There are many people saying Northern Vietnamese is standard Vietnamese. I much disagree with this. Even though you may hear Northern (or Hanoi) Vietnamese a lot on the news and on government official television channels, that doesn't make it official or standard. In fact, there are a lot of other channels, and most of those I know of broadcast entertainment shows, are in Southern Vietnamese.
In my opinion, the general terms "Northern" and "Southern" do not capture the many different accents and dialects of Vietnamese well enough. I once had a student who was a linguistics. He studied the differences among Vietnamese accents from different provinces of Vietnam and created his own version of Vietnam map of dialects comparing those differences. For a Vietnamese that had lived in Hanoi her whole life, back then, I was really taken aback by how little I knew about my own language. There's no standard Northern Vietnamese - there're just different Vietnamese dialects which change from North to South. I was born in Dong Anh - a town in the suburb of Hanoi. People here pronounce letter "e" similar to "ie". For example, "mẹ" (mom) would sound like "mịe".
When I moved to the Saigon to live for 1.5 years, I learned that there's no "standard" Southern Vietnamese either. People from the Mekong Delta area pronounce letter "e" longer and pronounce "r" pretty much the same as how German and French pronounce their /r/. So "đi ra" (go out) would sound like "dee zaa" in Hanoi, "dee raa" in Saigon and "dee gaa" in Ben Tre for example.
And then there's this north-southern mixed dialect that I've heard a lot in Saigon of people who speak with southern dấu sắc (up tone) but northern dấu ngã (wavy tone) and northern dấu nặng (dot tone). Most of those people that I know either have families from the north that moved to the south or are Viet Kieu (watch Paris By Night show and you'll hear most of them speaking with this accent).
Central Vietnamese is the most difficult to define for me. The accent in Da Nang centre area is a lot similar to Saigon, but outside of this area and toward Hoi An, the accent has changed completely. I remember having no problem understanding people in Da Nang the first time I went there, but having a hard time communicating with people in Hoi An and Hue because I wasn't familiar with the accents.
Which Vietnamese Accent/ Dialect You Should Learn To Speak?
To choose which Vietnamese dialect to learn to speak, I think you'll need to consider the popularity and the geographical areas where the dialects are spoken. Northern dialect is spoken widely in the north of Vietnam, starting to noticeably change somewhere between Thanh Hoa and Vinh. It is the closest form to official Vietnamese so it is widely understood throughout Vietnam and other Vietnamese speaking areas. Central Vietnamese dialects are more diversified throughout the central of Vietnam. Southern Vietnamese is spoken mostly in the south of Vietnam and among Vietnamese communities outside of Vietnam.
My recommendation is (1) go with the one you're surrounded with the most OR (2) choose one that is popularly spoken.
Most foreigners living and working in Vietnam reside in Saigon, Hanoi and Da Nang. Therefore, at TVO we try to help you by comparing those three accents that somehow represent Southern, Northern and Central Vietnamese. We've put together a series of videos that help you with this. Take a look!
In the video below, Ha and Hoa answering questions about differences between tiếng Việt Hanoi and Saigon.
In this video, Lan, Nhi and Ha compare the differences in pronunciation among Northern, Central and Southern Vietnamese by pronouncing a set of the same words.
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