Love inspires German to learn Vietnam’s impossible dialect

By Hai Hien   October 21, 2023 | 08:07 pm PT
Martin Knöfel asked his wife Nguyen Thi Hoa “Where's the fish sauce?” in a perfect Nghe An accent, giving his wife a big laugh to begin their dinner together.

Videos of daily life experience by the couple, both of whom are 39 and reside in Switzerland, have attracted a lot of attention because of how Knöfel uses local slang and speaks Vietnamese in a perfect dialects and accents of Central Vietnam’s Nghe An province, where his wife hailed from.

"I enjoy learning Vietnamese, and I especially love to talk in Nghe An dialect," the German man says. "By doing so, I can better communicate with my in-laws and help my wife to partly relieve the feeling of homesickness.

Knöfel and Hoa. Photo courtesy of Knöfel

Knöfel and Hoa. Photo courtesy of Knöfel

Plenty of foreigners learn Vietnamese, but few choose to learn the Nghe An accent, an exceptionally provincial vernacular that even modern Saigonese and Hanoians have trouble understanding.

Knöfel first arrived in Vietnam in 2007 for business purposes. He and Hoa met each other through a mutual connection and it was love at their first sight. The couple held a wedding ceremony shortly after that before relocating to Switzerland in 2010.

Their first days in Switzerland were not exactly smooth. Knöfel, at the time a fresh graduate, did not earn much, and Hoa’s job hunting as a foreigner did not go well. There was a time when the most valuable object they owned was a bicycle as they struggled to pay bills.

Having to manage the language barrier and a tight financial situation at the same time, Hoa felt unmotivated and cried every day. Knöfel tried his best to comfort her whenever he saw her cry, saying things like: "You would not have needed to leave your family if it had not been for me, so I will make that up to you."

And he fulfilled his promise by doing household chores with Hoa after work, spending time with her, and encouraging her to pursue a degree in healthcare, which helped Hoa subsequently earn a position at a hospital for traumatology and orthopedics.

Hoa did not cry anymore, but she still at times sat in a silent daze staring vacantly into space. Guessing that Hoa was feeling homesick, Knöfel thought things could be better for his wife if she could speak her mother tongue. And because of that, he started learning how to speak Vietnamese in the dialect of the northern province of Nghe An Province. He knew it would be extremely difficult but he determined to give it his all.

Knöfel was indefatigable. He eagerly spoke Vietnamese in the Nghe An dialect with Hoa more frequently, and he called his in-laws in his spare time to enrich his vocabulary, despite having been confused with local pronouns his in-laws used even after 20 visits to their Nghe An home.

"He asked ‘How do you pronounce this?’ whenever he saw a new word," Hoa said.

The German man always concentrated on what Hoa and her family were saying whenever they had conversations as well. He tried to guess the meaning of the words if he could, and asked Hoa or others to explain them to him if otherwise. His vocabulary grew over time using this method.

Hoa’s relatives got confused and laughed when they first heard Knöfel speak Vietnamese, as they could not understand what he was saying, which made him shy at the beginning. But as Hoa explained to him that the laughter was to encourage and compliment him instead of to mock him, Knöfel grew more confident. He now speaks Vietnamese to every local person he meets whenever he visits Vietnam.

As Knöfel self-taught himself the language, he sometimes encountered funny situations. For example, there was one time when he asked his mother-in-law: "Have you ever eaten ‘khu man’ fruits?"

His question made everyone present laugh aloud before explaining to him that "khu man" is a slang for "buttocks" in Nghe An.

Since people from other regions of Vietnam often find Nghe An accent difficult to understand or at times even indecipherable, Knöfel still has difficulties communicating sometimes, especially when he talks to people from other regions of Vietnam. Hoa then taught him the "standardized" Vietnamese pronunciation, and Knöfel is so good at it that he now automatically alternates between the Nghe An dialect and the "standardized" pronunciation depending on the people he talks to.

But as Hoa said, her husband still feels closer to those from Nghe An who speak the province’s dialect.

Occasionally accompanying his father-in-law to visit the elder man’s friends, Knöfel impresses everyone with his Vietnamese skills. He gets asked sometimes: "Why are you so good at Vietnamese?"

"I’m Nghe An’s son-in-law," he often replies.

Knöfel and his father-in-law in May, 2023. Photo courtesy of Knöfel

Knöfel and his father-in-law in May, 2023. Photo courtesy of Knöfel

Despite that, Knöfel has never stopped improving his Vietnamese skills. He can now read any long Vietnamese poem and write simple sentences. He has many books about Vietnam by German authors, and he regularly researches the country’s historical figures as well. He said he especially admires President Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap.

The German man calls his in-laws every weekend now to get updated on their lives, to talk about a new dish his wife has just cooked, and to send his greetings to his in-laws’ relatives, neighbors, and friends.

Knöfel has also become a fan of Vietnamese cuisine, especially nuoc mam (Vietnamese fish sauce). Hoa has to prepare a small bowl of nuoc mam with ginger, lime, and chili in every meal she and Knöfel share, otherwise her husband does not touch any dish. Their meals often include Vietnamese dishes, and Hoa cooks her husband pho or other Vietnamese-style noodle dishes every weekend when she has more spare time.

Knöfel also hits the nuoc mam stall in supermarkets every time he goes for groceries, and he brings three bottles of the sauce with him every time he travels just in case he cannot find it there.

Hoa said she thus always feels happy despite staying in a foreign country. She can speak her mother tongue, can eat her home country’s specialties, and can share everything with her husband knowing that he always cares about her emotions.

"He [Knöfel] always knows how I’m feeling just by hearing my voice," she said, adding that when the couple argues, her anger always goes away the moment Knöfel starts speaking Vietnamese in the Nghe An dialect.

The couple has been uploading videos of them speaking Nghe An-ese with each other on their social media account over the past year. The posts have garnered interest from many people thanks to Knöfel’s genuine facial expressions and voice.

"Not only me but also every viewer feels relaxed watching the videos," Hoa said. "His [Knöfel’s] funny jokes with his Nghe An accent always fill our family with laughter too."

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