It’s tough to speak the language in Vietnam. As a foreigner, it really is something you dream of mastering. The reality of this occurring is something else entirely. Locals, please understand that we are trying our best.

am fully aware that as a foreigner in Vietnam, it is incumbent on me to try and learn the lingo. I have lived in other countries and made a serious effort, and when I first arrived here, I fully intended to do the same. However, I feel like I have to admit defeat with Vietnamese, and it leaves me somewhat perplexed. I don’t want to be that guy; you know, the one who thinks everyone should speak English, I hate that. I have actually heard people say it. It is astonishingly arrogant to think that English is so special that everyone should learn it. Yes, ok it is spoken by over 1 billion people, but that should be reason for anyone who has English as their first language to be grateful, not arrogant. According to ethonogue.com there are 7,098 others languages on the orb we call home.

When I lived in Thailand, the way I grew my grammar was to stick post-it notes all over my apartment, with phonetic spellings of the way the Thais pronounced the words. Doors, walls, drawers, spoons, forks, knives, the TV, windows…everything was a sea of post-it notes. But it worked, and pretty quickly. I arrived in Vietnam with little knowledge of the country. I was pleasantly surprised to see a familiar alphabet everywhere and thought, “Well this is going to be easier.” It took less than a day for the truth to dawn.

I am still completely baffled that the slightest incorrect pronunciation results in a total lack of understanding. Again, please don’t take this as arrogance, it isn’t, it is merely a huge lack of understanding. Even in the most obvious of contexts, it is still impossible to make myself understood.

There was a lady who used to sell banh mi at the end of the street where I used to live. She only sold banh mi, and only one particular type. I drove up one morning and waited in line. Getting to the front I asked for “Mot banh mi”. Yep, I got a puzzled expression and the jazz hands. The queue was forming behind me and my English guilt and reserve was kicking in swiftly. I felt like just riding off in shame. I tried about three times and in the end just pointed and grunted. I know it’s my fault but I just don’t get it. What on earth did she think I wanted, my motorbike servicing? If I was selling hotdogs and only hotdogs and a foreign person came up and asked for a hat dig, I might think he was a Kiwi, but I’d figure it out.

In addition to all this, age is catching up with me and I am now at that stage, which I’m sure many recognise, where I can walk into a room and wonder why. So managing to remember foreign vocabulary at the same time as incredibly difficult pronunciation is extremely taxing for me. I just hope the locals understand that I do try, honest.

Tam biet!

Following a highly successful 25-year career as a singer/songwriter and musician, Keith pulled out of the rat race and moved to Southeast Asia in 2008. First living in Thailand, he moved to Cambodia and then relocated to Ho Chi Minh City in early 2013.

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