Learning Vietnamese from North to South

In Uncategorized on January 13, 2010 at 5:37 am


y Antonio Graceffo

After three months in Hanoi I moved to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam. During my time in Hanoi I had a total of about 90 hours of one-on-one Vietnamese lessons and did approximately 50 hours of self-study listening outside of class. In the weeks before I left Hanoi I noticed that sitting in a café reading a book I was able to eavesdrop on Vietnamese conversations happening at the other tables and either, pick up the thread or at least pick-out vocabulary that I knew. Watching TV news, although I couldn’t follow the stories, it was no longer one big sound all running together. I was able to isolate and identify words that I knew and words that I didn’t, occasionally understanding full sentences.

When I moved to Saigon, I immediately noticed the differences in pronunciation and vocabulary. Eavesdropping I honestly couldn’t understand anything at all. Because I follow an ALG learning program I try not to talk outside of class, for fear of permanently damaging my pronunciation through early production. But the reality of living in a foreign country where no one speaks English is that you will need to speak. When I spoke to people in Saigon they understood me. And I often understood them, because they were trying to speak standard Vietnamese. But my communication was much more limited than it was in Hanoi. Even in simple communications, like buying food, food names were different, and the pronunciation of the numbers was different.

Many people say that it is best to first learn Vietnamese in Hanoi, because it is “standard” Vietnamese. Then, later, you can learn Saigon or southern dialect. Normally, I agree that learning standard language makes the most sense. For German, for example, I learned High-German. Then, later, working in different parts of Germany, I learned to understand some of the basic and consistent differences in dialects. I never actually learned to speak dialect, but I also didn’t need to, because educated people all made an effort to speak High-German. Spanish was the same way. It would make no sense to begin your study of Spanish by learning Puerto Rican dialect. You begin by learning standard Castilian Spanish and then adapt to and adopt the dialect of places where you work or study.

With Vietnamese, I think this method is even more important than with European languages because all of the standard textbooks and listening CDs for Vietnamese language are spoken in Hanoi dialect. So, if you were in Saigon taking lessons, you would learn to read a dialogue one way in class. But, when you went home to listen to the CD it would be pronounced completely differently. With Vietnamese, I believe you should learn Hanoi dialect in Hanoi first, but then when you move to Saigon you need to have formal lessons again, using the same books, but with a southern teacher. The two dialects are quite different and it would be much better to formally study both rather than try to just acquire the second dialect through contact with locals. And by using the same textbooks twice, the patterns of differences will become clear to you much more quickly. Use a digital audio recorder to record your lessons and your southern teacher’s pronunciation. Only use your recordings for your listening practice at night. Stop using the standard CDs because they will only reinforce your northern pronunciation.

One funny linguistic note: Before I began learning Vietnamese the only exposure I had ever had to the language was in Vietnam war movies. When I took my first lessons, I remember thinking that the teacher didn’t sound anything like the people wearing black pajamas in “Apocalypse Now.” So, I thought Hollywood had lied to us. The day I arrived in Saigon, I was eating with a Vietnamese friend when he received a phone call on his mobile. When I heard him talking on the phone, he sounded exactly like those moves. I kept expecting someone in the restaurant to yell “in-coming!”

Being a hobby linguist I tried to think of why my Saigon friend sounded like the Vietcong in the movies, but the real northerners didn’t. The answer I came up with was that the majority of Vietnamese in the United States are probably southerners who worked with the Americans or found some way to leave the country. Vietcong extras in US war movies are probably taken from local Vietnamese communities in California, which are composed almost exclusively of southern Vietnamese.

I breathed a sigh of relief. Hollywood hadn’t lied to us. I could still trust the lessons I learned from TV and movies. Sadly, though, they had mislead us.

See Antonio Graceffo’s multipart video series for free, on youtube.

ALG Vietnamese Linguistics Part 1

Also see Antonio’s video

ALG Vietnamese Picture Story Le Loi

In a recent round of interviews, networks and media sent Antonio the question via email and Antonio answered on camera. If you are interested in doing a similar interview, fire off the questions to Antonio. Antonio is looking for an opportunity to study for an MA/PHD in linguistics.

Antonio Graceffo is the author of the book, “The Monk from Brooklyn,” and is he host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts odyssey.”

Contact Antonio Graceffo on

Send him email


  1. Cool entry. I think there’s something to be said for learning a non-standard dialect if it’s spoken where you wanna be AND it’s the harder dialect to adjust to. Most Mexican Spanish is pretty close to the standard, with very clear consonants. But learn Mexican Spanish and you’ll be hard put to comprehend Caribbean/Maritime Spanish. Native speakers from Mexico will be fine, but a learner may struggle. The reverse is no challenge, though. Learn Maritime Spanish and Mexican Spanish will be a cinch. So it would make sense to learn the Maritime version with the dropped consonants and syllables, etc.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: