Three Grandmothers or a turtle?

A short Vietnamese lesson.

ba means ‘three’

ba means ‘Dad’

bà means ‘Grandmother or Missus’

bà means ‘her’

ba ba means ‘turtle’

So what would I have if I was given ba ba ba?

Whatever your answer is; you’re probably wrong – it’s a beer, 333 beer actually.

333 Bia
333 Bia

Though I suppose I could have been given three of her Grandmothers; though it pretty unlikely.

The Vietnamese language sometimes needs context to be clear. So, if l worked in a marine sanctuary (or a restaurant) then ba ba ba really could mean three turtles.

The Vietnamese words for cream, ice cream and moisturiser are the same – kem. It would be obvious if I was asking for some kem to put on my face, but less so if I ordered some kem to go with a piece of cake.

But this is just the beginning of my Vietnamese language confusion.

At one point I thought that bánh meant bread, as in Bánh Mì a Vietnamese bread roll. Okay, that is easy.

Then I came across Bánh Xèo, a delicious savoury pancake stuffed with pork and bean sprouts. It isn’t a really bread, so I modified my definition of bánh to mean anything made from flour. My beloved Bánh Cuốn (steamed rice noodle rolls) are made from flour, so is Bánh Chuối (banana cake). Finally I figured it out and it all fit! I felt pretty proud of myself for having used my excellent powers of deduction so skilfully.

Bánh Cuốn (steamed rice noodle rolls)
Bánh Cuốn (steamed rice noodle rolls)
Bánh Chuối (banana cake)
Bánh Chuối (banana cake)

Then I learnt the words for motorcycle tyre – bánh xe… Huh? What?

Tyres are made from synthetic rubber, natural rubber, fabric and wire, not freaking flour.

Then what the hell does bánh mean?

All confidence in my reasoning skills having left me, I finally just asked someone what it means.

And it pretty much translates as something that is or was round in shape.

Okay then; I can live with that.

Actually, the double, triple, quadruple and octuple meanings of the same word are less bothersome to me than the tonal nature of Vietnamese. But I can tell you’re already reeling from this small insight into the multifariousness of Vietnamese words, so let’s go over tones another time.

Fun fact! Many people, locals and tourists alike, use motorcycle taxis or xe ôm to get around. Xe is a prefix word for a type of vehicle, as in xe gắn máy for motorcycle. In Vietnamese, ôm means a cuddle, so the direct translation isn’t ‘motorcycle taxis,’ it is ‘motorcycle hug.’ I think that is just a great way to put it.


19 thoughts on “Three Grandmothers or a turtle?

  1. Another great blog!
    I’ve also started learning Vietnamese and realised what a problem my pronunciation is. Apparently the way I’ve been pronouncing ‘xin chao’ (hello) actually means ‘please porridge’.


    1. Yeah, using the correct tone is everything – chào (accent down) is hello, cháo (accent up) is porridge. Anglophones studying Vietnamese can’t hear the difference for a long time.


  2. Love your example of ba ba ba – I guess after trying to practice those tones, a beer is just what the doctor orders 🙂


  3. Language is such a fascinating topic! Is there an intonation change when saying the word “ba” that helps clarify its various meanings or is it only contextual?


    1. You can see some of the ‘ba’s’ have different accents above the a’s. Those little accents above the a change the tone and change the meaning. Other examples are ma is ghost, mả is grave, mạ is coated, and mà is but.
      These are easy because you can see and hear the obvious differences. Some words have the same spelling and tones – those ones need context to give meaning.
      I’m going to write a whole post about tones in Vietnamese and how much trouble you can get into if you mispronounce a tone even sightly. I’ll give you a hint – the word for a common fruit and the word for genitalia is perilously similar.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi, this is not related to your post, but do you know Blue Dragon? The have pretty good lawyers dealing well with human trafficking cases. And they are also in Vietnam. Maybe that’s something in your line of work.


      1. Thought it might be helpful to your work as you seem to be working in a similar domain as them. I know Michael and would be happy to introduce a fellow blogger to him, if requested.


      2. Thank you for the offer, but I’m happy to keep this blogging aspect of my life a little separate from my work.
        I spend all day creating reintegration assistance programmes for returned survivors of sex trafficking, writing reports on bride trafficking, labour trafficking, people smuggling, exploitative migrant labour contracts, the linkages between environmental degradation and internal displacement, etc.
        When I come home it is nice to just write about how often people pick their noses and how hard the language is to learn. This is a nice release for me and is a way to hang on to a work/life balance. Thank you for thinking of it though.


  5. I relate in my efforts to learn Irish Gaelic. Fortunately everyone speaks English and I slide by. But so confusing with the mixed meanings of same words, relying on context and the most subtle inflections. Never mind the German-like throaty sound that is not in the English language and doesn’t come easily past childhood.
    I am so delighted that I took the time to come and visit your blog today. Sorry to not have done it sooner. Time slipping through my fingers, but my destiny today to be here! I look forward to more of your wonderful writing and conversation (I adore when comments are as interesting as the article itself 🙂 )
    Take care and have a good night, Melissa


  6. Thanks Melissa, I love your blog. I laughed about your 30kg crop of potatoes only lasting you a month or so. Maybe plant for a 60kg crop and you might be able to stretch it out for two months!

    Irish is a hard language, my Granny used to speak it at me (at me, not with me) when I was a kiddie and still her ‘cailín beag álainn.’ I could understand what she wanted me to do, but couldn’t answer back (perhaps that was the perfect level of Irish for me to have in her opinion). Particularly difficult for Anglophones is that you don’t really pronounce the letters the same way in Irish as you do in English and the grammar is different too – you really need to turn your English brain off. At least your children will grow up with the language and completely at ease speaking it, I’m sure that will come in handy for their leaving certs.


  7. Great blog, I love it! Keep it up 🙂
    How about:

    Bụi phấn – “Chalk dust” (A famous and much loved song about teachers)


    Bụi phân – which basically means “a pile of shit” 🙂 (much-loved by street dogs)

    The pronunciation, like many so Vietnamese words, is barely noticeable but obviously depends on context.


    1. Oh, you’re right! I can’t believe I misspelled that – it was one of the first tiếng Việt words I learnt (because it is so delicious and I order it often). Thank you for correcting me, Anh!


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