How to start learning Vietnamese (northern dialect) in Auckland

When I visited Hanoi to meet my partner’s family for the first time, it was really hard to be surrounded by the people I most wanted to talk to in the whole world, but not be able to do so. This is what kick-started my journey to learning Vietnamese, a language spoken by around 🗣️ 85-90 million 🗣️ people. Even if you live in a far off corner of the world like I do here in Auckland, New Zealand, you’ll be in good company.

What follows are the specific steps I would take in the exact order I would do them, if I was starting to learn Vietnamese again. These steps can be adapted to learning any language. 

Đi thôi (let’s go!) 🇻🇳

Learning Vietnamese (northern dialect) in Auckland, New Zealand

Step 1 – Find a compelling reason to start learning Vietnamese

It’s okay to start from a place of ‘I’m just curious’. But that will not be enough to sustain learning. 

Some compelling reasons to start learning Vietnamese:

  • 🛫 You are travelling to Vietnam or plan to travel there regularly
  • 💼 Your job requires you to learn
  • 👵🏽 👴🏼 You want to speak to your partner’s parents (my reason!)

“I used martial arts instructional manuals to compete effectively in judo while a student in Japan. My primary goal was to learn throws and apply them in tournaments. To avoid pain and embarrassment, I had tremendous motivation to learn the captions of the step-by-step diagrams in each instructional manual. Language development was a far secondary priority.”

Step 2 – Get a broad overview of the Vietnamese language and culture. Choose a dialect.

Next, decide which dialect you’d like to learn. To help you decide, Google ‘is the northern or southern Vietnamese dialect easier’. My partner’s parents live in the north, so this is why I decided to learn the northern dialect.

You can also try Googling ‘best way to learn Vietnamese’ or dive straight in by downloading the app Duolingo. After a couple of weeks of trying it out, I decided to pay for an annual subscription (NZ$144.99).

Step 3 – Learn the Vietnamese alphabet

Step 4 – Learn the tones

There are 6 phonemic tones in northern Vietnamese. It’s good fun learning how to pronounce these correctly. YouTube search ‘northern Vietnamese tones pronunciation’, then filter videos by view count. Pause the videos a lot and say the words out loud.

Step 5 – Do lots of spoken practice with a northern Vietnamese coach (ideally in-person)

If you live in Auckland, this will require some detective work. My partner has lived here for 10 years and she can count on one hand the number of people she’s met in that time who are from northern Vietnam. BUT THEY ARE OUT THERE! My language-learning journey has meant that I now know more people in Auckland from Hanoi than she does!

In-person coaching costs a lot more than an annual Duolingo subscription, but getting regular spoken practice is where the biggest gains await. This is why you need a compelling reason to learn.

We spend money on the things we care most about. If you’re not willing to spend money on learning Vietnamese, it’s not a high enough priority to learn. Which is totally okay! Even without much money to invest, if you have a compelling reason to learn, you will find a way.

Southern Vietnamese teachers are a lot more common in Auckland. However, getting help from them will only slow down your progress if your goal is to learn the northern dialect. Would you learn how to play clay court tennis from someone who’s known for teaching people how to play tennis on grass? You can, but what you learn is a lot less likely to make you effective at playing clay court tennis. Don’t beat around the bush and take the easy option. Go straight to the source and learn from someone who knows what they’re talking about.

Try different coaches. Expect to burn some cash. Eventually you will find a great coach.

Step 6 – Keep learning Vietnamese!

Aim to do a little each day. I have set a half hour reminder in my calendar each evening.

A typical learning day for me currently looks like:

20min – Speaking 🗣️
15min – Duolingo 🦉

To immerse yourself further, listen to some Vietnamese songs on YouTube, watch some Vietnamese TV or movies with English subtitles and join some of these Vietnamese NZ Facebook groups:

You can also set goals, like the one I set to be fluent by the end of 2026.

I’m keeping track of the hours I spend learning and I’m trying to increase the quality of those hours. I will know exactly when I get to 1100. And when I do, I will celebrate it hard.

Take ownership of your learning, set aside some of your paycheck to invest in yourself and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can learn anything. You’re awesome!


Thanks to Christine Chow, Cynthia Gao and Sierra Truong for reading drafts of this.

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