Language & Culture

The Quick 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 name order

Another difference is that names are written the opposite way round to Western names. The surname is 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.

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 someone Mr or Ms Forename. For example, Ms Thảo (em Thảo or cô Thảo depending who’s talking) or Mr Vũ (anh Vũ).

In very formal situations you may use Ông or Bà instead. A famous example is Hồ Chí Minh who is referred to as Bác Hồ. Following Vietnamese convention his friends would have called him Minh (though actually he had many names throughout his life).

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?

8 replies on “The Quick Guide to Vietnamese names, titles and what to call someone”

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.

Thanks for your comment, Ben. I did write that name pairs often have a special meaning, but I guess I could have been clearer. I’ll amend it. I think when I wrote this post I was remembering classes where I’ve had 2+ students with the same main given name (eg. Khang) so to distinguish which Khang, they would use the name pair (eg. Minh Khang) even if they’d normally just go by ‘Khang’. This of course happens all over the world. My sister went to school with 5 boys called Chris, so naturally they all had nicknames or used middle names/initials.

Actually I find Nguyệt harder to pronounce than Nguyễn or Nguyên, but that could just be me.

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” 😀

Oh my Ruth, I’m so happy to have found your site. I’m trying hard to understand the politesse required when addressing people in Vietnam (which I would LOVE to visit). Obviously I would like to be polite and correct and so I’m finding your explanations, clear and precise. Thank you so much.

Wow, I’m glad to have come across this site! Like someone else in the replies, my name is also Trâm Anh! I’m wondering, do you know what the name means when these two names are combined together?

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