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A guide to 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 in this guide to Vietnamese names and addressing people.

Common Vietnamese last names

The most common Vietnamese surname is Nguyễn. About 40% of Vietnamese people have this last name, 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 in Vietnam.

The most common Vietnamese surnames. Source.

The most common Vietnamese surnames. Source.

Vietnamese titles

However this homogeneity of last names is not that important as in Vietnam surnames are not used very often. They are used for official paperwork and when filling in forms. But you’d never address someone as Mr or Ms Nguyễn.

So how do you address someone correctly in Vietnamese?

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).

Vietnamese name 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). These names 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.

Pronouncing common Vietnamese first names

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

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

Vietnamese age and birthdays

birthday

Your Vietnamese age isn’t what you think it is.

In Vietnam, it’s common to be asked your age. Though Westerners may be shocked by this at first, it is an important question to choose the correct way to address someone for example – chị for a woman a little older than you or em for a woman a bit younger.

But before you go about answering that question, there are two important differences when it comes to counting age in Vietnam.

1. Your age is based on the year you were born, and changes at new year.

So say you’re 30 and living in Vietnam over new year. From the first day of Tết, you now give your age as 31. However…

2. At birth you start counting from 1.

Say your birthday is in September. So in the Western calendar you’d be turning 31 next month. However since Vietnamese count you as 1 when you’re born and you get older at Tết, you’d have been 32 years old since the last Tết anyway.

And next Tết you’ll be 33 in Vietnamese years. Sorry about that!

Honestly, though, it sounds more confusing than it is.

A quick way to work out your age

If you’ve already had your birthday this year,

Vietnamese age = Western age + 1

If you haven’t had your birthday yet,

Vietnamese age = Western age + 2

Birthdays

Birthdays are not usually celebrated in Vietnam. While children do receive lì xì (lucky money) at Tết, my students were quick to tell me this isn’t in celebration of their increase in age per se.

As Vietnam is modernising some people in the cities are adapting the Western concept of age, or least birthday celebrations, but whenever I’m asked “bao nhiều tuổi?”, I always give my Vietnamese age.

Over to you: Bạn bao nhiều tuổi? 😉

Photo credit: ngould

How to politely say “I’m leaving” in Vietnamese

If you’re visiting a Vietnamese person’s house, when you leave you must tell you host this. Even if it’s obvious, it’s necessary to actually say “I’m leaving” – especially to those older than you.

It might be obvious but you should still tell your host you’re leaving.

Usually this is with the verb “về” (as in, I’m going home). For example:

Chị, em về.
Chú, con về.

But there are times when đi (to go) is used, for example if you’re heading to the bus station to leave town.

Bà, con đi.
Anh chị, em đi.

In my experience, Vietnamese people love it when you follow this custom. Next time you’re visiting someone’s house or leaving a party, try it and see.

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