In this lesson, we’ll learn how to write Vietnamese by quickly learning the most fundamental and useful knowledge about Vietnamese words. The next lesson on how to speak Vietnamese would give you the other half of the picture.

The Alphabet of Vietnam

The alphabet, the collection of letters or symbols from which all words are written, is the cornerstone of a writing system. It is very lucky for Vietnamese learners that Vietnamese not only uses the same letters based on Latin (a, b, etc.), its alphabet is also closely related to the English one.

Actually, by believing that it is the same as the English one, we can begin to learn the Vietnamese Alphabet: a-z with 26 letters. Yes, just believe it!

What vowels are there in English? It’s a, e, i, o and u, right? The good news is that the fundamentals of the set of Vietnamese vowels are also established! As detailed below, the other members of the Vietnamese Alphabet can simply be regarded as’ variants’ of the English vowels:

Table 1: ‘Variations’ of the vowels in English

English vowelAddition “variations”
aă, â
iNo variation
oô, ơ

Next, magic happens: the following letters are taken from the alphabet: f, j, w, z. Add the single letter (yes, this odd letter is the d letter at the center of the vertical top with a short horizontal stroke).

… And this is it. Congratulations! Welcome! The Vietnamese Alphabet you’ve heard!

Vietnamese Alphabet
a, ă, â, b, c, d, đ, e, ê, g, h, i, k, l, m, n, o, ô, ơ, p, q, r, s, t, u, ư, v, x, y.

How many letters do they have? It is 26 (English alphabet size) – 4 (f, j, w, z) + 1 (đ) + 6 (the “variations” in the table above) = 29 letters!

There are two strange things we have experienced so far: the letter that does not exist in the English alphabet and the strange symbols that come with the “variations” in the table above. The easiest way to deal with this unknownness is to just see them written as some new letters by placing some special marks on or over our common vowel letters.  Later on, you can follow this tutorial to learn how to type Vietnamese words.

Vietnamese words are made up of consonants and vowels, similar to English words. The question of which letters are vowels and which are consonants in Vietnamese will be answered in the next chapter.

Consonants and Vietnamese Vowels

We also heard about the letters that all Vietnamese words are used to write. We’ll learn more about vowels and consonants in Vietnamese in this section.There are five vowels in English; they regard the remainder of the alphabet as consonants. All 5 English vowels, their variations as mentioned in Table 1 above and the y letter are considered vowels in Vietnamese. Thus, the full set of 12 vowels from Vietnam are: a, ă, â, e, ê, i, y, o, ô,ơ, u, ư.

In order to form “vowel clusters” (or “vowel groups”), some, but not all, vowels can combine with each other, such as ư + ơ + i to form the vowel cluster ươi a + i to form the ai cluster; e + o to form eo and so on. “These vowel clusters can consist of 2 or 3 consecutive vowels: a” diphthong “forms a two-vowel cluster and a” triphthong “forms a three-vowel cluster. Contrast this to English, where it seems we don’t have triphthongs.

It’s worth a brief note that each vowel cluster has a new pronunciation that is distinctly different from mere sound concatenation, albeit based on the sounds of its constituent vowels.

For vowels, that is enough. Let ‘s move on to consonants now. How numerous are there? I hope you replied 17, which is equivalent to our Vietnamese alphabet ‘s size-the size of the Vietnamese vowel collection = 29-12 = 17.Some consonants often combine to create “consonant clusters” (or “consonant groups”) such as gh, tr and ph, just as vowels can be strung together to form vowel groups. Of course, not all consonant combinations make consonant clusters valid, just as not all vowel combinations are valid. đg is, for example, not a true vowel cluster. The sound of consonant clusters can be somewhat different from merely chaining the sounds of their single-letter consonants, similar to the case of vowels. More in the next lesson about their pronunciations.

We have learned that there are 12 vowels and 17 consonants as the conclusion for this section; and two or three vowels (similarly, consonants) can combine to form vowel (similarly, consonant) clusters. We will go ahead with this understanding to get the big picture: the overall structure of Vietnamese words.

Vietnamese Arrangement of Terms

In this section on word structure, we will use “consonant” to refer to all (single-letter) consonants and consonant clusters in order to clearly read the wording. Similarly, the umbrella name referring to either a vowel or a cluster of vowels is “vowel”.

A Vietnamese word that is defined by surrounding spaces for our purpose is composed of one optional starting consonant, followed by a compulsory vowel, and one optional ending consonant. While the vowel is compulsory, it is optional for both the beginning and ending consonants. The word ưu in the adjective ưu tiên (‘having higher priority’) only has the vowel ưu with neither the beginning nor the ending consonants, for example. There are also a few rules on which consonants can start or end a word, and a discussion on this can be found, for example, at[1], if you’re keen.

Structure of Vietnamese words
Vietnamese word = 1 Optional consonant + 1 Compulsory Vowel + 1 Optional consonant

Another fascinating point from the composition of the Vietnam words is that they only have one vowel! This is quite different from English, where there can be several vowels in each word (for example, there are four non-consecutive vowels in the English word interesting, i, e, e, i.The fact that Vietnamese words have only one vowel makes them considered to be monosyllabic: each word has only one vowel. Compared to English terms, the monosyllabic form of Vietnamese words makes their pronunciations quite short.

We’ll look at a very special feature of Vietnamese words in our last discussion below: accent marks.

Tones from Vietnam

Even though there are stresses for some syllable(s) of each English word, except for borrowed words, there is absolutely no accent mark for English words. In comparison, accent marks (or diacritics more accurately) are a common component of Vietnamese words. So you’ll find that while dai and dài share the same set of alphabet letters, two words with different meanings are completely different: the first word means tough (for food) while the second word means long (for distance or time). In the lesson on pronunciations, we can see that because of the same letter set but with different “intonation” they will have similar tone. This tonal trait is also a Chinese characteristic, too. French also has some types of accent marks, but more restricted.

In Vietnamese, there are 5 kinds of tone markers: acute accent(” ´ “), grave(“` “), hook(” ’ “), tilde(” ~ “) and dot(“.”). In Vietnamese, there are 5 kinds of tone markers.” These 5 diacritics yield 5 different tones and we have the 6 tones in Vietnamese along with the non-diacritic tone. The word dài (“long) “carries a grave, for example. The other 5 tonal variations are from the letter collection of ‘dai’: dái: acute accent, dải hook, dãi: tilde, and dại: dot.

All the diacritics are written above the vowel except for the dot, which is written below the vowel (and hence its other name ‘dot below’), as you might have noticed in the above illustration. It is technically appropriate to place the tone marks above the letter an in hoà or the letter o to produce the writing form hòa in vowel clusters that have 2 to 3 consecutive vowels, such as the cluster oa in hoa. In-depth discussions on the position of the tone markers can be found among interested readers at [2] and [3].

If you want to learn how to type these accent marks, please consult the tutorial on how to type Vietnamese.


In this class, we learned about Vietnamese terms as follows:

  • The predominantly Latin-based Vietnamese alphabet is very similar to the English alphabet. Clusters of vowels(consonants) are formed by 2 or 3 successive vowels(consonants).
  • The structure is accompanied by Vietnamese words: 1 optional consonant / consonant cluster + 1 mandatory Vowel / Vowel Cluster + 1 optional consonant / consonant cluster.
  • There are six Vietnamese tones: 5 corresponding to the five diacritic tones and the non-diacritic tones.

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