The Unbearable Lightness of Being an Expat in the“Vietnamese speaking country”


“Being in a foreign country means walking a tightrope high above the ground without the net afforded a person by the country where he has his family, colleagues, and friends, and where he can easily say what he has to say in a language he has known from childhood”
-Milan Kundera

Have you ever read or heard of famous novel title “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera, or just stumbled across the quotation somewhere in a tourism book, magazine or forum? Or did you read it with the pristine curiosity, satisfaction considering its poetic Vietnamese title – Đời nhẹ khôn kham? Alright, you got me. I’m just beating around the bush. All what I want is to draw your attention to my article’s headline at the very first glance (Ah hah, I’ve caught the grin on your face LOL). My piece of writing today has little to do with sexy content of that highly acclaimed yet controversial novel, but the general impression of relaxation and staying calm transferred from its gorgeous name and freak-you-out-for-fun quotation mentioned above. Yes, being an expat in the “Vietnamese speaking country” is so light, unbearably light that you need an informative guideline to make it bearable enough for you to take (highlight the phrase “Vietnamese speaking country” because it strongly indicates the topic I’d like discussing: Vietnamese language). Here is the list that I’ve compiled to give you a breath of light once setting foot in our S-shaped country.

  1. Vietnamese pronunciation is as tricky as you expect (or maybe, more than that)

Let me guess, your prime purpose of visiting Vietnam is to explore an exotic land, immerse yourself in the native culture? And inevitably, the first stepping stone you have to lay is learning local language to communicate in colloquial situations. Similar to other languages, Vietnamese has its own challenges to discourage anyone without abundant amount of assertiveness and patience. There’s something I’m willing to tell you: Beware of Vietnamese pronunciation, otherwise, you could be stuck in such a not-know-whether-to-laugh-or-cry situation because of terrible misunderstanding, though your “I-am-so-much-guiltless” expression is clearly seen within miles away, like this guy:

“A man went to an inn and placed an order for a bowl of Phở bò tái (Phở with rare beef fillet), however, laughingly, he can’t distinguish consonant pair t/đ and as result, he told the waiter to bring him “Phở bò đái” instead (literally means “cow pisses Phở”)”

Uh oh, what a joke!

However, you can regard these unexpected incidents as awkwardly funny experiences to look back with smirks and accordingly, make life easier, I suppose.

  1. Want to be called a millionaire? Just a piece of cake!

Seriously…I’m kidding, my friend. Keep reading or you won’t see the reason.  As far as all of us know, millionaire refers to people who have one million or more units of currency and hence, most of Vietnamese people are inescapably millionaire on the grounds that average monthly salary of a Vietnamese worker is around 3 million VND! See? A millionaire title is not so difficult to achieve, except that 3 million VND equals to 150 USD! Oh, face value, I love you so bad!

Sarcastically funny, in Vietnam, to be an eligible millionaire, your net worth must be at least billions VND. Therefore, the concepts of being a millionaire or billionaire are overlapped.

  1. “How old are you?” instead of “How do you do?” when greeting each other

For the sake of choosing appropriate personal pronouns from a complicated group of around 40 and showing correct amount of respect to the partners, Vietnamese people often ask strangers’ ages. So, don’t get yourself on fire when a Vietnamese carries out an “extensive investigation” over “How old are you?” with a matter-of-fact manner in the first place.

Vietnamese pronouns are classified into kinship’s degrees, which connote the initial idea that everyone across the country embracing harmoniously in a great-great-great… family (at least, multiply “great” by 22 million times because Vietnam has approximately 22 million households), and obviously, that leads to “not-so-much-understandable” problem when explaining those pronouns to people who have never ever heard of them before. For instance, the typical declaration of romantic love “Anh yeu em” might be literally translated “Older brother loves younger sister” or “Em yeu anh” equals to “Younger sister loves older brother”. Is that weird enough? Okay, we are not hardcore fans of incest love, you have my word.

