names come in a reverse order, compared to Western names, and usually
have three parts:
- The family name (equivalent to surname)
- The middle name (optional, but common)
- The given name (equivalent to first name)
This reflects an important difference in terms of philosophy between
the West and East: Individuality is considered as the core of Western
society, while in the East, the community, particularly the family,
takes the central position. Take Pham Van Duc, for example, Pham
is the family name or what Westerners call the last name. Van is
the individual's middle name, and Duc is the given or first name.
Vietnam has about 300 family or clan names. The most common are
Le, Pham, Tran, Ngo, Vu, Do, Dao, Duong, Dang, Dinh, Hoang and Nguyen
- the Vietnamese equivalent of Smith. The surname Nguyen is estimated
to be used by more than 40% of the Vietnamese population. The 4
most common family names among ethnic Vietnamese are as follows:
+ Le (or occasionally among Vietnamese of
Cantonese decent, Lai)
+ Pham (almost exclusively a northern surname)
Of the above surnames Tran, Le and Nguyen were the subsequent Vietnamese
monarchs from the 12th to the 20th century. The other most common
names are as follows, in no particular order:
+ Vu (in northern or central regions) or
Vo (in central or southern regions)
+ Hoang (in northern or central regions)
or Huynh (in central or southern regions)
+ Phan (almost exclusively found in southern
Among these surnames Ngo, Dinh and Ly are the three dynasties from
the 10th to the 12th century. The
given name, which appears last, is the name used to address someone,
preceded by the appropriate title. Nguyen Van Lu, for example, would
be called Mr. Lu. The middle name, called ten dem or ten
lot, is selected by parents from a fairly narrow range. For
a time, almost all women had Thi as their middle name, and many
men had Van. More recently, a broader range of names have been used,
and people named Thi sometimes omit their middle name.
Traditionally, the middle name could be used to indicate a person's
position in their family, such as indicating that they were the
oldest child. Other times, it could indicate a person's generation
- brothers and sisters would share the same middle name, which would
be used to distinguish them from the generation before and after
Middle names more often than not tell the gender of the person.
Middle names are usually the same for all male members of the same
family. There used to be a time when most Vietnamese people bore
the middle name Thi for women and Van for men. In recent years,
this practice has fallen from favour, since it is thought that these
two names are now characterless or even rustic. Many women have
omitted the middle name Thi from their CVs.
The given name is the primary form of address for Vietnamese. Here
is where the thinking of the West and the East meet in a nice way.
Flowers and precious stones, for example are favoured by both as
beautiful names. While the West has Rose or Rosa, Vietnam has Hong,
while mirrors appear as Daisy and Cuc, Esmeralda or Jemma and Ngoc.
Influenced by a nature-oriented philosophy, naming children after
Mother Nature is a choice of many Vietnamese parents. Everywhere
and every time you can meet people who are named Fragrance, Flower,
Mountain, Cloud, and many more like that. On the contrary, some
names are chosen because of their ugliness. This mostly occurs in
the countryside, where parents fear that children with beautiful
name will not grow up healthily, or might be taken away by devils.
Typically, Vietnamese will be addressed with their given names.
In formal situations the Vietnamese given name, preceded by a term
of address like Mr., Mrs., Dr., or Rev., is practically an equivalent
to the American last name. 'Ong' is used in place of Mr, while 'Ba'
is the equivalent of 'Mrs/Ms'. 'Ngai' or 'quy ong' are other synonyms
of 'ong', 'quy ba' is the synonym of 'ba'. 'Quy ong', 'ngai' or
'quy ba' are usually used in more formal context. This contrasts
with the situation in many other cultures, where the family name
is used in formal situations. (Some exceptions exist: Ho Chi Minh
is referred to by the name Ho, not Minh).
The given name used by itself is somewhat similar to the American
first name. However, in Vietnamese society, given names, especially
names of those higher in social status, age or rank in the extended
family, have a certain "taboo" quality. When talking to
a person who is not a close friend, Vietnamese people tend to avoid
mentioning his name. This practice is also transferred to their
interactions with American people. Even when they speak English,
they tend to avoid mentioning the name of the interlocutor, especially
if that person is their teacher or boss. To address a teacher, Vietnamese
use the word 'thay' (for male teacher) or 'co' (for female teacher)
before the teacher's given name. Similarly, the words 'bac', 'co',
'anh', 'chi', 'thu truong',
can be used in front of a boss's
name during the conversation between two Vietnamese when mentioning
It is a great insult to mention a person's mother's or father's
given name, without the accompanying word 'bac', 'chu', 'co',...
to indicate the approximate age of the addressed person. Because
of this "taboo" quality, names are carefully chosen for
newborns to avoid the names of one's parents ancestors, relatives
and close friends. In a style contrary to Western practice, Vietnamese
also avoid naming their children after their friends or relatives,
since such an action is considered as lacking respect. In feudal
times, naming after the real names and title of kings was banned,
and violations would demand stiff punishment.
Traditionally Vietnamese women keep their maiden names upon marriage,
and use their husband's first name or their eldest son's or daughter's
name to introduce themselves to others. If Miss Le Thi Lam marries
Mr. Do Van Tien, she would refer to herself as Mrs. Tien. At work
or in business she would still be known as Mrs. Le Thi Lam. Today,
however, most Vietnamese women prefer to still use their names in
both social and business contexts.