Personal Experience with Vietnamese Language
Final Essay, Vietnam Short-term

Vietnam is a mixture of histories and cultures which span the land’s lengthy past, resulting in a country which today rivals many of the world’s most developed and international places as a center of cultural diversity and exchange. Some of the best indications of this diversity, and reliable records of its history, are the languages of the Vietnamese people. In my own travels through the country, I’ve had my fair share of run-ins with the Vietnamese language (although I can’t pretend to speak it), and learning about the linguistic history of the country has been a fascinating introduction to the chronicles of the Vietnamese people. Not only is the language an accurate history of the country in its own right, but my personal experience in attempting to use the language seems indicative of the myriad differences from the north of the country to the far south. The most common foreign languages spoken in Vietnam are also indications, here of the country’s upwardly-mobile aspirations as a global economic power. In sum, the languages of Vietnam are an apt metaphor of my experiences here.

Linguistically speaking, Vietnam is not a straightforward place: not only is there, most obviously, the national language of Vietnamese, but there are many so-called “hill tribes” (or Montagnards from the French), pockets of indigenous peoples who escaped the historic, mainstream influence of the Chinese on the native inhabitants of Vietnam, and therefore retained their own unique traditions and languages. Of course, these tribes contribute to the cultural tapestry that is Vietnam, but unfortunately on this trip, I wasn’t able to experience first-hand any of their cultures – however, the Ethnography Museum in Hanoi does a phenomenal job of introducing its visitors to the tribes and their ways of life. About the most information I could find specifically regarding the tribes’ languages was a one page summary of key phrases for the Tay, H’Mong, and Dzao tribes from my Lonely Planet, which I think speaks to the relative isolation of these peoples.

The Vietnamese language has a fascinating history, beginning with its roots in the Mon-Khmer language family. Early in the language’s life, Chinese influence provided the Vietnamese people with a writing system for their language, leading to the Vietnamese spin on traditional Chinese characters which can still be seen today at temples and pagodas and in traditional texts. I remember specifically the first “temple” that we visited as a group, the Temple of Literature in Hanoi. There, my friend Qinglan was beside herself, thrilled that she could understand some of the characters on a beautifully decorated, well, for lack of a better word, sign which hung above the main altar. The signs, as I would come to learn, are almost always groups of three traditional Chinese characters, and often tell some basic fact about the temple, such as to whom it is dedicated. The most beautiful of these signs will be done entirely in black lacquer with mother-of-pearl characters. Q often becomes a bit frustrated with the characters, as they are more difficult to understand than the simplified characters which she studies at Bates, meaning that she can’t tell me anything about what they say. I’m always thrilled with this vestige of ancient Vietnamese, because not only does it provide a present-day connection with the most basic roots of the language (people coming to the temples to worship interact with the characters on a daily basis), but it functions as a metaphor for the Vietnamese people: true to form for the industrious, clever culture which I’ve come to know over the course of my month-long stay here, the Vietnamese didn’t simply assimilate themselves into the Chinese culture and language, but reinterpreted the characters for their own use. Vietnamese also differs from Chinese and several other Asian languages (and certainly from “Western” languages) in that it is six-tonal (Chinese, I believe, is five), the main challenge of the language for any speaker of a Western language hoping to be able to ask, “where’s the bathroom?” In the seventeenth century, a Frenchman named Alexandre de Rhodes invented a new writing system which managed to incorporate the tonality of Vietnamese into the simplified, letter-based Latin alphabet, called quốc ngữ, or the national language.

Despite the fact that the quốc ngữ system is far more accessible to me than would be Chinese characters, and the fact that I speak French and that most of the characters in quốc ngữ are pronounced as they are in the French alphabet, Vietnamese has proved to be a prohibitively difficult language to get a grasp on. Not to brag, but I like to think of myself as someone who has a relatively easy time picking up new languages – I’ve got a pretty good ear, and I don’t usually have trouble listening to someone and repeating the sounds. That’s at least true of French and Spanish, my majors at Bates. However, this is not the case with Vietnamese. The biggest problem for me is the tones – they aren’t as straightforward as one might think, up, down, flat and circular. There is also one tone which starts high and rises, and one which starts low and lowers. Someone who is not intimately familiar with the basic tones of the language has little hope of being able to consistently and accurately reproduce those two friendly little guys. Not only is the language tonal, but the alphabet system is much more complicated than it would first appear. The intricate system of accent markings on the letters changes the pronunciations pretty dramatically. For example, “D” in Vietnamese is pronounced more like an English “Z,” while “Đ” gives the traditional English “D.” And, oh no, it isn’t as simple as single diacritical marks: the word phở (the wonderful beef soup) uses a combination of marks on the “o” for correct pronunciation and tonality. It’s no wonder that I’ve had a hard time even mastering “thank you.”

