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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 10. 23rd May 1973

The Vietnamese Phrase book

The Vietnamese Phrase book

Cartoon for The Vietnamese Phrase book

One of the more curious products to come out of America because of the Vietnam war is a small paperback published by Signet Books called "Vietnamese Phrase-book". Described on the flyleaf as "invaluable whether you are working, fighting or visiting in Vietnam", the book provides many intriguing and — like most American humour — unconsciously bitterly funny insights into the endemic and glaring differences between American theory and American practice.

If one bears in mind that the book was published in 1968 — after seven years of active American involvement in Vietnam and the year of the Tet offensive — then the solemn injunctions in the introduction take on an entirely new meaning. Just think how history might have changed if every GI had followed such advice as:

"....the Vietnamese people speak more softly than Americans. If you wish to make friends and be well-regarded by the people you meet, it would be advisable to modulate your voice, so that they will not think you are shouting at them or speaking harshly".


"Do not brag of your wealth or position. The Vietnamese know that you come from a rich and powerful country."

The introduction takes care, lest the brave fighters for freedom receive any rude shocks, by concluding with this extraordinary understatement...

"The people of Vietnam are inclined to be somewhat wary of soldiers, any soldiers, which is not surprising in a country that has been at war for so many years".

Since American troops were sent to Vietnam to promote American financial interests (despite Chapter 5, which says "there are now more than half a million Allied troops in Vietnam helping this small country defend itself against Communist aggression") the section headed "Financial Matters" throws more light on American priorities as regards money. Some examples:

"Where can I change American dollars? Please give me large, large bills."

An interesting sequence is this one.

"How much do I get for one dollar? The rate is 118 piastres to the dollar. Is that the best rate?"

Last, and doubtless a tribute to the American regard for free enterprise,

"Are you a black marketeer?"

Chapter 5, "For G.I.'s", opens with the bit about Commie aggression but comes somewhat closer to reality with the admonition that "Knowledge of the... words and phrases will make you work easier ... and perhaps, your life expectancy longer".

These life-prolonging phrases include the word for every rank from private to brigadier-general, Marines, Special Forces, Popular Forces, Communist, National Liberation Front and booby trap.

The chapter goes on to say that "the following expressions will be most useful in earning the friendship of a population which most of the time is terrified at the very sight of soldiers." They are:

"Don't be afraid; Hello, kids!; I am a friend; Where are the Front people?: What is your position in the Front?; I don't understand; Are the Viet Cong still here?; I want a guide; Is it safe?; Is this a friendly village?; Where are the weapons hidden?; Where are the tunnels?; where are the booby traps? etc". One wonders how useful these phrases were at My Lai.

The chapter continues with the instruction that the following short necessary commands should be learnt by heart.

"Stop! Hands up! Stop firing! Don't shoot! Don't move! Danger! Surrender! Sit down! Throw down your weapons! Keep quiet! Hurry up! Quick or I'll shoot!"

Other deathless phrases from the American ethic are...

"I am lost. You will be rewarded. Give me food. Hide me away."

Such craven phrases do not, of course, come naturally to the American GI, so the book, ever eager to alert the square-jawed defender of democracy to manifestations of the well-known yellow Commie horde peril, counsels him to "keep you ears open for these answers".

"I am a Cell leader. I am a Company Commander. I am a political cadre. I am innocent. I am not a Communist."

Perhaps the most amazing sequence in the book is the following passage which is quoted verbatim, English only:

"You are now back from an exhausting operation. You need rest and relaxation and most of all the company of a girl-friend. Here are a few expressions you may wish to use in conversation with her.

"My name is John. What is you name? I like you very much. I like your dress. You are very pretty. Let's dance. You dance beautifully. Would you like to go to the theatre with me? Sing a Vietnamese song for me. Here is a present for you. I love you."

So simple really.

The more salacious among us may wish to know what equivalents are provided for the more usual conversation needed by foreign invading troops in relation to female relaxation such as "Jeez, those boobs! Let's fuck! How much a night? Are you clean? etc." I confess I have not the knowledge, nor the phrase-book the wit, to provide these.

A major shortcoming of the book is the lack of referents given for the frequent consequences of such casual relationships. For example, although the word for "crab" is given, there is none for that virulent form of VD known worldwide as "Saigon Rose".

The section on "Medical Help does contain such versatile phrases as "Remove your clothes. Lie down. You need an injection. It will be over very soon. Do you have some stomach pills?"

For no fathomable reason, the phrase "I sweat" is given, equally no formula is given to allow the presumably non-breathing American to utter the Vietnamese for "I cannot breathe".

Another glaring omission are referents for that other well-documented pastime of American soldiers in Vietnam, namely the indulgence in those mind-distorting chemicals America is always warning the world about — heroin, opium and marijuana.

Nevertheless, those who supported the American military presence in Vietnam can take heart. She may have lost the war, but she's still making money by selling the "Vietnamese Phrasebook" at sales in New Zealand for 30c or four for $1.