Word on the street: Is Saigon slowly embracing English?

The southern metropolis seems to be breaking the language barrier. One bilingual street sign at a time.

If you are looking for a sign of whether Saigon can become an international city, keep your eyes out for, well, the signs.

Like their peers in Hanoi, many in Ho Chi Minh City have adopted English as their quasi-official foreign language in recent years. There are expats who don't even bother to learn Vietnamese because they can easily communicate with almost everybody on the street, or at least ask for help.

It would not be a surprise if the megacity one day wants to become bilingual. And its first bilingual street signs unveiled recently seem to be pointing to that direction, pun intended.

The Saigon River Tunnel is one of the first places that have gone bilingual, with an overhead electronic board blaring information in English. The route is well traveled by the residents of District 2, the current de-facto expat nest.



More English signs have appeared on other main streets in District 1, including Vo Van Kiet, Nguyen Thai Hoc and Ky Con. Of course the signs around Tan Son Nhat airport are no-brainers.

The new traffic signs aim to make it easier for foreigners to navigate, an official has told local media, promising to "expand the idea" if the response is positive.

For the record, Ho Chi Minh City is determined to become a smart city, starting from its transportation system. Last year, the public transport authority introduced several mobile phone apps to help citizens dealing with the traffic.

The city has already added English to safety signs and outdoor PSAs.

Typos and grammatical mistakes here and there have sparked criticism.

"Protaction, prevention area against crime" would get more jeers than cheers.

And critics have pointed out that a plan to add the word "street" on every street sign is not necessary. Everybody knows what street name signs are for, they say.

The southern metropolis is trying to make itself more friendly to international visitors.

Last year, it welcomed 5.2 million foreign tourists, and is expecting 6 million this year.

At the end of 2015, the city had 110,000 foreigners registered as temporary residents, according to media reports which cited police data.  

Last year, Vietnam was ranked one of the best places for expats, according to a HSBC survey on 26,871 expats. In Asia, it only came after Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, with very high satisfaction about integration, making friends, and social life.

So will Saigon become bilingual soon? That's a question for the future nobody can answer now.

But at least it's less likely for you to get lost in the city now.

Some suggest the authorities should have different fonts for English.

The construction site for the city's first metro line.

A Vietnamese-English traffic sign on the way to Tan Son Nhat Airport.

On the backpacker street of Bui Vien in District 1

At least tourists now can understand what these signs mean.

The service sector has pioneered in using foreign languages, from English...

... to Korean.

Quynh Tran, Nhung Nguyen

By Nhung Nguyen