Kiwi sipping coffee in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Tina.

Vietnamese isn’t easy to casually grasp; tonal languages wouldn’t be easy for those raised with English. It’s perhaps more familiar to English speakers than other Asian languages because Vietnamese uses Latin characters. According to the language website Omniglot, Catholic missionaries introduced Latin characters for the Vietnamese language in the 1800s.

This English speaker can read the letters used on signs and awnings, but will most likely say the words incorrectly and not know what they mean unless a phrasebook is handy.

The most common Vietnamese phrase we have used, meaning “thank you,” is one that sounds almost exactly like a commonly used English command: Cám ơn and “come on.” Cám ơn has been our crutch into Vietnamese communication and “come on” just confuses me now.

There has been one word that I have seen in my three weeks (which is not wide exposure by any means) that seems to mean the same in Vietnamese and English. Cà phê sounds like coffee, but I can’t confirm that it is in fact a cognate.

Merriam-Webster says that coffee comes from the Italian caffe or Turkish kahve. It was the French that introduced coffee to Vietnam. It’s not far fetched that coffee and cà phê could be cognates.

Or Cà phê might just be a cognate for cafe, or at least according to this Hanoi restaurant’s web page on Vietnamese words with French cognates.

Despite my etymology skills, when we see a sign that says cà phê, we’re stopping at a cafe for coffee.

Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk. Photo by Warwick Meade.

Not knowing Vietnamese hasn’t stopped us from trying to order Vietnamese-style strong coffee with condensed milk. Most menus in Vietnam have an English description of hot coffee with milk, but I will attempt at saying the Vietnamese version (cà phê sữa nóng). Most of the time, we will recieve a coffee filter perched on top of a glass with a layer of condensed milk on the bottom. It is sweet and addictive, as if you are drinking dessert out of a glass for breakfast.

Vietnamese drip coffee filter. Photo by Warwick Meade.

When we rip open the guidebook to figure out our way around after our rounds of coffees, “come on” follows closing out the check. I do a double take as to whether Kiwi is saying “thank you” or “come on [we need to cross this road] or “come on [there is the museum we're looking for.]”

I think there is a “Who’s on first?” joke somewhere in deciphering cám ơn versus “come on”:

Photos 1 and 3 by Kiwi, photo 2 by Tina.