Alphabet

Unlike many other Southeast Asian languages, the Vietnamese language uses the Roman alphabet, which makes it more convenient to learn for many English speakers.

The Vietnamese alphabet follows pretty much the same alphabetical order as the English alphabet. It consists of 29 letters, with 12 vowels and 17 consonants.

Vietnamese Alphabet

There are just a handful of letters that are not present in the English alphabet, specifically 1 consonant and 6 vowels:

đ - ă - â - ê - ô - ơ - ư

There are also 4 consonants that are present in the English alphabet but not in the Vietnamese alphabet:

f - j - w - z

Vowels

As mentioned in the previous lesson, there are 12 vowels in the Vietnamese alphabet. We'll learn how to pronounce each of them by groups in the next few lessons.

  • a - ă - â
  • e - ê
  • ô - ô - ơ
  • u - ư
  • i - y

Please note that the marks which appear on the vowels are not tone marks. You can simply call them "vowel marks", and there are only 3 of them:

  • a smile (ă)
  • a hat (â, ô)
  • a hook (ơ, ư)

It is important to differentiate the sound of each vowel. Your mouth and tongue placements are crucial to produce the correct sounds.

In English, a vowel letter can represent different vowel sounds. For example, letter "a" produces different sounds in the word "hat" /hæt/ and "may" /meɪ/.

However, in Vietnamese, each vowel letter represents one vowel sound and does not change when being placed in different words.

Therefore, as long as you can master the pronunciation of vowels, some consonants, and of course the tones, you'll be able to pronounce most Vietnamese words on your own.

Vowels: a - ă - â

Pronouncing "a"

  • similar to "a" in far, and farther
  • a central and unrounded vowel
  • the mouth is wide open (like when you go to the dentist), and the tongue rests at the bottom of the mouth.

Practice: Listen to the following words and repeat out loud

la ---- xa ---- cam ---- ham ---- qua

Pronouncing "ă"

  • (smile) higher pitch, and tenser than "a"
  • a short, unrounded vowel
  • mouth corners lifted like a smile, try to produce ‘a’ sound but with higher pitch (forcing sound). You could actually feel your throat vibrate more when making this sound.

Practice: Listen to the following words and repeat out loud

ăn ---- lăn ---- tăm ---- băm ---- chăm

Pronouncing "â"

  • similar to "u" in sun, and run
  • a short, unrounded vowel
  • mouth relaxed, produce a short, lazy ‘uh’ /ə/ sound

Practice: Listen to the following words and repeat out loud

sân ---- gân ---- cân ---- câm ---- hâm

Differentiating: a - ă - â

Practice: Listen to the following words and repeat out loud

lan ---- lăn ---- lân

san ---- săn ---- sân

cam ---- căm ---- câm

tam ---- tăm ---- tâm

Vowels: e - ê

Pronouncing "e"

  • similar to "e" /ɛ/ in end and empty
  • a low-front, unrounded vowel, where the sound is produced in the front of the mouth
  • the mouth corner slightly lifted, while the tongue rests at the bottom
  • the tip of the tongue is placed behind the lower front teeth, and the back of the tongue rises slightly toward the hard palate

Practice: Listen to the following words and repeat out loud

me ---- xe ---- che ---- đen ---- quen

Pronouncing "ê"

  • similar to "e" in they, and hey, but without the "y" ending sound which follows the vowel in the pronunciation of "-ey"
  • a mid-front, unrounded vowel, where the sound is produced in the front of the mouth
  • the tongue rests at the bottom, while the tip of the tongue is placed behind the lower front teeth, and the back of the tongue rises slightly toward the hard palate

Practice: Listen to the following words and repeat out loud

---- ---- hên ---- lên ---- tên

Differentiating e - ê

Practice: Listen to the following words and repeat out loud

me ----

que ---- quê

hen ---- hên

len ---- lên

Vowels: o - ô - ơ

Pronouncing "o"

