Vietnamese people started using surnames around 111 B.C. when China conquered Vietnam. During their 1000 years of occupation of Vietnam, China assigned surnames to groups of people in order to make tax collection more efficient. But nowadays, most Vietnamese surnames are different from their original pronunciation to better match the Vietnamese language. Surnames in Vietnam are not as numerous as surnames in China or other major countries. According to estimates, Vietnam has around 300 surnames while China has 926 surnames, Britain around 16,000, and Japan 100,000.
Today, the surname Nguyen is the most common among Vietnamese. It represents almost 40% of the country’s population, followed by Tran (11%) and Lê (9.5%).
A few surnames are of Chinese origin. They vary by geography when migrating to Vietnam. For example, Huáng in Chinese becomes Huynh (often used in the South) or Hoang (often used in the North); Wǔ becomes Vu (in the North) /Vo (in the South). Here are some of the different Vietnamese surnames originating in China: Bạch, Vương, Lưu,… They are rare in the north, but they are more popular in the south which is home to a community of Chinese origin. Surnames of ethnic groups are basically derived from indigenous beliefs.
In Western countries, the family name comes after the name. However, in Vietnamese, the surname comes first in this order (i.e., surname – middle name – first name). For example, Pham Van Duc, Pham is the surname, Van is the middle name, and Duc is the first name.
The family name “Nguyen”
Many people wonder why the most popular surname in Vietnam is Nguyen. There are certain hypotheses around the “explosion” of this surname.
1) Ly was a popular surname as it was a dynasty in Vietnam that existed for more than 200 years. However, after their overthrow by the Trần dynasty, all members with this surname were forced to change their surname to Nguyen (to avoid being tracked down and murdered). This rule then applies to several other dynasties.
2) Before, the inhabitants did not have surnames, only the nobles of the dynasty had them. In the 19th century, when Vietnam became a French colony; the French carried out for the first time the largest demographic survey in Vietnam. During the survey process, they discovered that the majority of the lower classes did not have surnames. It was therefore impossible to investigate. The French decided that those who did not wear one would be referred to by the Nguyen family name because the Nguyen dynasty was the last ruling dynasty in Vietnam from 1802 to 1945. This is why many Vietnamese bear this surname. family.