home > culture > vietnamese language > vietnamese proverbs

Vietnamese Proverbs

By Jan Dodd, author of Rough Guide to Vietnam. With thanks to: Pham The Liem, Wu Tuan Anh, Pham Xuan Binh, Mark Procter, Tran A. Tu, Charlie Nguyen, Nguyen Hang, Martin Wilson, Nguyen Thi Thu Chung, and Le Chi Thao.

List of Vietnamese proverbs, with english translations.

Most of the proverbs came to me from a whole host of friends and contacts, mostly in Vietnam. The same ones kept cropping up again and again, so I took that to mean they are commonly used. Others were found repeated in more than one source.

Eating is much but accommodating is little
An nhieu, o may

Eating as in the North; clothing as in the South
An Bac, mac nam

You eat slowly, that is good for stomach; you plough deeply, that is good for fields
An ky no lau, cay sau tot lua

When having a party, go first; when walking in the water, go after
An co di truoc, loi nuoc theo sau
( = He that comes first to the hill may sit where he will = the early bird catches the worm)

One worm may damage the whole cooking soup
Con sau bo dau noi canh

Eating and sitting without labor
An khong ngoi roi
(= to be at the loose end)

Eeating nothing but saying yes
An khong noi co
( = to slander)

It depends on how much of rice you eat the sauce
Lieu com gap mam
( = cut your coat according to your cloth according to your means)

Try to seize the bowl of rice but forget the whole table of food
Tham bat bo mam

One piece of food while hungry equals a big box of food while full
Mot mieng khi doi bang mot goi khi no

The husband eats hamburger; the wife eats spring roll
Ong an cha ba an nem

The man show a pig leg, the woman show a bottle of wine
Ong gio chan gio; ba tho chai ruou [Or: Ong dua chan gio, ba tho chai ruou]
( = scratch my back and I shall scratch yours)

Eats as strongly as elephant
An khoe nhu voi

Eat as small as a cat
An nhu meo

Looks as monkey eats ginger
Nhu khi an gung

The good leaves protect the worn-out leaves
La lanh dum la rach

All chili is hot; all women are jealous
Ot nao ma ot chang cay, gai nao ma gai chang hay ghen chong

Good wine must drink together with good friend
Ruou ngon phai co ban hien

We fence (or protect) the tree that gives us fruits
A(n ca^y na`o, ra`o ca^y a^'y

When eating chew well, think before speaking
A(n co' nhai, no'i co' nghi~

When eating choose the place, when playing choose your friends
A(n cho.n no*i, cho*i cho.n ba.n
(= be fastidious)

Eat the plum (given as a gift) but give back a peach
A(n ma^.n tra? dda`o
(= Return gift to gift)

It's better to eat salty food and speak the truth than to eat vegetarian and tell lies
A(n ma(.n no'i ngay ho*n a(n chay no'i do^'i
(= Better to eat meat and speak truth than to fast and tell lies)

When you eat, it's vegetable, when you are sick, it's medicine
Co*m thi` rau, ddau thi` thuo^'c

Pay first and then get what you have paid for
Tie^`n trao cha'o mu'c

The student tried to steal the cooking fish
The teacher found out. The student says Oh forgive me
I just opened the fish container.
If you were a bit later, I would have taken the whole fish container.
Hoc tro an vung ca kho
Thay do bat duoc, oi a con chua
Thua thay co moi mo vung
Thay cham ti nua con bung ca noi

When you eat, check the pots and pans; When you sit, check the direction.
An trong noi, ngoi trong huong
(Discreetly check the kitchen so that you don't put your foot in your mouth like asking for another serving when there is barely enough food for all guests, bragging about your preference of seafood when the host is about to serve chicken, etc. Check the direction when you sit -- for example facing South should be reserved for the guest of honor, avoid turning your back to the host's ancestral altar, turning your back to the guest of honor or the host, sitting at better seat than your own elders, sitting at the same level as people of higher ranks in society or in the family, etc.)

English version only:

Eating as flying dragon, speaking as a climbing dragon and working as a vomited cat.
(Someone who spends all their time eating and talking, but never does any work. People said it when see a man [maybe woman but almost man] eat too much [like a dragon flying] and speak a lot [like a dragon climbing] but don't like to work anymore [like a cat being sick]. This one came straight from his grandmother's mouth.)

Hunger finds no fault with cookery.

Though he eats alone, he calls the whole village to help launch his boat.

Because the caterpillar exists, there exists also a bird to eat it.

Don't spurn cold rice; hunger helps you eat even food that has gone bad.

Eaten bread is soon forgotten.

Chewing, one eats. Reflecting, one speaks.

Many dishes make many diseases.

Eat to see the bowl, go to see the way.

If you won't work, you shan't eat.

Stolen foods are the best.

From Le Chi Thao, Attorney, Virginia

However sharp it is, the knife will never cut it's own handle.

Heaven rewards and reprimands. Heaven never reprimands those who are eating.

When eating fruit, remember who planted the tree; when drinking clear water, remember who dug the well.

Sated, he complained about the fish and the rice.

A tongue that dives about like a shrimp. (about a malicious gossip/scandalmonger)

When a cat steals a piece of meat, we chase it. But when a tiger takes a pig we stare wide-eyed and say nothing.

Feeding boys without teaching them: we raise asses. Feeding girls without teaching them: we raise pigs.

The educated man precedes the farmer. But when the rice begins to run short, it's the farmer who comes first.

From Charlie Nguyen, The Gladney Center

The hard labor and continuing effort in sharpening or molding a piece of iron, will one day become a precious and well-defined piece of metal.
Co cong mai sat; co ngay nen kim.
(Practical application: a person who works hard and dedicates himself/herself to any endeavors in life will likely to succeed and accomplish his/her goals or objectives.)

Jan Dodd is the author of The Rough Guide to Vietnam, as well as guides to Japan and Tokyo, and a contributer to the guide on France. She writes for various newspapers and journals, including the Independent on Sunday and National Geographic Traveler Magazine.