi!”.
Read more about how to politely address older people in Vietnamese
- Note: The Vietnamese never ask “how much for rice?” Instead, they need to always ask “how much is it per kilo“. The point: you need to be very specific in Vietnamese, especially at the wet-market, where there are multiple plausible units in which to buy something. It can sometime seem like they are trying not to give you a straight-forward answer; instead, you just need to ask very specific questions.
Em muốn mua gạo nào? Gạo ngon hay gạo thường?
Literally: Younger-sister want what rice (which kind?) Rice high-quality or rice regular?
- Note on em: the vendor uses “em” as the second-person pronoun, because the younger girl is approximately the same age as the vendor’s younger siblings. If the vendor was much older, she may refer to the buyer as cháu, which literally means child.
Literally: Rice regular
- Note on sentence-completion and politeness: if someone is older than you in Vietnam, you must complete your sentences — the older they are, the more you complete. For instance, if the buyer was speaking to a very old woman, she would have to say “Em muốn gạo thường” (I want regular rice). In contrast, if she were speaking to a younger person, she could just answer “regular” (like in casual English). Here, the women is older but not too old, so the girls answers something in-between: “rice regular” — not too rude, and not too formal.
Learn more about Vietnamese sentence-completion and how it factors into age and politeness.
Hai mươi nghìn một cân. Em mua mấy cân?
Literally: Two ten thousand per kilogram. You want buy how-many kilograms?
- Note: The price is 20,000 VND (20 nghìn). However, in Vietnam, everyone basically drops the trailing 1000’s (and sometimes 10,000), so 20 nghìn is often just referred to as 20 (hai mươi). Sometimes, they will just say “two” (hai) and expect you to add the extra 10,000 based on the context.
- This scenario is a little unrealistic. Usually, a rice-vendor won’t quote a price per kg until after the buyer states how many kg they want to buy. This is because bigger quantities fetch cheaper prices.
Literally: Five kilograms
Nothing more to add!
Literally: One hundred
- Note the trailing 1000’s is casually dropped, so the price is actually 100,000 VND.
Literally: Thank you
- Saying “thank you” liberally is about the only similarity between Anglo-notions of politeness and Vietnamese politeness. Everything else — from “please” to “Sir” to different vocabularies for different age-groups — is utterly alien.
Learn 4 tips to speak politely in Vietnamese.
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.