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Vietnamese Names Posted by on Jan 18, 2021 in Culture, Vocabulary

If you were to meet a Vietnamese person and tried to guess their last name (họ), your chances would be pretty good. Because, the options are few compared to other nationalities. There’s a great chance that person’s họ is Nguyễn.  If not, perhaps Trần, Lê, or Phạm.  If that isn’t it, try Huỳnh, Hoàng, Phan, Vũ, Võ, Đặng, Bùi, Đỗ, Hồ, Ngô, Dương, Lý.  Still wrong? You’re out of luck because nearly all Vietnamese carry one of those common last names.

Why are there so many họ Nguyễn among the Vietnamese (approximately 40% of the population)?  It’s because the Nguyễn dynasty was the last Vietnamese dynasty to hold power for over a century until its demise in 1945. With the change of a dynasty, many people would change their họ to the name of the ruling dynasty as an overt sign of allegiance, or to conceal their identities to avoid persecution, or to assimilate to the new regime, or to gain favor and opportunities.

Vietnamese Name Structure

Unlike the United States, the Vietnamese name structure is reversed:

Last name (họ) – Middle name (tên đệm) – First name (tên chính)

It is not the Vietnamese custom that a wife takes her husband’s last name when she is married.  She retains her family name, but people may address her by her husband’s first name to indicate she is married.  For example, Mrs. Nguyễn Hồng Liên is married to Mr. Lê Anh Dũng.  Her name would still be the same, but people may address her as “Mrs. Dũng.”

Address the Name

In Vietnam, a person is addressed by their first name whether it’s formal or informal. A personal pronoun, or an honorific name, is added in front of the first name for a formal address.  For example, the current Vietnamese Prime Minister’s name is Nguyễn Xuân Phúc.  Nguyễn is his last name.  Xuân is his middle name. Phúc is his first name.  You can address him formally as Mr. Prime Minister Phúc (not Nguyễn).  For casual addressing, you can address him without the title as Mr. Phúc.

Meaning of Name

Similar to Chinese names, each Vietnamese name carries its individual meaning derived from the first name and middle name.  A name may commemorate an event, a heroic person, a virtue, or objects from nature like flowers.

In the past, the common middle name for a male is Văn, and for females it is Thị. This naming tradition is now considered too provincial and not modern. Contemporary middle names are now derived from the mother’s last name, or word(s) to complement the first name.  Here are examples of how to “decode” a name.

Hồng Liên - Hoa Sen Hồng  (Pink Lotus)

Hồng Liên (Pink Lotus)
– Image by Kandle Dart

  • Nguyễn Hồng Liên: The middle name Hồng means pink. The first name Liên (hoa sen) means lotus flower. Because it’s about a flower, it’s a girl’s name.  Therefore, this girl is from the Nguyễn family and she is a pink lotus flower.  If you change the middle name from Hồng (pink) to Bạch (white), then she is a white lotus flower.
  • Lê Anh Dũng: The middle name Anh here means intelligent, talented, knowledgeable. The first name Dũng means courageous, brave.  This is a boy’s name, to inspire intelligence and bravery.

Now that you know how to analyze a name, the next time you meet a Vietnamese, you can impress that person by complimenting him/her on how pretty and meaningful his/her name is.

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