Vietnamese is a “Hard Language” according to the U.S. Foreign Services Institute. They say it takes 1,100 class hours to learn. That means if you earned just $15 an hour, you could earn $16,500 instead of learning Vietnamese.
So, is it worth it to learn Vietnamese? What are the benefits of speaking Vietnamese? Will it really improve your life? Is it worth 1,100+ hours of your time?
The four questions below will help you decide if Vietnamese is worth it for you to learn. After that, I’ll also share my view as someone who’s lived in Vietnam for over 6 months and only learned simple phrases so far.
1. How Much Time Will You Spend in Vietnam in the Future?
If you’ll only be in Vietnam for a few weeks, learning Vietnamese is probably overkill. Just memorize a few phrases for fun, and that’ll be plenty.
Vietnam has enough English to get around, especially in big cities. You won’t need to understand Vietnamese to survive, buy food, or anything like that. Many expats have lived in Vietnam for years without speaking the language.
And let’s be real: Vietnamese is not spoken much outside of Vietnam. It won’t help you much in other countries (even in nearby countries like Thailand—there’s virtually no Vietnamese language to be found).
However, if you’re moving to Vietnam for the long term—or if you’ve been there many times and you plan on visiting every year for the rest of your life… then sure, it could really enrich your life to speak Vietnamese on future visits.
The great thing about language learning is that, once you get fluent, you won’t ever lose your foundation in the language. Even if you get “rusty” sometime, your skills will come back quickly on your next visit to Vietnam.
So, if you know you’ll definitely live in Vietnam for several years—or if you’ll make dozens of visits in the future—then learning Vietnamese could be an awesome investment.
Of course, Vietnamese has the added complication of the dialects, though. The Northern, Central, and Southern dialects are quite different, to the point that speakers of different dialects sometimes can’t fully understand each other.
So, before you commit to seriously studying Vietnamese, it would also help to know which dialect will be most useful for you. Will you be in the south or the north?
2. Do You Have (Or Want) Close Relationships With Vietnamese People?
Chatting with strangers on the street can be fun—but arguably, the best benefit of speaking a language is how it will enhance your real relationships.
If you have a Vietnamese partner or spouse, then learning Vietnamese will not only enhance your connection with them, but also potentially with their family and friends.
If you’re dating a younger person in Vietnam, for example, they may be fluent in English. But their parents are likely not fluent in English at all.
I’ve heard about this from some expat men married to women in Vietnam. They said it can be awkward or boring to spend much time with her family during the holidays because the language barrier is just too big.
So, if you want to connect with your Vietnamese partner’s family, yes, it could be a great idea to learn the language.
Same goes for deepening other friendships with Vietnamese people. Of course, some people will gladly befriend you even with a language barrier—but if you speak Vietnamese, you can initiate the connection yourself, in their language.
3. Do You Want to Explore the Less-Touristy Parts of Vietnam?
If you’re going to stick to touristy parts of Saigon or Hanoi, then English should be sufficient. Locals are used to dealing with foreigners in these places.
But if you want to go to smaller towns or explore the Vietnamese countryside, then your English will likely fail you more often.
Personally, when I took the bus between Saigon and Mui Ne, the announcements on the bus were only in Vietnamese, and I almost missed my stop.
Then at the bus station where I was supposed to transfer, I was confused. When I asked employees for help, they would just point. Miraculously, I got to my final destination without any big problems.
Vietnam scores a 502 (Moderate Proficiency) on English First’s English Proficiency Index. Overall, this is decent for an Asian country. But outside of tourist areas, the amount of fluent English speakers can drop off pretty fast.
So, if you want to explore “off the beaten path” places in the remote corners of Vietnam, then speaking at least basic Vietnamese will really come in handy sometimes.
4. Are You Fascinated By Language Learning?
Aside from the usefulness of Vietnamese in particular, learning a language can be a very interesting and rewarding process in and of itself.
Personally, I learned Japanese to a conversational level over the past few years. So far, it hasn’t had a big ROI in practical terms. But I still loved the experience.
Learning languages helps you understand culture at a much deeper level. For example, the ways Asian languages use pronouns are quite different from English, and it can teach you a lot about the culture.
Personally, I feel so cool when I speak in another language. If you’re hanging out with friends who don’t understand it, then it’s like you have a magic power.
And if you’ve always wanted to learn a language, then in some ways, Vietnamese might be an extra cool one, because it’s quite rare to learn.
When most people consider learning an Asian language, they choose Mandarin, Japanese, or Korean. So, there will be more “shock factor” when you bust out fluent Vietnamese.
Why I Haven’t Learned Vietnamese Yet
I’ve been a digital nomad in Vietnam for more than 6 months already (on and off), but I haven’t seriously studied Vietnamese yet. I’ve learned phrases and practiced the pronunciation, but I haven’t fully committed myself to it. Why?
It’s because I’m still unsure of my answer to Question #1 above. That is, I’m not yet sure how much time I’ll spend in Vietnam in the future.
When I decided to learn Japanese a few years ago, it was before I’d even visited Japan the first time. I thought I would love Japan. I thought I’d visit many times. But as it turned out, I liked other countries more (including Vietnam!).
So, I don’t want to make that same “mistake” again—spending hundreds of hours seriously studying a language before I know if I’ll actually spend a lot of time in that country long term.
I will keep learning bits of Vietnamese for fun—but I think I’ll wait until I’ve lived in the country for a year or more before I “commit” to learning this language seriously.
Hopefully, this discussion has helped you decide whether it’s worth it for you to learn Vietnamese.
For another interesting article on language learning, check out “What Is the Best Language to Learn for Traveling in Asia?”