Goregous interior of an old house in Vietnam

What does “Nhà” mean in Vietnamese?

photo credit Will @ VietnamDaily.ca

Nhà (nyah; down-tone) – House, or “building” more generally

Nhà (down-tone) means “house” in Vietnamese, but context is important. If it is said alone, the speaker is probably refering to their own private home. However, there are lots of compound-words where nhà means something more general like “building”. These cases are particularly important for travellers in Vietnam.

Confusion Alert: “Nha” with a flat/natural-tone is a different word and is equivalent to the Canadian “…eh?”

If you spend any time in Vietnam, you will quickly come to love the signs of “nhà hàng” that blanket all the major streets: these are restaurants. In particular, they are the formal “sit-down” variety, as opposed to fast-food restaurants which are called “quán ăn”.

Likewise of importance to travellers is “nhà nghỉ” which means motel. These are budget accomodations, as opposed to “khách sạn”, which means hotel. Watch out for “love motels” which are also nhà nghỉ.

For most tourists in Vietnam, “nhà hàng” (restaurant) and “nhà nghỉ” (motel) are the full extent of the need-to-know words that contain Nhà. But just to demonstrate the compound-nature of Vietnamese, here are other examples of “nhà” words:

Varieties of Nhà

  • nhà tôi – my house
  • nhà băng – bank
  • nhà thương – hospital
  • nhà nghỉ – motel
  • nhà trắng – white house

Nhà is good example of overloaded prototyping in Vietnamese: many related objects often share a word that serves as the protoype (nhà/buildings) but also has a specific meaning (house).

Pronounciation of Nh sound

Nhà is a great word to learn for pronounciation, especially to train yourself to say and hear the difference between the “nh” vs the infamous “ng” sound. “Nhà” sounds similar to how it is written, a blend of “n” and “hy” (keeping in mind the downward tone à)

Constrast this with “nga” (moon, or Russia), which, for English speakers, sounds almost identity to the n+h sound, but is actually like the “(i)ng” in “running“, “walking“, “talking“. The distinction is like night and day to Vietnamese speakers.

Listen below to check if you can distinguish between ng and nh.

Audio: “nh” vs “ng” sounds

nhlike ny in canyon
nglike (i)ng at the end of sing
Listen to nh vs ng sounds in Vietnamese

Listen and compare Vietnamese sounds in our Pronunciation Guide

Rude vs. Formal

Imagine having drinks with friends or colleagues at a downtown bar. “I’m going home” you may say at the end of the night. Not so fast! In Vietnamese, there is a rude way and formal way to say I’m going home:

  • Tôi đang về nhà– I am going home (formal, or said to anyone older)
  • Về nhà – Goin’ home (informal)

A young person out with her best friend may say “Về nhà“, but this would be very disrespectful if said to anyone older (even family members or acquaintances). However, as a foreigner, you are de facto outside Vietnamese society. Therefore, you are not expected to understand these rules.

Focus primarily on successful communication about your basic intentions. This means having proper pronounciation and proper tone: về (down-tone) nhà (downtone). Tones and pronounciation are more important than memorizing formal vs informal versions and knowing when to say them.

In other words, it is worse to say something that is nonsense (like mis-pronouncing “về nhà” as the flat-tone “ve nha”) than it is to say something correctly but in a rude way.

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