The story behind my Vietnamese name, Thảo

You’ve seen my Vietnamese name, Thảo, all over this site but I’ve never explained how I came to have a Vietnamese name and why it’s Thảo.

Thảo in Tây Ninh

The problem I faced

The problem of what to call myself always occurs outside of English-speaking countries. Nowadays I use my middle name, Elisabeth, but when I first went to Vietnam I was still using my first name, Ruth.

When embarking on my Asian adventure in 2010, it slipped my mind that I’d had difficulties with my name in the past so I started teaching with the name Ruth. Cue the problems. The ‘th’ sound (phoneme θ) doesn’t appear in many languages. This error alone is not a big deal but the initial ‘r’ can be tricky too. From Vietnam to Italy I’ve had people struggle with that sound and have even been asked if my name starts with ‘br’!?

A lot of my students in Vietnam simply addressed me as ‘Teacher’ as opposed to my title, Ms Ruth (or nowadays, Ms Elisabeth). While this form of address is a common and respectful thing to do in Vietnam, I do wonder if I had a higher occurrence of this due to the difficulty of pronouncing my name.

So my students found a way around the problem, but there was still the issue of interactions outside of work.


When speaking English with people, my name was sometimes a difficulty, often not. However, when speaking Vietnamese my name was just too strange. It Vietnamized as ‘Ru’. I’ve known a Ru and a Rew before but mostly the name reminds me of Roo from Winnie the Pooh.

Later, one of my Vietnamese teachers refused to call me Thảo and pronounced Elisabeth with every syllable stressed. It was kinda painful to listen to.

Even for myself, when I switch to English pronunciation mid-sentence to say my name, this affects my subsequent Vietnamese pronunciation (I slip into a stronger English accent).

The solution: use a Vietnamese name

The simple and obvious solution was to choose a Vietnamese name.

I expressed this desire to some of my friends and randomly one friend had a list of his classmates’ names on him that day. Together they went through the list and one of them read out female names that they liked. If they all agreed that it was a nice name, it was then my turn to repeat it.

Some names I couldn’t pronounce well, other fared a little better – with two friends thinking my pronunciation was up to par but the other one thinking I was a little off. Finally we got to Thảo. I repeated it successfully to a unanimous opinion not once but three times in a row.

At this point we got into the meaning. As the pool of Vietnamese names is relatively small, most people know the meaning of common names. Thảo has two meanings – the first one I heard is along the lines of ‘herbal’. The second is about respecting your parents or ‘honour’.

Thảo means herbal.
Thảo means herbal.

So there I had it – my Vietnamese name. Thảo.

Over to you: Do you have any problems with your name when abroad or when speaking a foreign language? Have you ever used, or would you consider using, another name?

Photo credit: degrassi and gabriel77

24 replies on “The story behind my Vietnamese name, Thảo”

Haha, /th/ sound can be tricky for us Asian (I’m Chinese) e.g. “Thank you” may sound like “sank you”;-)
/r/ sound isn’t hard for me, esp. after I switched to American English. But for a long time I couldn’t distinguish /l/ and /n/. Every now and then I still have trouble with “slow/snow” or “collection/connection”;-)

Did you Vietnamese students confuse /l/ and /n/?

Not just Asians, /th/ doesn’t exist in many Europeans languages either. It always takes a while to learn a new sound (for me /ng/ was tricky).

I have heard some Northern Vietnamese struggle with n/l. Interesting that’s a Chinese problem too!

I think it’s a great idea to take on a Vietnamese name, and I love how you chose it. The “th” sound really is hard for lots of speakers – including French and Spanish speakers.

(Also, I *love* the name Ruth.)

Most interesting my dear (or… should I say “Your Honorable Basil”?) 😉 I’ve often wondered how your Vietnamese nickname came to be.

Me? I’ve finally flown the (Asian) coop completely. Spent a glorious week in Dalat before… I’m now settled into the opposite side of (and down) the globe: 8 *THOUSAND* feet up in the Andes mountains in Ecuador!

So far, utterly amazing – and the complete OPPOSITE of all things Asian!