  • similar to 'aw' in law and saw
  • an open, rounded vowel where the mouth rounded into an O shape, producing a clear /ɔː/ sound

Practice: Listen to the following words and repeat out loud

do ---- ho ---- to ---- lon ---- cho

Pronouncing "ô"

  • similar to 'o' in oh or hope
  • a close, rounded vowel, where the lips moved forwards and formed a small "o" shape
  • the tongue pulled back and the tip of the tongue is in a very low position

Practice: Listen to the following words and repeat out loud

---- ---- ---- hôn ---- tôm

Pronouncing "ơ"

  • similar to 'a' /ə/ in balloon and familiar, with more stress
  • a middle and unrounded vowel
  • the letter "ơ" sounds very similar to the letter "â", except when pronouncing "ơ", your jaw should drop much lower (like being surprised). This makes "ơ" sounds a bit longer than "â"

Practice: Listen to the following words and repeat out loud

---- ---- ---- hơn ---- cơm

Differentiating o - ô - ơ

Practice: Listen to the following words and repeat out loud

do ---- ----

to ---- ----

com ---- côm ---- cơm

voi ---- vôi ---- vơi

Differentiating ơ - â

Practice: Listen to the following words and repeat out loud

câm ---- cơm

râm ---- rơm

hân ---- hơn

sân ---- sơn

Vowels: u - ư

Pronouncing "u"

  • similar to 'oo' in shoo and moo
  • a back and rounded vowel, where the tongue is pulled away from the lower front teeth, ad the tip of the tongue is in a low position.

Practice: Listen to the following words and repeat out loud

ru ---- thu ---- khu ---- vun ---- run

Pronouncing "ư"

  • a central and unrounded vowel
  • does not resemble any English sound
  • however, you can try to pronounce 'oo' /urh/ in good, then slowly pull back your lips (slightly lifted) as when you smile

Practice: Listen to the following words and repeat out loud

---- ---- ---- ---- thư

Differentiating u - ư

Practice: Listen to the following words and repeat out loud

hu ----

xu ----

tu ----

thu ---- thư

Vowels: i - y

  • both "i" and "y" sounds similar to 'ee' in see
  • front and unrounded vowels

Practice: Listen to the following words and repeat out loud

bi ---- mi ---- khi ---- thi ---- ghi

ly ---- vy ---- quy

Vowels Clusters

In addition to the single vowels (or monophthongs), Vietnamese has diphthongs and triphthongs, which are the compounds of 2 to 3 vowel characters.

Below are some common diphthongs and triphthongs.

Vietnamese Vowels Clusters

Pronouncing Vowels Clusters

To pronounce these vowel combinations, try to pronounce each single vowel first, then combine them into a single sound.

The first vowel will be the main sound (sounds the most prominently), followed by shorter and weaker sounds of the next vowels.

Practice: Listen to the following and repeat out loud

[a] + [o][ao] ---- bao ---- dao ---- sao

[e] + [o][eo] ---- heo ---- keo ---- leo

[i] + [ê] + [u][iêu] ---- siêu ---- tiêu ---- riêu

[ư] + [ơ] + [i][ươi] ---- dươi ---- mươi ---- tươi

Special combinations

  • Though the vowels "i" and "y" are pronounced the same, when combining with the vowels "a" or "u", the diphthongs that are formed sound differently.

ai /ai/ ---- ay /ăy/

mai ---- may

tai ---- tay

ui ---- uy

tui ---- tuy

xui ---- suy


  • The vowel "a" in the diphthong "au" is pronounced as [ă + u].

au ---- lau ---- mau ---- rau


  • When "a" is the ending vowel in the diphthongs "ia", "ua", "ưa" and "uya", it's pronounced with a weak "ơ" vowel sound.

