How to meet and greet in Vietnamese

By Pham Van, Kim ThuyAugust 8, 2016 | 04:05 pm PT
The Vietnamese language can be a minefield when it comes to a simple 'hello'!

Saying 'hello' in Vietnamese is not as simple as some might assume.

There is a saying that our ancestors have passed down the generations: 'Loi chao cao hon mam co' (No need for a banquet, a greeting is enough). So you know how much Vietnamese appreciate a proper greeting. 

Before we move on, don't even try to use Google Translate for 'good morning/afternoon' as Vietnamese never say 'Chao buoi sang/chieu'. If you insist on following Google's wisdom, you might find people looking at you with a confused expression on their faces. 

Also, forget about the 'xin chao' /seen ciao/ all the "textbooks" are teaching. It doesn't exist in real life conversation. It's like 'welcome aboard'; you don't say that in English, do you?

Mastering Vietnamese greetings may take a little while as there are a number of rules that you should keep in mind. 

In Vietnam, knowing somebody else's age matters, a lot. One of the first things we ask strangers is their year of birth. Respect for our elders is deeply ingrained in our culture and reflected in our language, so we use different pronouns depending on whom we are addressing.  

The Vietnamese, in fact, have developed a skill that allows them to instantly guess somebody's age with an error margin low enough to feel safe even greeting a middle aged woman.

The rule of thumb is to imagine your social circle as your extended family. 

1. Greeting someone older than you

The big brothers and sisters

Photo by Nguyen Luong Sao/VnExpress Photo Contest

Photo by Nguyen Luong Sao/VnExpress Photo Contest

If the guy looks like he could be your big brother, say: 'Em chao anh a!' / Em ciao ank ak/

If the girl looks like she could be your big sister, say 'Em chao chi a!' /Em ciao chee ak/

By now you've probably figured out 'anh' means elder brother and 'chi' means elder sister. To your 'anh, chi', you're 'em', the younger sibling. 'Chao' is of course hello while 'a' is what Vietnamese say at the end of the sentence to show respect to those who are older; but it's optional. 

This can be very tricky, especially in the workplace where being called 'anh' or 'chi' is the norm and considered professional, even if your boss could be older than your parents. Only when your (most likely) boss is too old, verging on the age of your grandparents, will he or she be OK with you calling them like aunt and uncle. 

The aunts and uncles

When you greet someone belonging to your parents' generation, you use either of your parents' age as a benchmark to determine how you greet them.

If the woman/man looks like she/he is older than your mum/dad, say: 'Chau chao bac!' /Chou ciao baak/

Yes, 'bac' means older aunt or uncle.

If the woman looks like she's younger than your mom, then say: 'Chau chao co!' /Chou ciao co/

If it's a man who is younger than your dad, then you go: 'Chau chao chu' /Chou ciao chooo/

To those adults, you are like nephews/nieces, 'chau'. Remember that you can still add an 'a' at the end to show some respect.

The grandparents

Photo by Huynh Nhu Luu/VnExpress Photo Contest

Photo by Huynh Nhu Luu/VnExpress Photo Contest

'Ong' /ong/ and 'ba' /baa/ are the equivalent of granddad and grandmom. You can probably guess by now how the greeting goes. 'Chau chao ong' for the granddad and 'chau chao ba' for the grandmom. And again, do not forget to add 'a' at the end. In this case, 'chau' is not nephew or niece, just a homophone meaning grandson and granddaughter.

2. To your juniors...

If the above complex rules make you suffocate, here comes the chance for you to relax as there is no rule at all.

Jut say 'Chao em/chau'. This can be applied to anyone in any circumstances, formal or informal. Use 'em' when you belong to the same generation, otherwise, it's 'chau'. 

3. Finally, your mates

Photo by Le Van Ngoc/VnExpress Photo Contest

Photo by Le Van Ngoc/VnExpress Photo Contest

Anything will do. When you're the same age, formalities are redundant, if not weird. Just smile but don't hug and jump straight to the point, like:

'Di dau day' /dee dough day/, meaning 'where are you going'.

'Dang lam gi day' /dang laam gee day/, meaning 'what's up'.

These questions don't really require an answer. It's just a way to be friendly. 

Now it is time to open your door, step out and say 'hi' like a Vietnamese.

P.S.: If you want to say goodbye, just repeat the greeting; but not the 'where are you going' part.

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