Well, it’s not so distinct, but there’s certainly a substantial change in the lingo created by the mountain divide.
So here’s a mini-guide to Saigonese for Hanoians and, erm, Vietnamese for Saigonese. You know how it goes, the language is only truly ‘chuan’ in the capital.
Mum’s the Word
Where better to start than with that most basic and vital of words — ‘Mum’. And yes, it’s completely different — mẹ in the north and má down south. This is the tip of the tongue-berg. Some places in the north use the word u to describe their mothers, or sometimes mợ. And then in the Mekong Delta you often hear the word vú, meaning breasts. It’s all a bit of a muddle, really, and so much for women’s rights.
Fortunately, the nation’s mothers are not the only ones burdened by phương ngữ, or words specific to a particular region. In Hanoi you have the fabulous ngõ and ngách to describe alleyways big and small, while in Saigon the word for both is a hẻm. Roads, too, have a different nomenclature. Phố up north and đường down south. So, to all those mums out there, you’re in good company.
Weights also are part of the regional confusion. In Central Vietnam they measure in lô, while Hanoi uses cân or kilogram and the south is obsessed by its ký. And if you fancy watching a bit of soccer — football to us Anglophones out there — then in the North and Centre you’ll be taking in the đá bóng, while down south it’s the đá banh.
Say it with Soy
But the real tongue-curdler for every Thong, Duc and Ha out there has to be when it comes to food. Fortunately, while the spices, broth and condiments may vary from region to region, Vietnam’s national dish phở bò is the same everywhere. Just don’t get into the spring rolls conundrum. Down south they’re chả giò while up north it’s nem rán that you need to order. They taste different, too. And while dipping it into a nước mắm-based sauce may be standard wherever you go, don’t muck things up and order it with soy. Nước tương just doesn’t exist in Hanoi. So, if you do want to get some of that salty black condiment to sprinkle over your food, make sure you order xì dầu.
Which just proves that to truly be a global Vietnamese citizen, global at least in local terms, and to be able to cross that Hai Van Pass-created pond, then you need to know your mothers from your spring rolls, and your alleyways from your dipping sauce. Failure to differentiate could lead to linguistic disaster. — Nick Ross