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?

{ Leave a Reply ? }

  1. Benjamin Waller

    Hello Ruth,

    Great post. I wanted to chime in here because after learning Vietnamese for some years and teaching English to many Vietnamese, I know the tricky it can be to understand Vietnamese names and how to use them properly.
    I wanted to add a comment on the last section about given names. I see given names in Vietnam as in most English speaking countries where first and foremost it is very individual. Some people who have 2 given names really prefer to be called both not just one of those names. For instance, a male Vietnamese friend of mine’s given name is Thọ Thể and he insists on Thọ Thể not just Thọ or Thể. Therefore shortening it to one or the other is not on! It wouldn’t be much different if people called be Ben when my name is Benjamin for instance and I didn’t like Ben and didn’t identify with it. But saying that, I’ve had some Vietnamese students who don’t mind using just one of these given names.
    But apart from the order complication, most people I know find Nguyễn the most difficult to pronounce followed by Nguỵệt (moon), Phương/Phượng (fragrant/phoenix) as a firsts or any other names with the ư and ơ vowels sounds.
    Keep up the great blogging here Ruth. I have followed you on Twitter as you post lots of very pertinent and interesting stuff on learning Vietnamese.
    Cheers,
    Ben

  2. overbyen

    You’re so right about the names with “Anh” thing. My name is Trâm Anh and I’ve been living in the U.S. since I was 7. I know it’s quite unusual here to have a name with 2 words in it, but I’ve pretty much always gone by “Trâm Anh” (well, without the diacritic mark). Sometimes, if I have to, I can just go by “Tram,” but never “Anh” even though the latter is technically my first name and apparently “Trâm” is just the more descriptive middle name. I’m a girl, so it doesn’t feel right to be called “Anh” 😀

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