Working as a tour guide, the first thing I have to do when greeting foreign visitors is to introduce myself and my name, of course. Funny enough it always takes my guests a lot of time and effort to pronounce my name and try to remember it. And no it’s not that complicating, just simply Pham Tuyen or Pham Ngoc Tuyen in full. But the pronunciation and the intonation of the name, together with the different location of family name and given name, makes it difficult for foreigners to understand how Vietnamese names work. That’s why I normally have my guests calling me James Bond instead. :D
Our guide Nguyen Cong Khan, yes another Nguyen!
In Vietnamese, the order of the names in reversed: the family name comes first, the middle name then given name comes last. My name for example, Pham is my family name, Ngoc is the middle name and Tuyen is my given name. Altogether it makes my complete name Pham Ngoc Tuyen. Everyone calls me Tuyen in daily use. The full name Pham Ngoc Tuyen is only called in official occasions when names should not be mistaken, like in an event, exam… In Vietnam, a person is usually called by his given name, only very exceptionally by his family name. Vietnamese don’t normally call someone by the family name as it will be confusing or misleading. Say for example, in an international conference and the chairman wants to call me as Mr. Pham, I would never know he means me. As there could be 50 Mr. Phams in the room.
Our guide Tran Khac Thanh
A Vietnamese name is made up of the name of the family and the given name. These two elements may or may not be linked by a middle name, often Thi for a woman or Van for a man. Anything in between the family name and the given name is the middle name that helps to differentiate one to another. My son for example, Pham Tran Ha Nguyen, Tran Ha is his middle name. Or when I was back in the collage there was a dude with a very special (and crazily long) nam: Nguyen Thai Son Giang Xuan, Thai Son Giang Xuan is his middle name. I bet his parents wanted the most unique name for their son.
It is estimated that the total number of family names in Vietnam is about 300 in which the most popular name is Nguyen. Many of my guests say that back home, whoever Vietnamese they know is called Nguyen.
Our guide Water Buffalo, I mean Buffalo Joe and his real name is Do Sy Quy
It is the father or grandfather who usually chooses the given name, according by his wishes for the child to be in the future. It is forbidden to give a child the name of the parents, an ancestor, a member of the royal family (in the past) or anyone for respect. Thus sometimes it is really difficult to name a child, as all the good ones they like are either too popular or same as some respected people.
Our guide Lai Manh Hung, a rare family name
In former time not so long ago, a Vietnamese person might have more than one name. There was no registry office and the newborn was not given the formal name immediately. He or she was normally called by a nick name that is considered to be “ugly” like “thằng cu” (penis) or “cái hĩm”, “cái đĩ” (vulva). Why? They believe when the newborns have ugly names the evil spirit would not bother them. I was call “thằng cây” (tree boy) as I was slim and skinny as hell. Still prefer this name much better than the PENIS. Only when the child went to school they were given the formal name. This name would be used during his youth until he got some position in the society, when lucky and hardworking enough. And after his death, a man was given a posthumous name and his private name also became a taboo for his offspring. Meaning his descendants cannot use these names to name their children.