Even we, Vietnamese native speakers, get confused with these interwoven strands of so-called personal pronouns from time to time.

But don’t get me wrong, I never harbor deep feelings of bitterness toward Mr. Nastily Exhausting Addressing, albeit curses sometimes uttered to blame whoever on Earth invented this bothersome rule. Nightmarishly challenging and bizarre as they may be, personal pronouns can sound pretty and sweet once you master and get used to them. Believe me!

  1. “Thước, tấc, phân, li…” What do they mean?

They are simply the traditional Vietnamese units of measurement that had been so deeply rooted in our culture and colloquial conversations that you seldom hear “metre, decimetre, cetimetre, milimetre,” (equivalent Western units of measurement used in textbooks or other standard documents) in our daily life.  Please, don’t confuse “phân” (cm) with “phân” (dung, sh*t) because of their identical spellings and pronunciations. It’s one of the homonym pitfalls that you should avoid at all cost!

  1. Fancy becoming a Vietnamese Spelling King/Queen?

Buckle up for a course of Han Viet (aka Sino-Viet). Like Japan or Korea, Viet Nam was also ruled by Imperial China for over a millennium and therefore, influenced by Chinese culture, language. Nowadays, over 70% Vietnamese characters originated from Chinese. Actually, you don’t need to learn a lot or master Chinese scripts (aka chữ Hán) for the sake of writing correct Vietnamese spellings, just equip yourself with the basic knowledge on some of compositions of Chinese characters to gain an insight in to our language.

For example, the word “xán lạn” (brilliant, splendid) is usually misspelled as “sáng lạng” or “sáng lạn”. If you know Han Viet, you can recognize that mistake because in terms of Chinese characters, the combination between xán (灿: bright, glorious), lạn (烂: thoroughly, well-cooked) really makes sense, while “sáng lạng” or “sáng lạn” doesn’t.

  1. After all, have you ever thought that Vietnamese sounds little harsh to your ears?

Okay, I have to admit that Vietnamese doesn’t sound as smooth and beautiful as French or other European languages, not to mention the annoying tone in some particular cases. On the account of tonal language, Vietnamese words change their meanings in accordance with 6 distinctive tones (the level tone, the high rising tone, the low falling tone, the low rising tone, the high rising broken tone, and the low broken tone) and then, making the utterance louder or  “heavier”.

Nonetheless, with pitch differences to distinguish lexical or grammatical meaning, Vietnamese has an advantage to offer its speakers. According to a research conducted by Dr. Deutsch, most tonal native speakers have a form of perfect pitch (the ability to pick out any musical notes by name or recreate a given note without a reference tone beforehand), meanwhile, no more than one person out of 10,000 in Western countries possesses this rare skill. You can read more at:

  1. Last but not least, do you think nuoc mam (fish sauce) has some bearing on American legendary condiment –ketchup?

In fact, the supposed smelly sauce made from fermented anchovies was possibly invented by Vietnamese and then Hokkien Chinese traders (Fujian province) bought the sauce and called it kê-tsiap or kê-chiap (鮭汁 : brine of pickled fish), which is believed to be the original name of ketchup.

Do you think that culture is a vivid interwoven fabric only revealed its secrets by looking closely and eventually giving you an amazingly interesting fact? How can you possibly know this astonishing stuff without learning languages? That is truly a benefit that I’m glad to take from exploring as many languages as possible.

Author: Cala


2 thoughts on “The Unbearable Lightness of Being an Expat in the“Vietnamese speaking country”

  1. Excuse me, are you from Vietnam or any Western countries that I may know? :v It’s really my pleasure to read such an interesting and knowledgeable article like this one. Keep up with your good work! It’s really really great! XD XD

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sorry for not replying your comment sooner. Maybe there’s something wrong with my WP =.= Btw, I’m really glad that you like my article 🙂 I spent a whole day brainstorming and doing some researches on my somewhat challenging topic, but it’s worth it, right? ^^ Thanks a lot for your appreciation!

      Liked by 1 person

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