Survival Vietnamese: Ordering food

To continue my series of posts on Survival Vietnamese, I decided to dedicate a post to ordering food.

Besides knowing numbers in Vietnamese, knowing how to order food and ask for the bill is pretty crucial. You can get by without knowing any Vietnamese while in Vietnam, but it’s super useful and it’ll make your life a little bit easier.

Vietnam is similar to China in that it’s okay to yell to your server to order food and get the bill. It still makes me uncomfortable every time but it’s not considered rude to be like “Hey you! I’m ready to order!” or to be like, “Check please!”

So first step to ordering food. If you need to get someone’s attention, you’ll have to call them over. Vietnamese language and culture pays special attention to people’s age and hierarchy within society. Even with strangers, you would address them as you would a family member according to someone’s age. It’s easy if someone is younger than you but if they are older than you, then it gets a little complicated. If you’re not sure what age a person is, I normally use an older pronoun just to be safe; you don’t want to accidentally offend someone. Calling someone an older pronoun is generally more respectful.

Here are some useful pronouns:

Em: Anyone younger than you.
Chị (pronounced Gee): Used for women that are slightly older than you. This can also mean older sister.
Anh: Used for men slightly older than you. This can also mean older brother.
(pronounced go): Used for women that are older than you but not but not very old. This can also be used for female teachers.
Chú (pronounced joo): Used for men that are older than you but not very old.
: Used to address elderly women. This can also mean grandmother.
Ong (pronunced ohm): Used to address elderly men. This can also mean grandfather.

When calling someone over you use a pronoun and add oi after it. So if someone were younger than you, then you would just say, “Em oi.”

Either you can point to whatever you want to order and hold up your fingers indicating how much or you can try to say the quantities of what you want to order. When I had to navigate Vietnam the first time I visited, I only knew how to count up to 3. Why only 3 you ask? Well, because when you drink with people in Vietnam and toast with them, you only need to know how to count up to 3. I also rarely ate out with more than 2 other people so it wasn’t a problem. A lot of food places in Vietnam only sell a couple of items anyways, unless it’s a big restaurant, so I normally knew what I was going to get when I walked into a place to eat.

I covered numbers already in an earlier post but I’ll provide numbers 1-5 here for the purposes of ordering food.

1– một (pronounced moat – but don’t pronounce the t hard)
2– hai (hi)
3– ba (baah)
4– bốn (bone)
5-năm (nahm)

You can either say just the number or you can take it one step further. The Vietnamese language uses classifiers or measure words to accompany numbers. The equivalent of English would be to say one bowl of soup rather than just saying one soup. In Vietnamese though you need classifiers when talking about quantity.

Here are some useful classifiers/measure words:

Cái (pronounced guy): This is a general measure word when you don’t remember the more specific ones. Think of this meaning thing. For example, one things would be một (1) cái.
(pronounced doe but with a very soft d sound): This is the measure word for bowl. If you were ordering phở for example, then you would use tô.
Tấm (pronounced dahm but with a soft d sound): This is the measure word for plate.
Ô (pronounced oh): This is the measure word for those delicious Vietnamese baguettes called bánh mì. I’m sure it’s a measure word for other things too but I’ve only used it for bánh mì so far.
Ly (pronounced lee): Measure word for cups.
Chai (pronounced jai): Measure word for bottles.

When ordering food, you’ll say the quantity first, followed by the classifier, and then the name of whatever you’re going to order. Knowing the names of food is super useful but I’ll save that for a future post. If you find yourself in Vietnam, most food stands will have what they’re selling in big letters somewhere, so you’ll know what to say most of the time. For example, one bottle of beer would be một chai bia. Or 3 bowls of phở would be, ba tô phở.

Lastly, you’ll need to know how to ask for the check, which is:

Tính tiền (pronounced din dee-en but with a soft d sound).

You’ll probably have to get someone’s attention so you’ll call them over. If it’s a slightly older male for example, you’ll say Anh oi, tính tiền! He’ll walk over and either tell you how much or you’ll need to ask or clarify by saying bao nhiêu (pronounced bao new). Bao nhiêu just means how much so you can use this if you’re shopping and need to know the price of things as well.

So to recap, say that you’re going to a phở restaurant/food stall. Your exchange might go something like this if you were interacting with someone younger than you:

Em oi! Một tô phở một ly trà đá. (Translation: Hey younger person. 1 bowl of pho and 1 cup of iced tea.)
They’ll serve you and you’ll eat a delicious meal. When you’re ready to go, you’ll probably say the following:
Em oi! Tính tiền. (Translation: Check please) They’ll come over and you’ll ask:
Bao nhiêu? (Translation: How much?)
Either you’ll need to do hand gestures to figure out how much or you’ll refer back to my previous post on numbers and know exactly how much to pay.


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