User login

The name game

By: Nguy Ha Posted: November-06-2009 in
Nguy Ha

Giving names to children has never been so fraught with difficulties, as Vietnamese parents are bombarded with advice on tones, meanings, lucky numbers, family traditions and the pressures of adapting to increased use of English.

Names in Vietnam are heavy with meaning. Parents think that a child’s name plays a key role in the destiny of their children. Often names and derivative meanings of names are passed down through generations, partially as a way of paying respect to their ancestors.

However, names can also be the source of family contentions. A mother may find herself in conflict with her mother-in-law over her choice of names, as the older woman attempts to force the younger to adopt a traditional name from her family. Such ‘name games’ are often centred around the naming of the first grand-son and can even be tied to future material wealth, such as inheritance of family property.

Names are not only tied with family traditions, but often with long-standing superstitions. In the past, parents did everything they could to ensure that spirits or ghosts would leave their children alone, and names emphasising the beauty or intelligence of a child were eschewed for more ‘ugly’ names. Girls would be given names such as Truong Thi Buom (butterfly, a slang word for the female genitalia), Tran Van Dan (fucking), Nguyen Thi Ty (breast) or Phung Van Ram (fart) were very common. Parent would use Van (male) and Thi (female) to identify their children’s gender.

As throughout the world, peasants with limited education resorted to very basic names for their children, often due to the large numbers of children they had. Consequently, children often ended up with names such as Nhat (one), Hai (two), and Ba (three). Other popular names were based on the year of the child’s birth, so the names of Chinese astrological years was a useful source giving rise to such names as Mui (goat), Hoi (pig), Mao (cat) and Dzan (tiger).

In some cases these ‘year names’ have led to trouble for their holders. One official was found to have lied in official statements about his age in order to avoid retirement. His name ‘Dan’ had revealed that he had been born in 1950 rather than 1953 as he stated (which would have meant his name would have been Ti after the year of snake).

Names in the past were often used to express the unity of a whole family. For example, if a grandfather’s name is Chuoi (black fish) or Ro (anabas), the children and grandchildren’s names would often be fish-related, such as Tre (cat fish), Tram (carp) and Bong (gudgeon). Or if a father’s name is Thanh, his son would likely be called Dat because Thanh Dat means success.

After 1975 the children’s names began to express the wishes of parents for their children, with Chien Thang (victory) or Hanh Phuc (happiness) becoming popular.

From the1990s, parents became increasingly inventive, echoing the David and Victoria Beckham perhaps, with names marking places that the evoked good memories. Names such as Ha Lan (Holland), Von Ga (Volga River), Duc (Germany), My (America) became more popular. Girls are now often named after flowers, such as Lan (orchid), Cuc (daisy), Hong (rose), while boy’s names concentrate on manly traits through names such as Dung (bravery), Cuong (strong), Manh (powerful).

Today people may be more educated but people still find that choosing a good name can cause headaches. Often the same names crop up due to their auspicious meanings. Some parents even visit a name specialist who will provide a list of names for between 50,000VND to 100,000VND ($3-$6).

A name specialist will also rule out unfavourable names that the parents may have chosen.

‘Nameologist Nhuan explains: “the name of a child should be based on the name of their parents and the year in which they are born”, but he also thinks that names with no tonal inflection are likely to provide the child with a smooth and untroubled life. So, no matter the year of their birth, Nhuan proscribes Hoa Linh, Van Khanh, Trang Ling, Phuong Anh as good names.

Mr Hung, another ‘nameologist’ usually suggests names such as Minh Chau (Bright Gem), Minh Anh (Clever) and Tue Minh (Wise) and he says that children with these names will be very clever.

No-one denies that a good name is important, and it’s reasonable that parents spend so long choosing a name for their children. But the lack of imagination is a shame, as the Vietnamese language is rich in meaning, and the repetition of the same names can be dull and confusing. Many specialists say that good name should evoke a good feeling and be easy to write and say.

Yen, who works at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs also adds that parents are now having to be even more careful in their choices. “Now Vietnam is opening up to the world and parents shouldn’t choose names which in English might be misunderstood. When I gave birth to my first daughter, I hoped that she would be beautiful so I gave her the name Loan. A foreign friend come to visit me, and they asked ‘When you gave birth to her, were you in debt?’ So I had to spend time explaining the meaning to them.” Luckily she had not chosen Dung.

Read more articles by Nguy Ha


The last name is father's

The last name is father's family name with the normal children is a must.

With one who has only mum (single mum) the last name is mother's family name.

But the middle name is free, it is whatever nice or odd you can think about Smile



Great article! I always wanted to visit your country but stopped in the Philippines and stayed here.
In America where I'm from, parents are able to choose the first and middle name for a child. Only the last or family name is a must.
Here in the Philippines, a child is given and I think it's law that the middle name is the middle name of the mother.
Strange or different to my way of thinking.
How about there in Viet Nam?


Whats on! See our help pages - add your own events

This location does not have any events. Why not add one here!