When (not “if”) do you return to Vietnam?

Complete opposite of Asia? That’s quite a change. I’m looking forward to hearing about your adventures, and deep down there may even be similarities!

There may well be a visit to VN at some point this year, but plans are still brewing.

Yes, I find that it is. I certainly have to repeat it more often as it’s harder to catch it first time than it is for a longer name. But maybe it’s in part because the British Queen has a similar name, so that’s easier to recognise…

Thảo in vietnamese has two meanings and it can be a suffix or prefix in some words. It either “herbal” or “good hearted” depending on the context. You have words like “thảo ăn”, “thảo mộc”, “hiếu thảo” etc…

I haven’t come across any of those particular multi-syllable words yet, though I know names can have different meanings when combined. It’s interesting to know!

Hi Ruth, nice to read the origin of your Vietnamese name. Your students cannot pronounce your English name ending with ‘th’ so you chose a Vietnamese name with the ‘th’ at the beginning!
My name also starts with “th”– Thùy, which is difficult to pronounce for non-Vietnamese. Japanese and Chinese would call me Sui, French would call me Tui (or Tu–you?!). I used to ask people call me Three. Yes I am number Three!

I know, it’s ironic for me to choose a name that’s spelt with “th” even though it’s pronounced differently!

It’s interesting to hear how people have pronounced your name. I can’t believe you ended up going by Three! For English speakers you could try saying “Twee” like Tweedledee (a character from a children’s story) which is a little closer.

How is your name in Vietnamese pronounced. I knew a young woman many decades ago, whose name sounded like Tea, but I have no idea how to spell it in Vietnamese or what it’s meaning is.

Hi Mike,

The th- in Vietnamese sounds like an English t- (whereas a Vietnamese t- sounds more like a d-).

I would guess her name is spelt Thi (no tone) which is pronounced similar to the English word tea. I’ve met one person with this name but I don’t know about the meaning.

Hope that helps!

I am lucky to go by Tim, which translates into most languages. It does sometimes end up as Team, or Tiyeem (Russians and Brazilians), but both are close enough. I joke with Muslim friends that I should go by Abdullah as that is a reasonable translation into Arabic from the Greek Timo Theos.

I’m a “Ruthie”… but I work with a number of native Russian speakers. The th is difficult for them as well – I’m generally “Rooshie”…

Easy for me. When I was there (1967-68) I was known as Ha Is Rep. I believe it translates to Corporal Bed Bug. Have used it many times since.

January 27, 2024

Hello Elizabeth,

I was formerly served in the Army in Vietnam and had a high regard for the Vietnamese that I met there. Even in those circumstances they were chipper, friendly, and funny. Fortunately, I was not on the field, but on the massive Chu Lai base. Ladies would be hired to clean our cabin quarters while we were at work, but during breaks we had time to interact with them. They were fun, smart, Buddhist, Catholic and funny.

On day I came across one you girl who had a bad leg (injured or born with it, I don’t know. She was on the steps cleaning something and was lost in a song she sang. I tried to copy the phonetic sound of her words. I tried to transliterate it on Google and will continue trying, perhaps with some progress. I don’t have much faith in Google. As a human speaker of both languages you might have more luck. I drew a quick sketch of the girl and next to it my interpretation of what I thought I heard as she sang. If you can come up with anything, for your efforts, I would send you a copy of the sketch, framed, which has the syllables written next to it. If you are not interested—you seem to be a very busy person—I will understand. I have wondered about this song for 56 years and it would bring me great joy, though, if you would figure it out. Because you know English very well as well as Vietnamese. It sounded like a nursery rhyme as she sang the song.

This is what I wrote on the drawing:

Tai em

Tai com co fai

Ti em

Ti com co fa

On Google I get many strange interpretations from each word, even when it suggests words with diacritical marks. The consonants are close to others or were misheard. I have tried some probable variations with no reliable results. From about her, ‘ears’, ‘time’, ‘a problem’, ‘I miss you’, ‘because of you’ ‘a long time’….it goes on. This might be too much to ask.

Best Wishes,
Andrew Jendrzejewski.

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