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Vietnamese names, titles and what to call someone

Have you ever wondered what to call your Vietnamese friend? Which name to use? Or why there are so many Nguyễns?

Read on to find the answers to all these questions and more.

Vietnamese surnames

The most common Vietnamese surname is Nguyễn. About 40% of Vietnamese people have this surname, taken from the Nguyễn Emperors, the last dynasty of Vietnam. Back in those days, the surname of the Emperor was often used like a clan name. Other common surnames such as Trần and Lê have a similar origin, which is why these names are so common.

The most common Vietnamese surnames. Source.

The most common Vietnamese surnames. Source.

Vietnamese titles

However this homogeneity is not that important as in Vietnam surnames are not really used, aside from official paperwork and when filling in forms. You’d never address someone as Mr or Ms Nguyễn.

In informal situations, given names are used as expected. (Eg. You’d call me Thảo.)

In formal situations you’d call them Mr or Ms Forename. For example, Ms Thảo (chị Thảo or cô Thảo depending who’s talking) or Mr Vũ (anh Vũ).

In very formal situations you may use Ông or Bà instead, or you may include the person’s title like the late General Giáp (Đại tướng Giáp).

Full names and their order

Another difference is that names are written the opposite way round to Western names, with the surname first and the given name last. Vietnamese usually have 3 or 4 names in total.

Let’s look at an example: Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai. This common street name comes from a historical figure of that name.

  • Nguyễn is the surname and that comes first.
  • Thị is a common and traditional middle name which denotes that the person is female. The male equivalent of Thị is Văn. Many years ago almost everybody had a name like this (especially Thị). They are still used nowadays but not to the extent they were before.
  • Minh and Khai are given names. Sometimes people have one, sometimes they have two. While each name has its own meaning, certain combinations of names have special meanings.

Most Vietnamese people go by this final name – so in this case we’d usually call this person Khai (or Ms Khai). However, some people prefer to use both given names. This is often happens with very common names like Anh: people will introduce themselves with the two used names together like Vân Anh or Minh Anh.

This second given name can also be useful if there are several people with the same given name (eg. 2+ Khai’s in the same class/office), we can be specific and refer to her as Minh Khai.

A little help with pronunciation

To wrap up, here’s a video from Every Day Viet covering the pronunciation of some common given names in Vietnam.

Over to you: What do you think about Vietnamese names? Did you know the story behind Nguyễn before?

How to address your Vietnamese teacher (and yourself)

traitaoToday is Teacher’s Day in Vietnam. A day in which students show appreciation for their teachers with flowers or presents. A big thank you to all the teachers out there!

Vietnamese has many personal pronouns and how you address somebody depends on various factors such as your age and relationship with that person. Many people have covered these in depth.

You learn that certain words go together like anh-em, ông-con…

You may also learn about the words to address a teacher: cô for a woman and thầy for a man.

But how do you refer to yourself?

If you were a schoolchild, you would call yourself ‘con’. But as an adult, this isn’t appropriate.

If your teacher is quite a bit older than you then refer to yourself as ’em’. This is what university students use and what I use in my classes.

If your teacher is not so much older than you, your teacher may address you as ‘anh’ or ‘chị’. You could perhaps use ‘tôi’ but in the south it’s most common to use the more informal ‘tui’.

If your teacher is a similar age to or younger than you, you should still address your teacher as cô or thầy out of respect. Your teacher may address you as ‘bạn’. (This was the situation I was in when I briefly took a Korean class.) Ideally you should avoid addressing yourself with a pronoun. For example, instead of saying “anh/chị không hiểu” you’d say “không hiểu cô ơi”. This is a bit tricky, but it’s good to get used to as it can be useful in other situations.

If you’re still not really sure what to use, ask your teacher – that’s what they’re there for!

Happy Teacher’s Day!

Photo credit: lhys