English is the lingua franca of Hanoi and Vietnam, and one can navigate expat restaurants, shops and services without any knowledge of the local language. However, there is often little or no English ability in local markets and restaurants. One can certainly survive in Hanoi without learning Vietnamese, but may feel somewhat cut off from the life of the local people. Even a few simple phrases, such as “Thank you,” “How much?” and “Excuse me” make life in Hanoi much more comfortable. In addition, Vietnamese are extremely grateful when a Westerner makes even a minimal effort to communicate in their language.
Vietnamese can be a dauntingly difficult language. There is effectively no grammar, and verbs are not conjugated, but the tonal structure and variety of vowel sounds make it hard for Westerners to grasp. In a tonal language such as Vietnamese or Chinese, a single syllable has multiple meanings depending on the intonation with which it is pronounced. While in English a rising tone may indicate a question, in Vietnamese a rising tone would be a completely different word from the same syllable with a falling tone. Vietnamese has six tones, and telling them apart is one of the hardest aspects of the language.
Learning Vietnamese is a process of training one’s ear as well as remembering words and phrases. This process of “ear-training” makes it frustrating for many expats, but with a good teacher or class one can learn everyday phrases within a couple of weeks, and hold simple conversations within 3-4 months. In addition to the schools listed below, many private teachers are available for $5-10/hour, and some will teach in your own home. These teachers post notices on bulletin boards at grocery stores and cafes.
Vietnamese Teaching Group
164 Le Thanh Nghi
An organization offering Vietnamese lessons and events that help foreigners get a feel for the Vietnamese experience.
Vietnam National University – Faculty of Vietnamese Language and Culture
B7 Bis, Bach Khoa
Tel: 043 8694323
A National University department offering Vietnamese language and culture classes for foreigners. Private and small group lessons available.
58 Nguyen Thai Hoc
Tel:+84 4 37342251
The Goethe Institute is the German cultural institute in Hanoi. They offer beginning Vietnamese courses that meet twice a week—check the website to see when classes begin.
Standard Vietnamese Group
Room 212, Building C, Hanoi University, 9 Nguyen Trai street, Thanh Xuân distrcit
Vietnamese classes focused on daily conversation and cultural activities.