During my first few months living here, I played with a computer program to learn Vietnamese. Unfortunately I didn’t learn much (I have serious trouble remembering vocabulary words, something that never happened to me before while learning another language). But I couldn’t figure out why nobody understood a word I was saying. It wasn’t until a Saigonese friend told me she didn’t like to visit Hue or Hoi An because she could not understand the locals before I realized that, like everywhere else in the world, Vietnam has different accents. Complete ignorance and stupidity on my part. After all, there are distinct accents in the US, and even amongst the Southern states there are subtle differences if you pay attention. When I lived in Savannah, Georgia in the late 1990s I noticed how the local drawl was vastly different than the Mississippi accent that my great aunts Ima Lee and Lula Mae had. I’m not making this up; my Dad’s side of the family are as Southern as Southern can get. I have ancestors named Mattilu, Axom, and Cerena (Serena, Selenia, or even Cerenia, depending on the census taker of the time). And don’t even get me started on my Mom’s family; the lovely sing-song accent of my Provençal side of the family is about as un-Parisian-sounding as you can get.
So all the Vietnamese online language programs, the Pimsleurs, Rosetta Stones, and Instant Immersions? They’re with the Hanoian accent. There are certain words that are used in Hanoi which aren’t used down south, such as vàng, the Vietnamese word for ‘yes’, which the Saigonese don’t use. I asked a friend if there was a word for ‘no’ (I thought it was không), and she said, “Used in what context? You don’t just say ‘no’ ”. Apparently không is Hanoian as well.
I’ve heard that a lot of the Grab bike drivers are from the Mekong Delta, which is why they don’t know the lay of the land in Saigon. And I’ve also heard that most of the taxi drivers are from Hanoi. After I abandoned my self-studies, I’ve tried to learn things the Saigonese way. I assumed that cab drivers didn’t understand me because I’m a westerner, but it didn’t occur to me that it was because I was now giving them an address with a Saigonese accent.
Take, for instance, the letter D. There are two Ds in Vietnamese: Đ (with the line through it) which has a western D sound; and D which is pronounced like a Y in Saigon and Z in Hanoi. If I get in a cab and gleefully exclaim, “NWIN YOO!” (I have a tendency to gleefully exclaim when I attempt any Vietnamese), 98 percent of the time the driver will turn around and look at me like I’m from Mars.
“Uh, Nwin Yoo?”, I then say, with a distinct question mark at the end. This is also a no-no. That changes the tone of the word, transforming it into a completely different word. Cab driver blinks, doesn’t say anything, so I fish out my phone and pull up the address to show him.
“Ah, NWIN ZOO!”, cab driver inevitably says, happily.
“Zoo?”, I say puzzled.
“ZOO. No ‘ZOO??’ Yes ‘ZOO’.”
“Okay, you’ve lost me”.
“NWIN ZOO. We go. Ha ha ha ha!”.
And off we go.
One day I’ll get the hang of this language.