There are some interesting anecdotes which go along with my attempts to learn even the most basic of phrases in Vietnamese, mainly those which relate most closely to my observations of the changes in the country and its people from north to south. In the north of the country, particularly in Hanoi, the only people who spoke English were those who worked directly with tourists, or those merchants on the street who had picked up one or two helpful phrases (the ubiquitous “you buy something!” springs to mind here). At least it was easy to communicate in the hotels. When I did try to speak Vietnamese, even my friendly attempt at “A Di Da Phat” along a Buddhist pilgrim trail was met with ridicule. This neither not help my confidence, nor my desire to keep trying my hand at the language. This situation only got worse for us as we moved into central Vietnam, where, even at a four-star hotel, it was almost impossible to communicate with the receptionist. Then we moved down to the south, and something seemed to change very suddenly. Walking into a coffee shop in Saigon, I might as well have been back in my Starbucks in Lewiston, based on the conversation I had with the cashier about her favorite types of frozen mocha drinks. No longer was there any need for me to hack my way through mispronounced Vietnamese phrases – this was the south! The Mekong Delta was probably the most remote region which we visited during the semester, and that was obvious from our interactions with the locals. One of my favorite days (and memories of the trip) was the afternoon that we spent climbing the Sam Mountain in Chau Doc to get a view of the distant Cambodian border, and stumbled down the mountain on a different path, finding ourselves in the middle of a very crowded market street on a full-moon festival day. You could have been forgiven for thinking that Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman had both been sighted buying rambutan at the same stall as Uncle Ho Chi Minh himself and perhaps a Bollywood dance troupe thrown in for good measure, such was the stir that we created. Walking through the street, people’s mouths would fall open, and standing and staring, they were incapable of waving back at us (especially Kimal, the first black man many people here have ever seen, even in the cities). While visiting the temple of the mountain deity, the Den Ba Chua Xu nui Sam, we never would have known that the woman who grabbed Allison’s chest was being friendly had Thay Trian not been there to translate, or that nearly everyone on the street wanted their picture taken with us because they thought we were attractive. This was one place where the heavy saturation of English and Western culture had not yet taken hold.

Thinking back on my linguistic experience and the disparate levels of comfort with English which I perceived from the north of the country to the far south, it all makes perfect sense. Of course the American-friendly, liberal, capitalistic south of Vietnam would be much more likely to have learned and embraced English as a global language than the conservative, long-time communist North. This is another note which I find particularly interesting about the linguistic history of Vietnam. One of my main draws to this trip was the opportunity to see Vietnam as a former French colony: I thought that the influence of French would still be strong, and that when my inadequate Vietnamese skills failed, I’d be able to resort to French to communicate with nearly everyone; I was quite wrong. In fact, these days, French architecture and tour groups of middle-aged French couples are the most common links still seen between Vietnam and its former colonial oppressor.

It’s true that the older generations of Vietnamese remember French, and many are still fluent in it: I had a great experience talking with an elderly Vietnamese gentleman in one of the UNESCO World Heritage caves we visited entirely in French. French, however, became a symbol of Vietnam’s colonial past, and young generations of Vietnamese didn’t want to perpetuate the imperial control which France had held over their country. Simultaneously, in the 1950’s, when France’s power in Indochina began to wane, the French language began to lose ground as the international language to English. After gaining independence, the country was plunged into the American War, further reinforcing people’s need (economically, if for nothing else then to communicate goods and services to American GI’s) to learn English, the new emerging global tongue.

I’ve been fortunate enough on this trip to meet several Vietnamese people with whom I’m sure I’ll stay in contact even after the trip ends. Despite everyone’s teasing, my friend Thao, a student at the Conservatory of Music in Hanoi, and I had a great conversation about her country on our quiet boat ride through the river of Hoa Lu. She explained to me that nearly all Vietnamese children begin to learn English at a very young age in school, and that it truly is one of the most marketable skills that someone can foster in this country. Vietnam is undergoing a period of remarkably quick development and growth as an economic power – it is now, I believe, the world’s second largest producer of rice – quite a feat for a country which was considered “third-world” until recently. Vietnam’s economy has also become extremely dependent on tourism, and those countries with the most readily expendable assets often speak English. For this, people like all of the tour guides with whom we’ve worked on this trip are in very high demand for their English skills – it is remarkable how many Chinese, Spanish, and German tourists I’ve seen speaking English with their tour guides because it is the common language between them.

The languages of Vietnam, Vietnamese and otherwise, have been an integral part of my experience here. One of my favorite aspects of language is the way that it records the history of a people and their culture, and Vietnam is no exception. Beginning from Vietnamese’s roots in the indigenous languages of Southeast Asia, it has grown and developed into a language with a unique writing system and colorful history. The people of Vietnam, however, haven’t let the limited dominance of their language prevent them from growing their economy; they’ve embraced French, English, Chinese (when necessary), and a whole host of other languages in their long history as ways to communicate, survive, and prosper with whatever situation is dealt them. Studying the languages here really allows the Vietnamese spirit and work ethic to shine through, and I’m thrilled to have been given the opportunity to experience these things first hand.