My Vietnam Experience: Vietnamese Roads and Language on the way to Buon Ma Thuot

Stray New Zealander Keys (aka Eileen) continues her travels on Stray’s very first Vietnam trip….. We headed out of Dalat and eventually made our way back down to sea level. The trip took us over another mountain range with stunning views of coffee plantations as far as the eye could see.

We also went through a number of villages along the way and locals would be carrying large bundles hanging off poles or balanced precariously on the back of a motorbike. One small trailer got stuck going through a gateway because it was so overloaded that although the wheels fit through, the load did not and it came to a sudden stop, cartoon style.

Indeed, you see lots of comical things on the road in Vietnam and although it is clear that Health and Safety would have a field day, I begin to question whether the word “overload” actually exists in the Vietnamese language. Crates, buckets, baskets fruit bundles and paintings are all carried by motorbike here and it’s not uncommon to see whole families on a motorbike.


Also, the concept of keeping to your side of the centre line, if there is one, is completely disregarded, whereas in most countries this is a fundamental law of driving. The reason for this is that most of the roads are single lanes and always full of motorbikes with the occasional car, lorry or bus. Therefore if you had to wait for 100m of clear road to overtake, you’d just end up with a huge line of slow-moving traffic as there never is a clear patch of road to perform this manoeuvre. Instead, the wider vehicles pull out into oncoming traffic, all the motorbikes divert around them and then the wider vehicle moves back to its side of the road.

This system actually works really well but I’m not sure it would if there were more four+ wheeled vehicles on the road, however it did give me food for thought about the stereotypical ‘Asian driving’. Perhaps they aren’t such poor drivers, they are just used to a different system and this doesn’t work in Western countries.

We had quite a bit of travel ahead of us because Vietnam is about 3000km from North to South. To help pass the time and improve our Vietnamese language skills we’ve been playing a variation of ‘I spy’. Instead of saying I spy,  you have to spot typical things you would see in a village – such as chickens, dogs, cows, pigs, bicycles, little children, old ladies, Vietnamese conical hats, ducks, and so forth. We would just concentrate on one word/thing for a while, then when we got tired of spotting chickens and had learned the word, we would move on to something else. This kept the game interesting and also our vocabulary on up and up.

However, speaking Vietnamese is no mean feat, and I say that as someone who is fascinated by language, has a flair for linguistics, generally has a good ear for languages and can speak three languages fluently.

One of the good things about Vietnamese is that thanks to the French influence, they use our alphabet as opposed to characters, even though their language is based on Chinese. They have a series of accents that are placed over and under letters and these affect the pronunciation and also meaning of a word. There are 6 different tones for every vowel and therefore a simple two-letter or one-syllable word can in fact have a myriad of meanings. Take ‘Bo’ for example, depending on how it is written & pronounced this can mean: father, boyfriend/girlfriend, cow, tip (monetary), insects, tight, ‘it is worthwhile, potty, walking and ‘to your health’.

So, speaking Vietnamese is literally a minefield for foreigners because, without meaning to, you are likely to say something completely different and more often than not inappropriate. Playing this I spy game in the van was hysterical because we kept on making our local driver and guide crack up with our massacred pronunciation which invariably resulted in some other Vietnamese word. For example, the quintessential Vietnamese conical hat is called a ‘non’, however, if you don’t get the inflexion right, you end up saying female genitalia instead.

Another funny aspect of the game was to spot people on motorbikes who weren’t using helmets. Unlike in many developing countries, this law is enforced here and for the most part, riders do wear them, but every now and then we’d see a rider without a helmet. So in this case we would yell out $12 dollars because this is what the fine is for not wearing one and if there was more than one person on the bike, then a multiple of twelve accordingly. So it really was a funny conversation as we drove along which went something like this: chicken, small kid, bike, chicken, cow cow, 24 dollar, conical hat, old woman, 12 dollar etc etc.

At any rate, the Vietnamese are really friendly, happy people and they just laugh with us as we make attempts at their language. Even in the outlying areas, many people do speak English here, or some at least, so if you don’t think you can get your tongue around the local language, all is not lost (in translation).

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Emily is a native creative nerd. This creative crew member's favourite stop is Bay of Islands.

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