Hitchhiking Vietnam
travel tips
The Language

According to my local library system the Vietnamese language didn't exist, a frustratingly empty space between Urdu and Welsh in the stacks. I scoured Vietnamese restaurants in search of a tutor, and cold-called anyone with a Vietnamese name in my local phone book. I made tapes for myself and dragged an unwieldy cassette deck around with me like a reluctant puppy dog. I tacked vocabulary lists to windows and doors, to the TV screen and on the wall across from the toilet. At last I stumbled upon a family who agreed to teach me, and even produced an obscure, thirty-year-old grammar text filled with words like "tiger-hunt" and "maid-servant".

I arrived in Saigon with a Vietnamese vocabulary of about 800 words. Once there I bought a 29-year-old motorbike which broke down almost daily. Within a month I'd developed a great, lopsided bulge in my Vietnamese vocabulary. I could say just about anything having to do with motorcycle innards - "Excuse me, do you have a clutch cable? No? How about a socket wrench?" What I never got around to learning were words like "wine" or "steak" or "ice" or "fork".

Quick-and-dirty methods for learning a language:
First I learn a vocabulary of 1000 words (the typical TV sitcom vocab. is 3000 words). I use mnemonics and other techniques that allow me to acquire 50 words a day and remember 45 of them. I then move on to children's stories in the target language. Since I have a mental age of 6 I find these stories so compelling that I stay up late at night reading them, long after I have lost interest in studying. They have just the right vocabulary level and allow me to begin to absorb grammar and structure without having to study it. I also rent videos in the target language. The first time I watch them with the subtitles showing. The next few times I cover up the subtitles. This begins the transition from written language to spoken, colloquial language. Only at this point do I go hire a native speaker to talk to. By now I have enough vocabulary and structure that we can carry on simple conversations. It's all downhill from there.

Rule #1 Forget grammar. Forget structure. Learn words and string them together. This is how children learn. People are much more interested in what you have to say than in hearing you say it perfectly. Use shorthand - i.e., "tomorrow" for future tense and "yesterday" for past tense.
Rule #2 Two people will invariably end up speaking the language that offers the least resistance. That means you MUST arrive speaking more of the native language than the average native speaks of yours.
Rule #3 If you are speaking a tonal language, learn the tones. I didn't and no one had the foggiest idea what I was trying to say...
Rule #4 Learn the most respectful greeting words and use them on everybody. The children will giggle but you won't offend anyone.
Rule #5 Speak. Speak some more. Forget being ashamed. In almost every country in the world the people will be thrilled that you are trying to learn their language.
Rule #6 People ask me what kind of research I do to make my trips go more smoothly. Mostly I learn the language. Once you speak the language well enough to get by you have a tool that will solve almost any problem and open every door.
Rule #7 If you are learning a tonal language and play a musical instrument, consider "playing" the tone behind the word as you say it. Pick a tune that you'll remember for each tone. Westerners don't associate words with tones. Your mind will pick up the tonal variation much more quickly if it is presented as music (rather like a snippet of song with words attached)

Until about 1987 anyone caught learning English was subject to arrest. Things have changed. English is now offered as a University course and it is I was told by far the most popular language to study...

In Vietnamese every syllable is a separate word. Vietnam is written Viet Nam , etc...

There are six tones in Vietnamese. That means each syllable (ma, for example) can have up to six different meanings, depending on how you pronounce it. ("ma" can mean mother, rice seedling, gravestone, horse, but, or ghost). String together four or five words in a sentence and if you haven't gotten the tones right, you're sunk.

There are four other marks that indicate special consonants (i.e., the cross on the stem of the "d" turns it into a different letter)

Vietnamese has no use for the letters F, J W and Z.

Most letters in the Vietnamese alphabet are pronounced as though they were French.

Dictionaries are alphabetical except that they treat each tone as a separate entity - for example, you'll be running through several iterations of MA depending on the accent mark over the A.

I'd like to introduce here a useful language tool that I developed over the years on the road. It's neither a phrasebook nor a dictionary but has the advantages of both. It is also an excellent two-way communicator - I've spent many hours on buses having complicated conversations with other passengers without knowing a single word of their language. And it doesn't need batteries. The reason I'm including only a sample here (and a more detailed explanation) is because I'm trying to get it published... without a great deal of success, I'm afraid. Travelers love it (I'm still getting dog-eared copies back from Vietnam). Publishers tell me that the phrasebook market is very traditional and that the only books that really make money are the ones in popular European languages. They insist that the backpacking crowd is far too stingy to buy books anyway. In the end I sent it to the Lonely Planet, who kept it for a while and then told me that they were working on something just like it themselves. Hmmm.

So if you like the idea, please let me know via email. I'll either gather together all the emails and take it back to the publishers or gather my courage and publish it myself. Thanks.


 Grammar: There is no real number and gender for nouns in Vietnamese

Verb tenses generally don't exist.

Anyone over university age who speaks English well in Vietnam today has probably been studying it on the sly for years, an act of considerable courage...

"I was slowly relearning the thousand words I had crammed into my head while still in America. In my haste to make progress, I had paid scant attention to the squiggly, slanted lines and dots above each new bit of vocabulary. They were, I eventually discovered, important pronunciation guides to a language that was more sung than spoken. Without them I was unintelligible. A common word like ma could have half a dozen meanings, from rice seedling to horse. Since every word had several tonal variations, the potential for misunderstanding in even the simplest sentence was astronomical."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam

Language survival tips for Vietnam:
Hanoi Vietnamese and Saigon Vietnamese are two different species.

Everyone, it seems, is trying to learn English. You may be the first native English speaker they've ever met. Talk to them. I've given English lessons to everyone from soup-stall owners to policemen with surprising results...

Buy dictionaries/grammar texts once you are in Vietnam (unless you're studying beforehand). They will be much cheaper.

Written Vietnamese using the Romanized alphabet is a relatively new innovation. This means that spelling has yet to be standardized and the Vietnamese/English half of your dictionary may have limited use. Still it's worth a try...