Vietnamese Language

One part of the experience visiting a foreign country is to immerse yourself in the culture, especially with the language used in the country (when it’s different than yours and completely foreign). Prior to the Southeast Asian trip, I got books on cultures and languages for the countries we were going to visit. For the first two countries, Thailand and Cambodia, while I could understand some words when pronounced or written in latin script, I had difficult time trying to even recognize the writings in either Thai or Khmer scripts. In both cases, the writings looked like just scribbles or a series of squiggly lines to me.

When it came to Vietnamese, however, I think it was easier for me. Partly because in the US, I’ve been exposed more to the Vietnamese culture as I have Vietnamese friends and also we have quite a sizeable Vietnamese population in Washington, DC, metro area. I frequently go to Vietnamese restaurants around, and they typically have the menu written in both English and Vietnamese. The Vietnamese script is also based on the latin script, though it is more complex as it also takes account the pronounciation of the words by having some symbols to distinguish them. Supposedly the writing system was codified by a French Jesuit missionary named Alexandre De Rhodes in 17th century as a Romanization of spoken language in Vietnam at that era.

When we were in Hanoi, even though signs were written in Vietnamese, since it was based on the latin script, most of the time I could recognize them even though at times I wouldn’t know how to pronounce it correctly. This was helpful especially in navigating the Old Quarter part of Hanoi which requires navigating many narrow streets by looking at the street signs.

The photo below was taken just outside the Ho Chi Minh Complex when Kristi and I were trying to figure out from our map how to get to the Temple of Literature that we read was within walkable distance from there. When I first saw the sign, it looked like a street sign, but I wonder why it said Pho on it, as that’s the word I knew of the famous noodle soup dish from Vietnam. Well, it turns out that even though the writing was similar, the pronounciation was different. There was a subtle difference in the writing as well if you pay close attention to the detail: phố = street, phở = noodle soup. So when we saw the signs with phố everywhere, they were actually street signs, not that there were restaurants selling noodle soups everywhere.

Street sign


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