If an American TV show or movie features a character either from Vietnam or of Vietnamese ancestry, chances are their last name is Nguyen. Is it a case of lazy writing, or is Nguyen really that common? Maybe it’s a little of both, but Nguyen is definitely a popular Vietnamese last name, shared by between 30 and 40 percent of the country’s population. In other words, if you’re attempting to do any type of historical or genealogical research involving someone named Nguyen, it may take a while. And it’s not only Nguyen: More than 90 percent of the Vietnamese population shares the same 15 popular last names. That is a lot. By comparison, the 14 most popular last names in the United States account for fewer than six percent of the population.
So why all the repetition? Like many Asian countries, the modern concept of last names in Vietnam is relatively recent, only dating back to the 18th century. And while they’re now in regular use, culturally, they’re not that significant. Names have great meaning within Vietnamese culture. They are sewn with a deep appreciation for ancestors and family. There are also notes of deep respect for community and family. Manual labor and diligence are also portrayed in their meanings and academics and elders are revered. The Vietnamese started to use last names around 111 B.C. after China conquered during the Han Dynasty rule. It was during this 1,000-year rule that Vietnamese people were given last names so they could be taxed according to the family they belonged to.
In Vietnamese culture, there are almost 300 family names to choose from. Apart from their unique names, Vietnamese culture has an uncommon naming structure as well. In their titles, the family name is written first, then the middle, and then the person’s actual name. Let’s say your name is Tran Van Lu. Tran is the family name (last name), Van is the middle name and Lu is the first or given name. Therefore this person would be referred to as Mr. Lu. Middle names are also significant because they show which generation the person belongs to. Families use different middle names for each generation. This means that brothers and sisters would all share the same middle name since they were born in the same period. Chinese naming structure follows a similar style. The Vietnamese also value religion and the big three that most people practice include Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. All are very common within Vietnamese culture. They also a big appreciation for folktales and storytelling.
Having said that, here are the most popular Vietnamese last names (plus a bonus name), along with their meanings and origins.
Meaning: Flower, petal; brave, hero; intelligent, bright
Meaning: Peace, quiet; Safe, secure
Meaning: Secretive or a woman with many secrets
Meaning: Political party
Meaning: Gift of God
Meaning: Full of knowledge
Meaning: A Vietnamese clan that ruled the dynasty within the Tonkin area of northern Vietnam from 1527 to 1592
Meaning: Plum flower
Meaning: Someone from the ancient Chinese state of Wu
Meaning: Foolish, doltish, or stupid
Meaning: A plucked stringed instrument
Meaning: Descendant of Ji Sun’s clan
Meaning: Poetry, poem, verse
Meaning: To be intelligent
Meaning: Luxury, kind, special, thoughtful, considerate
Meaning: Exhibit, display, old, ancient
Meaning: Smart, brain, intelligent; idea
Meaning: Pure, virginal
Meaning: School, field
Meaning: Bright, sharp
Meaning: Chivalrous, gentleman
Meaning: Complete, full