Hanoi menu

« previous post | next post »

Tweet by Dan Okrent:

I can't solve all the Vinglish mistranslations on this page, but the one at the very top, which serves as the heading for this section of the menu, accounts for a goodly portion of the other howlers.  Hopefully the collected wisdom of Language Log readers will be able to solve most of the remaining problems.

Here goes:

Vietnamese bê = English "calf" (young cow).  It is also half the word for "concrete" (bê tông from French béton).  And đuôi does equate to "tail" (similar range of meanings).  Someone knew enough vulgar English to provide those unappetizing translations.

That should be enough to get others started.

Selected readings

[h.t. Ben Zimmer]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    November 14, 2018 @ 10:26 am

    From Steve O'Harrow:

    For what it's worth, ox-tail soup is a prime suspect lurking in the background here. It has become one of the menu staples of Korean restaurants here in the 50th state and some Vietnamese eateries are
    following suit. Just a thought . . .

  2. Jay Sekora said,

    November 14, 2018 @ 12:43 pm

    In an attempt to figure out what the original Vietnamese was supposed to mean, I went to Google Translate, which cleared up the mystery. Apparently "Đuôi móng hầm măng", mistranslated as "Ass tunnel tail cement", is actually supposed to mean "Tail-winged basement". I'm sure the other menu items have equally prosaic meanings.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    November 14, 2018 @ 12:55 pm

    From Steve O'Harrow:

    Thanks for this. "Vietlish" is most likely living and developing in several places: in Orange County, in San José, along the Gulf Coast, Northern Virginia, parts of Australia, Canada, and even in Hawai'i. Is Vietlish the same everywhere? I don't know, but I'd like to learn from our group what they've heard.

    An example down on Maunakea St. here in Honolulu:

    – dropping fictive kinship pronouns like anh or cô
    and substituting "he"/hi/ & "she"/si/

    – using Vietnamese words with English semantic
    range (I am trying to think of a recent example).

    – diglossia: "Si say mai muốn đi Ala Moana Xen-ta
    mua pom dess." ["she says tomorrow she wants
    to go Ala Moana Center to buy a prom dress"]

    What have you all heard? Reminds me of how a variety of "Vietçais" came about around the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century that was called "tiềng bồi" (Houseboy talk). Here's a riddle:

    Li tí tí giôn, Li tí tí noa,
    Li măng-giê mẹc-sơ,
    Li măng-giê cả moa.

    The answer?

    Having fun with language in The Islands,

  4. F said,

    November 14, 2018 @ 1:01 pm

    @Steve O'Harrow's riddle: something about tigers?

  5. cliff arroyo said,

    November 14, 2018 @ 3:44 pm

    ""Ass tunnel tail cement", is actually supposed to mean "Tail-winged basement""
    Be that as it may, it still sounds like nothing a sane person would order off the menu…

  6. chris said,

    November 14, 2018 @ 6:29 pm

    If I were ordering from this menu, I'd probably get the "delicious calves burned", assuming it to be some sort of cooked beef (maybe seared?), and make up my own mind about deliciousness.

    Not sure if I would make the connection on my own that a Viet word for "concrete"/"cement" is a homophone for "beef", but it does explain a lot about this list. Several items become immediately comprehensible with just that substitution.

    And eating the hindquarters of various animals is perfectly normal, even if we often prefer not to discuss it explicitly in those terms. I don't recall the "proper" term for a cow's buttocks but it's quite possible that I have eaten it before and enjoyed it.

    P.S. Anyone have any clues about the interesting candles?

  7. nn said,

    November 14, 2018 @ 9:16 pm

    "Ass tunnel tail cement", is actually supposed to mean "Tail-winged basement".

    I’m sure this is just tongue in cheek.

    This is a list of veal (young cow) dishes.

    "bê thui" = rare veal, sliced thin, served cold
    "bê bóp thấu" = a veal salad
    "bê hấp giả cầy" = steamed veal …
    "giả cầy" = pork cooked a la dog meat style …
    "giả" = fake
    "đèn cầy" = candle

    "đuôi móng hầm măng" = tail, trotters stewed with bamboo shoots
    … "tiêu xanh" = green pepper

    "sườn bê nướng muối ớt" = grilled veal ribs with salt and chillies

  8. nn said,

    November 14, 2018 @ 9:33 pm


    Ox-tails makes really delicious phở. I’m sure it’s not influenced by any Korean dish.

  9. V said,

    November 15, 2018 @ 5:01 am

    nn: Beat me to it. Yeah, the best phở is made with oxtail.

  10. Rodger C said,

    November 15, 2018 @ 7:52 am

    I'd rather eat tongue in cheek than tail-winged basement.

  11. derek said,

    November 15, 2018 @ 7:57 am

    Lots of people have enjoyed rump steak.

  12. Robert Coren said,

    November 15, 2018 @ 11:01 am

    Whenever I see something like this I wonder: Is it really so hard to find someone with some actual knowledge of the target language to translate the menu, or at least check the result of the automatic translation for sanity?

  13. V said,

    November 15, 2018 @ 12:35 pm

    Slingtly off topic, but we had this exchange with Pihlip Taylor about the concept of a word and I got reminded of that when I was at this Chinese restaurant in Sofia with some friends this weekend, and one of my friends, who is also interested in linguistics asked the owner where in China she is from.

    She wrote "Ji ling", with what I thought was a small space between the two. Barely perceptible, but it was there, and the L in "ling" was lowercase.

    And I was also wondering why she put a "g". Is this a feature of this variety of northeast Mandarin? Or did she not mean Jilin, as in the province? Or am I completely misinterpreting what she wrote?

  14. V said,

    November 15, 2018 @ 12:40 pm


  15. Quyết said,

    November 15, 2018 @ 2:38 pm

    @Robert Coren As a long-term resident and language teacher in Hanoi, a firm trust in Google Translate, over-estimating one's English ability and the culture of convenience (take the traffic for example) has resulted in hilarious translations just about everywhere.

  16. Lóc Nguyễn said,

    November 18, 2018 @ 8:11 pm

    The menu looks like being done by Google translator. The word " bê" is used by Tonkinois people to mean " calf of cow"; in South Vietnam, people call it " bò nghé" instead. The word concrete used in the menu is from " bê tông", which is a French word " beton". That is why the Nanoi menu is a confusing fun..
    By the way, if looking into single word (of single syllable), the word " bê " has several different meanings, used in the menu is " calf". Others include "bê" as verb to mean " to carry something by both arms fom one place to another"; which is similar to " bế" in different tone for carry a baby. In south Vietnamese local speech, the adjective " bê" means " being turned out of a position, a course by some force like wind for example.

RSS feed for comments on this post