All Vietnamese names follow a simple structure: family name, middle name and given name. When a Vietnamese hands you a business card you should address the person with the name on the far right. A man named Huynh Viet Nhan, for example, should be addressed as Nhan
There are roughly 140 Vietnamese family names in use today. The most common is Nguyen, which was also the name of the last royal dynasty. Other royal surnames still in use today include Tran, Trinh and Le. The name was probably acquired to show loyalty to the monarch in power, or taken on as a mark of respect when a new dynasty rose to power.
Only around 30 of the 140 or so family names used in Vietnam are actually of Vietnamese origin. For the most part, family names are of Chinese (Khong, Luu, Truong, Lu, Lam), Cambodian (Thach, Kim, Danh, Son), or ethnic minority origins (Linh, Giap, Ma, Deo)
The Most common middle names are Van for men and Thi for women. The middle name is traditionally used to indicate a person’s generation, or the separate branches of a big family, or a person’s position within the family – for instance, “Ba” is for the first son of the first wife, “Manh” for the first son of the second wife, and “Trong” for a second son.
Why is “Nguyen” such a common Vietnamese last name?
Not all. Nguyen accounts for about 40% of Vietnamese last names. The explanation for such prominence lies in the history of Vietnam. During the ancient feudal time, kings will often force people that belong to a rival family to change their last name as a form of submission.
That happened in 1232. After usurping the Ly Dynasty, the Tran’s clan leader Tran Thu Do force the descendants of the Ly family to change their last name to Nguyen.
The same thing happened in 1592, after losing their dynasty, most of the Mac family changed their last name to either “Nguyen” or “Leu” to avoid retribution from the new king.
Then in 1802, the Nguyen family took over the throne, so a lot of people changed their last name to Nguyen in hope of earning favours from the royal family.
The Nguyen themselves bred a lot. Gia Long, the first Nguyen emperor famously had more than 100 concubines. Minh Mạng, the second emperor, had 142 official children.
The Nguyen was also the last feudal dynasty in Vietnam, so there were no new kings to force the same fate on them.