kia ---- mua ---- xưa ---- khuya

Single Consonants

LetterSimilar English soundExamples-
bbarba ---- bên
ccar, but unaspiratedcon ---- cua
dyou (South)
zoo (North)
dê ---- dai
đdođi ---- đen
ggoga ---- gan
hhotho ---- hoa
kcarkem ---- kia
llandlăn ---- loa
mmomma ---- mua
nnono ---- năm
ppage, unaspiratedpin (1)
qwhy (South)
quiet (North)
qua ---- quen
rred (South)
zoo (North)
ra ---- rau
ssitsư ---- say
tstrong time, and unaspiratedto ---- tươi
vvery
you (South, most words)
voi ---- vui
xsitxa ---- xem

(1) The consonant p only appears at the end of the word as a final consonant, except for the word pin, which means "battery".

In Vietnamese:

  • Letter c and k sound alike
  • letter s is commonly pronounced as x
  • letter p is often pronounced as b

In the Southern dialect:

  • most words that start with letter v are pronounced as letter d
  • some people would also pronounce letter r as g

Consonant Clusters

LetterSimilar English soundExamples-
ghgoghi ---- ghen
giyou (South)
zoo (North)
gian ---- giun
khkhankhi ---- không
chcha-chacho ---- chim
ngsingerngon ---- ngoan
nghsinger , same as "ng"nghe ---- nghiêm
quwhy (South)
quiet (North)
qua ---- quên
ththailand , aspiratedthư ---- thon
nhcanyonnho ---- như
trtraintre ---- trên
phphonepha ---- phim

In Vietnamese:

  • g and gh are pronounced the same
  • ng and ngh are pronounced the same

In the Southern dialect:

  • tr is pronounced the same as ch
  • gi is pronounced the same as the single consonant d

Tones

As you may know, Vietnamese is a tonal language, which means that words can differ in tones. The spellings may look the same but by adding different tones, these words can have different meanings.

Let's take a look at some examples:

  • ba means 'number 3', as well as 'father'. But means 'grandma'.
  • bạn means 'friend' or 'you (pronoun)'; bán means 'to sell' ; bàn means 'table'. So when you say Bạn bán bàn, it literally means 'You sell table'.

Southern vs Northern Tones

Here are some important points that you'll need to take note.

  • There are 6 tones in total: ngang, sắc, huyền, hỏi, ngã, nặng
  • In Northern dialect, all 6 tones are in use.
  • However in Southern dialect, only 5 tones are in use, except “ngã”
  • So all the words that has “ngã” tone would be read as if they have “hỏi” tones.
TonesNames - How to pronounce
Vietnamese tones - sắcSẮC - a high-rising tone, starts from a mid to mid-high level pitch, then rises sharply to a high level pitch (left to right)
NGANG - a mid level flat tone with no accent mark, ranges from mid to mid-high pitch
HỎI - a mid dipping-rising tone, starts around a mid level pitch, slightly falls, then quickly rises to a mid-high level pitch
NGÃ - same as ‘hỏi’ tone in Southern dialect
HUYỀN - a low-falling tone, starts from a mid to mid-low pitch, then slightly falls to a low level pitch (left to right)
NẶNG - a low-dropping tone, starts around the same level as ‘huyền’ tone, falls immediately to a low level pitch, then rises slightly before being cut off abruptly

The 5 Southern Vietnamese tones that have been described above can be illustrated in the image below, telling you how each of them is being pronounced.

Southern Vietnamese Tones Illustration

PRACTICE

Task: Listen to the following phrases and repeat out loud

SẮC - Cá lớn nuốt cá bé (= The big fish swallow the small fish)

NGANG - Ba anh em đang chơi bi-da (= The 3 brothers are playing pool)

HỎI - Hải ngủ ở cảng biển (= Hải sleeps at the seaport)

HUYỀN - Nhà mình gần nhà bà mình (= My house is near my grandma's)

NẶNG - Bạn Hạnh lại được tặng kẹo (= Hạnh was given candies again)