Below Basic Vietnamese

I doubt I’ll ever master Vietnamese. A language with five or six tonal inflections which completely change the meaning of the word. The classic example from the Lonely Planet books is the word ‘ma‘ now depending on the accents above and below the ‘a‘ it can mean; ghost, tomb, horse, mother, which or… rice seedling.
And I thought Korean was a challenge.

What I have learned mostly are food and numbers. I proudly can count to 999 999, which seems impressive until I realize that $50 = 1 000 000 Dong. Great, I can count to fifty.

This doesn’t stop me though, and today I went to the local street food rice place to order lunch. I call it street food rice because every dish comes with white rice and the tables are set up in the alley off the busy Le Van Sy street.
I order meat, veggies, rice (pretty much I picked which meat I wanted – I suspect it was pork) and a bitter melon soup. I’m not sure the exact name for it but it was an oblong, bumpy green gourd stuffed with some sort of meat. It tasted better (yet bitter) than it sounds or looks.

At the completion of my meal I go to pay the rice vendor and she says quickly, “ba mười sáu” (baa mooi soh). I pause for a moment, still having to translate the sounds into numbers and nod, okay, thirty six (thousand Dong). Not a problem. I pull out one hundred and six (thousand Dong).

She shoots me a smile, pleased I know even a little Vietnamese.
She pulls open her drawer of money, Vietnamese seem determined to keep their money and randomly muddled and mixed as possible, and snatches up a fifty (thousand Dong) note. All I need is another twenty (thousand Dong) and we’re done.
She rifles through the drawers, snaps open her purse, makes that universal “ummm” sound and then…
gives me the ten (thousand Dong) from her purse and…
the six (thousand Dong) I gave her, plus another three (thousand Dong).

I looked at her and used one of the other Vietnamese words I’ve learned, a very useful one especially when judging a situation correctly.

Xấu“*. (Sooooow – really dragging out the vowel).

She pauses a moment, then it clicks I’m using Vietnamese slang on her complaining about wad of bills she just shoved in my hand. She cracks into a laugh and repeats, “xấu” to herself, chuckling as she turns to the other women she runs the street food rice cart with.

I’m positive she’ll be sharing the story that just unfolded.

xấu – literally means ‘bad‘ but it also is slang for ‘liar‘. Thankfully she got the joke.


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