When people start to trace their family history, they often look to their surnames for clues about their origins. Naming conventions vary between cultures. For those of Vietnamese origin, they will have to look at other information: dates of migration and ruling dynasties.
This is because Vietnamese naming conventions are different from those used in other countries. Each child would be given three names: their first name, middle name, and surname. However, surnames were changed depending on which dynasty was in power. Because of this practice, many Vietnamese people had the same surname despite not being related to each other.
Why did Vietnamese people have this practice of changing surnames? Keep reading to find out more about why this happened, and what are the most common Vietnamese surnames.
Vietnamese Names Have Three Parts
In Vietnamese culture, parents traditionally bestow three names to their children: first names, middle names, and last names. The convention of last names became widespread in Vietnam after they were conquered by China. As Vietnam came into contact with different countries, religions, and cultures, surnames from different parts of the world became popular in the country.
This practice of choosing surnames is what sets Vietnam apart. In other cultures, families would keep a unique surname to indicate their unbroken matrilineal or patrilineal descent. But in Vietnamese history, much of the Vietnamese population would change their name depending on who was in power.
Because there are certain family names that are very popular in Vietnam, they cannot be used to accurately distinguish an individual like Western names. If you encounter a three-part Vietnamese name, note that it is the given name (aka the first name) that is commonly used to refer to someone.
While most of Vietnam’s population have one middle name, it is possible for people to have two or more. It is also possible for them to have no middle name at all. This is because it will depend on a family’s naming practices and parents’ preferences.
Such names are typically used to indicate the generation to which a person belongs, especially in a large family. Each family may give a child a specific middle name to mark this. For example, the Mac clan may have two different names to indicate two generations: Mac Nghia and Mac Dinh.
Why Is Nguyen The Most Common Vietnamese Surname?
It is estimated that nearly 40% of all Vietnamese people bear the common last name “Nguyen”. This practice extends to both Vietnam and Vietnamese people outside the country. There are several theories as to why “Nguyen” is the most common surname.
The first theory is that “Nguyen” has its roots in the Chinese last name of “Ruan” (or “Yuen” in Cantonese). During the Northern and Southern dynasties (420-589 A.D.), a large wave of Chinese people with this name fled China for Vietnam to avoid political upheaval. Over time, they assimilated with the local population and created a large group of Vietnamese with the name “Nguyen”.
The second theory points the finger at changing dynasties. General Tran Thu Do (1194 – 1264) overthrew the Ly Dynasty and established the Tran Dynasty by arranging a marriage between his nephew and the Empress Regnant of the Ly Dynasty. After his nephew was crowned, Tran Thu Do became grand chancellor and regent – the de facto ruler of the Tran Dynasty. To consolidate his power, he allegedly forced Ly descendants to change their name to “Nguyen”.
While no reason was given for why Tran Thu Do did this, it was clear why Vietnamese families chose this name during the heyday of the Nguyen Dynasty. When the Nguyen Dynasty took power in 1802, many people with this surname were able to avoid prosecution and receive awards.
The third theory is rooted in the rarity of surnames within Vietnamese lower classes. When the French colonized Vietnam in the 19th century, they held a census across the country. They discovered that most of the lower classes didn’t have a last name. This made it difficult to collect and track population data, so the French gave the name “Nguyen” to anyone who did not have a last name, as the Nguyen Dynasty was the last dynasty in Vietnam.
Common Vietnamese Last Names
This is a list of some of the most popular Vietnamese surnames. While a majority of them are of Chinese origin, quite a few last names come from European countries.
- Au: This Vietnamese name means “water meadow” or “little stream”.
- Can: This name is of French origin and means “hound”.
- Chau: This is a popular name of Vietnamese origin, and has several spelling variants such as “Chow”.
- Dan: This last name of Hebrew origin means “God is my judge”.
- Don: A last name with roots in both England and Vietnam, it means “ruler of the world”.
- Hai: This name is of both Muslim and Vietnamese origin, meaning “alive” or “vivid”.
- Ky: A common surname with Irish and Vietnamese roots, meaning “lovely”.
- Lieu: This name has Vietnamese roots, meaning “willow tree”.
- Mac: This Vietnamese family name is of Scottish origin, and it means “the greatest”.
- Ngo: One of the most popular Vietnamese names, “Ngo” is also a form of the last name “Ao”.
- Nguy: A name that is a variant of “Nguyen”.
- On: This name has both Chinese and Vietnamese origins, meaning “peace”.
- Than: A common family name in Vietnam meaning “brilliant”.
- Tran: One of the most common last names after “Nguyen”, the name “Tran” has Scottish roots.
- Vuong: Like “Nguyen”, this is another popular Vietnamese name.
Ancient Vietnamese Last Names
Many of Vietnam’s oldest last names date all the way back to 111 B.C., when China conquered Vietnam and began a millennium-long occupation of the country. Because China traditionally used last names to distinguish clans from each other, this practice spread to Vietnam. It had another practical use – having family names made tax collection easier.
Here are some of the oldest Vietnamese surnames, many of them with Chinese roots. Many of these names are inspired by past historical rulers, dynasties, or events.
- Ba: A family name derived from the Zhou Dynasty. The Zhou Dynasty is also known as the kingdom of Ba – “Ba” means “father” in Mandarin.
- Che: This name means “cart” and is used in honor of a prime minister.
- Cong: An ancient family name meaning “intelligent”.
- Dai: A Japanese name referring to a Chinese state. It means “great”.
- Dang: This surname is derived from the surname of a ruling family during the Zhou dynasty.
- Hai: An ancient family name of a senior minister which means “ocean”.
- Hang: This rare Vietnamese surname originated from China’s Song Dynasty.
- Lai: An ancient name of Chinese origin, it is primarily used by the ruling class.
- Lang: A Chinese last name which means “tall one”.
- Su: This ancient Chinese name comes from Emperor Xuan Zhu, one of the Great Five Emperors of Chinese mythology.
- Tang: An old Chinese last name, adopted after the Prince of Shang Cheng Tang.
- Tian: This is an ancient Chinese name, adopted by families that lived in Tian.
- Tron: One of many Vietnamese last names with French roots, “Tron” is named after a seventh-century saint.
Learn More About Family Names Of Vietnamese Origin
Many Vietnamese people have Chinese family names. Others have a surname of French origin, or a surname passed on because of the ruling dynasty. No matter what surname their family has, each name has a special story and journey to inspire their descendants.
Learning about popular Vietnamese surnames may have inspired you to research your own surname and heritage. But if you want to find out more about your family origin, go through your old family photographs!
Get your old photos restored and colorized by a professional studio like Image Restoration Center. Once they’re restored, share them with your relatives to jog their memories and swap stories. Restored photos are the perfect tool for learning about your family’s culture and traditions!