The Vietnamese vowels are read phonetically and are much more consistent than English. The diacritics, like hats and circumflexes, are used to modify the latin letters a-e-i-o-u-y into their longer variants. These are considered entirely different letters, and not mere accents. A wider repetoire of vowels are formed by combining letters into digraphs (Table 2)
Note: There are variations between the Northern/Capital dialect and the Southern dialect. Below we present the Hanoi/Capital pronunciation, with audio.
|a||‘ah’ as in fat|
|ă||‘a/u’ like in another|
|e||short ‘e’ as in bed|
|i||short ‘i’ as in ‘sing’ or ‘it’|
|ê||long ‘ay’ as in pay|
|o||short ‘augh’ as in aught or hot|
|ô||long ‘ow’ as in hold|
|ơ||‘ur’ as in fur (suppressed r)|
|u||long ‘oo’ as in boo or choose|
|ư||French ‘u’, like a tight-lipped ‘ew’, as in French ‘bus’|
|y||short ‘i’ as in ‘sing’ or ‘it’|
Combinations of vowel-letters form distinct new sounds in Vietnamese, for example, like a+i in Thai. These combos are consistent and form mono-syllables, meaning that whenever you see a two or three adjacents vowels in Vietnamese, they reliably sound like audio below. This is unlike English where adjacent vowels can be both monosyllables or double-syllables, depending on the word, such as “science”.
The digraphs also make sounds that may be considered consonants in English, such as ‘oa’ and ‘oe’ making sounds that would be reserved for the letter w in English.
|ai||‘ai’ as in Thai|
|ao||‘ao’ as in Mao|
|au||‘a-oo’ like owl|
|ay||long ‘aye’ like a pirate “Aye! Matie!”|
|ây||like ‘aye’ above but with a slight ‘uh’ at beginning|
|eo||‘eh-ao’ as in meow|
|iu||long ‘ew’ as in few|
|iêu||‘ee-yoh’ and/or ‘i-yoh’|
|oa||‘wa’ as in wacky|
|oe||‘weh’ like weigh|
|ôi||‘oy’ like toy|
|ơi||like ôi but with a slight ‘uh’ at beginning|
|uê||like way but with a slight ‘u’ at beginning|
|ưa||‘ew-a’ like a French person saying “ew-a”|
|ươi||like “ew-oi” similar to “Eew boy!” if you dropped the b|
The Vietnamese consonants aren’t as difficult to master as the vowels. However, there are two difficulties: some letters represent a spectrum of sounds (e.g, d and t are often used interchangeably) and some sounds don’t exist in English (e.g., ng).
|c||‘g’ as in goat|
|ch||‘ch’ as in church|
|d||‘z’ as in zebra (Northern Vietnamese), ‘y’ as in ‘young’ (Southern Vietnamese)|
|đ||hard ‘d’ with a slightly aspirated ‘h’ sound, like “don’t!”|
|g,gh||hard guttural ‘g’ as in goat, but slighted aspirated like the Scottish ‘ch’ in ‘loch‘|
|gi||‘z’ as in zebra (Northern Vietnamese), ‘y’ as in ‘young’ (Southern Vietnamese)|
|k||‘ga’ as in gateau (sometimes like a k)|
|kh||‘hw’, like an aspirated ‘w’, like how some Southern Americans pronounce white or whip|
|ng, ngh||‘(i)ng’ as in sing (see our special post on ng)|
|nh||‘n-y’ as in canyon|
|qu||‘qu’ as in queen, and ‘gu’ as in Guatemala|
|r||‘z’ as in zebra (Northern Vietnamese)|
|t||Sometimes a soft ‘t’ and sometimes a ‘d’|
|th||hard ‘t-huh’ as in ‘tundra’, with a slightly aspirated ‘h’|
|tr||‘tr’ as in trade, which morphs into ‘ch’ (as in church) when spoken quickly|
|x||‘s’ as in see (never a z like in English)|
Lazy Forms and Hard Forms
Can you say that more slowly please?
If you talk about Vietnamese with a Vietnamese person, you may quickly notice that the pronunciations of some consonants (like ‘d’ and ‘tr’ and ‘qu’) will be articulated differently in two situations: i) when the speaker is talking naturally, and ii) when he is deliberately speaking slowly and in a pedagogical manner. Don’t be deceived by the pedagogues: instead, focus on learning the “lazy” pronunciations which are more natural.
The lazy forms may seem unintuitive (like ‘tr’ pronounced as ‘ch), but sometimes these are actually similar to American English: consider how “tree” is actually pronunced as “chree” in the USA. Here are some other lazy sounds to be aware about:
- d as zee: The “zee” sound has come to replace the sounds of others consonants in lazy natural speech, such as “r” and “d” and “gi”. In order to retain the proper d-as-“duh” sound, they had to add a line through the letter đ to force people to speak it properly.
- t as duh: Likewise, the hard “tee”-sound is only retained by placing an h after the t. Alone, a single “t” is lazily pronounced like an English “d”, and “t-h” sounds like an English hard-t.
- k as guh: “C”, “k” and “qu” are all sucked into a lazy “guh” or “gwuh” sound. This is why “cảm ơn” (thank you) actually sounds like “gamon”. They basically hate the English “kuh” sound.
- tr as ch: Tràng An is pronounced like “chang ann”.
Northern vs Southern Vietnamese Pronunciations
You have to pick one
The above audio and descriptions are for the capital-accent that is spoken in the North, especially Hanoi. We chose this accent because it is heard on official television broadcasts and is known universally within Vietnam. If you learn the Southern accent, it could cause some minro confusion if you are in the North.
However, if you study Vietnamese with other resources and materials, there is a 50% chance that they will emphasize the Southern pronuncation. One main difference is that “r”, “g” and “d” are pronounced like “zee” in the North, but like a “y” in the South.