Vietnamese is among the 20 most spoken languages in the world, spoken by around 80 million people worldwide. It belongs to the Austro-Asiatic family, and has had many Chinese, as well as French, influences. It used to be written with Chinese letters, but nowadays it is written with the latin alphabet, and uses diacritics for the tone and some additional vowels. The letters F, J, W and Z are used only to express foreign words.
There are three main dialects of Vietnamese that can be classified geographically: north (Hanoi), south (Ho-Chi-Minh-City), central (Hue).
Vietnamese is a tonal language and is related to Thai, from Thailand, and Khmer, the official language of Cambodia. It distinguishes between six tones, which not only emphasize certain words, but change their whole meaning. This makes it especially hard for untrained speakers and listeners. Vietnamese is an isolating language, which means that it has no inflections, conjugations or case endings.
Besides Vietnamese, Chinese, Khmer and Cham (the native language of the Cham people, an ethnic group in Southeast Asia) are the foreign tongues most spoken as a first language in Vietnam.
In the big cities and touristic areas of the south, it is not too difficult to communicate in English because Vietnam has become more and more a place of interest for travellers from all over the world. Due to the high demand, the government has set up programs to improve English-language classes in schools. However, if you plan to go to smaller cities or rural areas, you should at least know the basics of Vietnamese. Even if your counterpart speaks English, he or she will be very pleased if you can say a simple ‘chào [jow] (hello)’ or ‘cảm ơn [gam uhhn] (thank you).’