Vietnam is an exotic, beautiful and super cheap tourist destination, which has many pro’s and also some cons like regular rips offs and scams. But how widely spoken is English there? Can an English speaking tourist expect to get by just speaking English there?
Around 50% of the Vietnamese population overall is estimated to have some English language skills, with a higher rate in the main tourist locations. English proficiency is much lower in the poorer rural areas.
Therefore, most of the English speakers are concentrated in the places tourists are most likely to visit, so holiday makers should mostly be fine using English in Vietnam if they are going to the usual places visitors go.
The language barrier is not really a concern if you are staying in the main cities. It is probably more important to look out for scammers and people trying to rip you off and sell you stuff. Some people report that it will likely happen to everyone who visits at some point, especially if they clock you as a tourist. The key is to still enjoy Vietnam for all it’s good things and not let an odd rip off or overcharging get to you.
In The Main Cities You Will Be Fine With English
Frequent visitors to Vietnam report that you usually have no problems speaking English in any of the main cities like Hanoi, Sai Gon and Ho Chi Minh. The 50% English speaking proportion is over the country as a whole; it is actually much higher than this in the cities, and lower in more rural areas.
So in the main areas holiday makers are most likely to visit, you should be covered in restaurants, outdoor vendors, and hotels. Strangely though, police officers often don’t speak so much English, since they are paid very low wages and corruption also remains a problem. Be on guard for cons and scammers in the streets. You will likely get pestered if you take to the streets as a foreigner in Vietnam.
Tourism in Vietnam has exploded in the last few years, with anything between 20-30% year on year growth in foreign visits between from 2015 to 2018. Last year they received over a million visitors from the main English speaking countries alone, so it is growing in popularity as a tourist destination in South East Asia.
Thankfully then, English proficiency in the main cities of Vietnam is actually quite decent according to people who visit there, much better than other countries in the region like Thailand. All children learn English at school nowadays and the proficiency will continue to grow to accommodate the growing number of English speakers who are holidaying there.
The proficiency of the English may vary though, with some quite fluent but some only restricted to a few basic words. It will help if you speak clearly and slowly and use simple, short sentences to waiters and other people in the tourist areas.
You can also write down any phrases or locations and they may understand it better than spoken English. it is a common trait in the Far East that English teaching is restricted to written form and so verbal competency is sometimes lower unless they work in tourism and constantly practice it every day.
Where You Might Struggle With English
Any time you go off the beaten track, away from the main tourist areas to more rural and remote areas, then you will find English proficiency falls dramatically, to near zero in some cases. Some of the poorer people in Vietnam cannot afford to send their kids to school and so they do not have the chance to learn English.
Also older people may struggle to converse in English, since it has not been taught in schools until fairly recently. In these cases you will have to rely on some typical tourist body language and miming, and having some basic Vietnamese phrases here can save you some time and frustration – see below.
The good news is that Vietnamese people are always very friendly and helpful regardless of any language barriers, and will do what they can to help. They love to engage with foreign visitors and the children especially love to practice their basic English with tourists whenever they can.
Some Basic Vietnamese Phrases
The Vietnamese language is generally considered quite hard to learn in detail. The alphabet and pronunciation are very different from what Westerners will be used to; nevertheless memorizing a few basic phrases is not too difficult and will always endear you to the locals, who may not understand you but will always be happy that you tried a few words.
|Hello/Hi||Xin chào||Sin ciao|
|Goodbye||Tạm biệt||Ta bieh|
|See you soon||Hẹn gặp lại||He gap lie|
|Please||Làm ơn||Lam urn|
|Thank you (polite)||Cảm ơn nhiều||Cam on nhio|
|Sorry||Xin lỗi||Sin loh-e|
|How much is it?||Bao nhiêu tiền?||Baow niew tien?|
The “no” phrase is especially important for tourists, since you will be pestered by people in the street trying to sell you things and rip you off, and you will need to ward them off with a firm “no” to get rid of them. It is part of the experience in Vietnam.
The Vietnamese language is not the easiest to pronounce for people new to it, with many different accents and intonations of voice on certain words that take time to learn. You need to raise or lower your tone at the end of certain words to get the pronunciation correct. See the video for more on this.
If you’re looking for a language learning app, Mondly offers 41 languages (including Vietnamese) for you to learn on any device, with plans starting from $4/month, and a free version also accessible with no signup required. It is used by over 100 million people worldwide and has excellent overall reviews with it’s easy user interface and emphasis on quick learning and progress. See our overview of the platform here.
- Essential stats on Vietnam:
- Population: 103 million
- Time zone: EST +12 hours; GMT +7 hours.
- Currency: Vietnamese Dong (VND) ($1 = 24,810 VND; £1= 29,338 VND at time of writing)
- International calling code: +84 (see here for getting a working local SIM card/number when abroad)
- Drives on the right
- Luggage allowances – see here for an excellent guide on luggage allowances (checked and cabin) for all major airlines worldwide.
- Banking – If you don’t want to get stung with high ATM fees, check out our article on the Wise Borderless Card, which allows you to open up balances in many different currencies (including Vietnamese Dong) and spend for free on your card, plus draw out a certain amount of dong at ATMs for free each month.