Learning the local language while traveling is often optional, but knowing at least the basic greetings in Asia and how to say hello wherever you go will enhance your experience and open doors for you. The local language provides you with a tool for better connecting with a place and its people.
Greeting people in their own language displays respect and an interest in the local culture and also shows that you acknowledge their efforts to learn English, a difficult language in many ways.
Each culture in Asia has its own customs and ways of saying hello. For instance, Thai people wai each other (a slight bow, with palms pressed together like in saying a prayer) while Japanese people bow. Adding complexity, many languages incorporate honorifics (using a title of honor) to show respect. But don't despair: when all else fails, a friendly "hello" with a smile works in every corner of the world.
The easiest way to say hello in Japan is with the standard greeting of konnichiwa (pronounced "kone-nee-chee-wah"). Shaking hands isn't always an option in Japan, although your hosts will probably attempt to make you feel more comfortable and extend their hand to you.
Learning how to bow the right way isn't as difficult as it sounds. At least understand the basics before spending time in Japan—bowing is an integral part of the culture, and you may be doing it often. Not returning someone's bow is considered rude.
Although seemingly simple, bowing follows a rigid protocol based on age and social status—the deeper the bow, the more respect is being shown and the occasion more serious. Companies even send employees to classes to learn proper bowing.
Japanese business etiquette and Japanese dining etiquette are riddled with formalities and nuances that have filled many a Western executive with dread before banquets. But unless a big deal is on the line, your new Japanese friends will rarely make a fuss over your cultural fumbles.
Konnichiwa is primarily used during the day and afternoon. Konbanwa (pronounced "kone-bahn-wah") is used as a basic greeting in the evening.
The easiest way to say hello in China is with ni hao (pronounced “nee haow”). Ni has a tone that rises (2nd tone), while hao has a tone that falls then rises (3rd tone). You'll hear an enthusiastic ni hao offered between Mandarin speakers throughout the world. Adding ma (pronounced "mah") with no tone at the end turns the greeting more into a friendly "how are you?" instead of just hello.
Chinese is a tonal language, so the pitch of syllables controls their meanings. In the instance of ni hao, it's such a commonly used expression, you'll be understood in context.
A way to show more respect to elders and superiors is to use nin hao (pronounced "neen haow”) instead.
Don't make the same common mistake made by tourists all over Asia: Increasing the volume of your voice and repeating the same thing isn't a good way to help Chinese people understand you better. Would you understand better if they spoke Mandarin to you more loudly? To further enhance communication during your trip, learn some useful phrases in Mandarin before going.
With the exceptions of funerals and apologies, bowing is less common in mainland China. Many Chinese opt to shake hands, although it may not be the firm handshake expected in the West.
The standard greeting and conversation closer in India is Namaste (pronounced "nuh-muh-stay" rather than "nah-mah-stay"). The emphasis is placed more on the "nuh" than the "stay." Often heard, celebrated, and mispronounced in the West, Namaste is a Sanskrit expression that roughly means "I bow to you." It is symbolic of lowering your ego before others. Namaste is accompanied with a prayer-like gesture with palms together similar to the wai in Thailand, but it is held a little lower on the chest.
The infamous-and-bewildering Indian head wobble is also used as a silent way to say hello in India. You'll sometimes be acknowledged by a busy waiter with a simple head wobble rather than a formal Namaste.
Hong Kong's history as a British colony until 1997 means that you'll find English spoken widely throughout. That's convenient for travelers as Cantonese is often considered more difficult to learn than Mandarin!
The basic greeting in Hong Kong and Cantonese-speaking regions in China is slightly different from the usual ni hao heard elsewhere on the mainland. Neih hou (pronounced "nay-ho") is used to say hello in Hong Kong. The pronunciation of hou is something between "ho" and "how." But realistically, saying a simple hello (same as in English but with a little more "haaa-lo") is extremely common for informal situations!
Anyong haseyo (pronounced "ahn-yo ha-say-yoh") is the most basic way to say hello in Korea. Greetings in Korean are not based on the time of day. Instead, ways to say hello follow the honorific rules of showing respect to people that are older or of higher social status than yourself (teachers, public officials, etc).
Unlike Chinese, Korean is not a tonal language, so learning how to say hello is just a matter of memorization.
Knowing how to say hello with good pronunciation in Thailand is very useful. You'll almost always get a smile and friendly treatment showing that you're a farang (non-Thai) interested in Thai culture and not just there because beer is cheaper than it is in your home country.
The Thai language is tonal, but your greeting will be understood because of the context, particularly if you add a respectful wai (holding the palms together in front of the face with a slight bow). The Thai wai gesture is used for a variety of purposes beyond just saying hello. You'll see it for goodbyes, gratitude, respect, deep apologies, and in other instances when sincerity needs to be expressed.
In Thailand, men say sawasdee khrap (pronounced "sah-wah-dee krap"). The ending khrap has a sharp rising tone. The more enthusiasm put on the khrap, the more meaning.
Women say sawasdee kha (pronounced "sah-wah-dee kah"). The ending kha has a drawn-out falling tone. The more drawn out the khaaa..., the more meaning.
Bahasa Indonesia, the official language of Indonesia, is similar in many ways to Malay—greetings are offered based on the time of day. Of course, like most places, a friendly "haaalo" works just fine for saying hello in Indonesia.
Fortunately, Bahasa is not tonal. Pronunciation is fairly predictable.
Good Morning: Selamat pagi (pronounced "suh-lah-mat pah-gee")
Good Day: Selamat siang (pronounced "suh-lah-mat see-ahng")
Good Afternoon: Selamat sore (pronounced "suh-lah-mat sor-ee")
Good Evening: Selamat malam (pronounced "suh-lah-mat mah-lahm")
The times of day when people switch greetings are loosely understood. And they sometimes differ between the many islands of the archipelago.
As with Indonesian, the Malaysian language lacks tones and greetings are also based on the time of day. As before, Selamat is pronounced "suh-lah-mat."
Good Morning: Selamat pagi (pronounced "pahg-ee")
Good Afternoon: Selamat tengah hari (pronounced "teen-gah har-ee")
Good Evening: Selamat Petang (pronounced "puh-tong")
Good Night: Selamat Malam (pronounced "mah-lahm")
Despite the similarities between the languages, some basic greetings in Malay are slightly different. Although the way to say hello during some times of day differs by region, you'll probably be understood in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, East Timor, and Indonesia.
Vietnamese is a tonal language with lots of honorifics (titles of respect), but your simple hello will be understood because of the context.
The easiests of ways to greet people in Vietnam is with xin chao (pronounced "zeen chow").
Burmese is a complex language, however, you can learn a quick way to say hello. The language is very tonal, but people will understand your basic greetings in Burmese without tones because of the context.
Hello in Burmese sounds like "ming-gah-lah-bahr" but pronunciation varies slightly by region.