Hello, Peter! I'm thinking about putting together a trip to Vietnam with my family next summer. We want to talk to a local tour agency, but none of us speak Vietnamese! How do you deal with a language barrier like this when planning a trip? We appreciate your advice!
–Isabel Zobell, Springfield, Va.
Some people find the language barrier so intimidating that it keeps them from traveling at all, which is really a shame. But I'm determined not to let that happen to you, Isabel.
Once you get going on planning your trip, you'll find that there are plenty of local travel and tour agencies that speak English well enough to help you put together an itinerary. You can browse their Web sites in English, but check out their contact information; that way you can tell whether or not they're based in Vietnam.
Here's a handy phrase that you'll get a lot of miles out of: "Ban biêt tiêng Anh không?" It means, "Do you speak English?" If someone happens to answer the phone in Vietnamese when you're planning your trip, just say this. The person on the other end will speak to you in English or will find someone who can.
When you get to Vietnam, you'll probably find that your tour guide knows enough English to communicate effectively with you. But if you run into problems, here are some tips.
Pick up a Vietnamese phrase book and learn the basics—"hello," "please," "thank you," and "toilet." Locals will be much more responsive if you make the effort to speak their language.
When you speak, be confident. It will be much harder to get your meaning across if you're fearful and self-conscious. This is important, because Vietnamese is a tonal language. That means the pitch you use helps give a word meaning. It's very difficult to pronounce correctly, so don't pull your hair out worrying about whether or not you're saying things right—you probably aren't!
If it comes to it, don't be afraid to respectfully point and act out what you need to get them to understand. And remember, a smile is universal.