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.
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.
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?