Vietnamese personal names are usually composed of three elements appearing in the following order: first, the family or clan name (ho), such as Nguyen, Tran, Le, etc.;second, the middle name(chu dem or chu lot). ‘cushion world,’ such as Van, Dinh, Huu, etc,; and third, the personal or given name (ten). Example: Nguyen Van Nam, in which Nguyen, the family name, i.e. the appellation of the remote clan ancestor – a god or a hero – is transmitted from generation through male offspring. Van is the middle or “cushion” name. Nam, the given name, always placed last, corresponds to the first or Christian name in Western societies.
Sometimes there is no middle or cushion elements: Ly Cam, Ly Tien, Le Loi, Nguyen Trai, etc. This is true only of men’s names, and represent 22% of a corpus of 3,282 names (Pham Tat Thang 1988, 185).
There are, according to tradition, one hundred surnames or family names in all: tram ho, cf. Chinese bai sying. The real number is, however, unknown although it has been said that the maximum is three hundred(Huard, Durand 1954, 92). In the Red River delta of North Vietnam, Gourou (1936, 127) counted no more than 202 different family names.
The most frequently encountered family names are single word such as Nguyen, Tran, Le, Vu, Vo, Hoang, Huynh, Pham, Ngo, Truong, Phan, Doan, Thai, Trinh, Dang, Bui, Lam, Cao, Duong, Dinh, Do, Luu, Ly, etc.
A study conducted in the province of Bac-ninh in North Vietnam revealed 99 different family names, with forty-four percent of the families bearing the name Nguyen (Gourou 1936, 124). According to the French geographer, several villages in the Tonkin delta house only individuals bearing the same clan name (1936, 124)
The majority of family names can be traced to Chinese clans, and indeed “can be written in Chinese charaters (Nguyen Khac Kham 1973, 196). But there are also family names that came from Cham people (Ong, Ma, Tra, Che, Lang, Sam) in the south (Nguyen Bat-Tuy 1954, 50)
Other family names may have two words, which are hyphenated in the conventional orthography (Nguyen-Tan, Nguyen-Khoa, Ho-Dac, etc.). In such compounds the first word indicates the family which has adopted the individual, whereas the second word denotes the family of origin: thus the double family name Vu-Pham means that the person, of the Pham clan, was later adopted by the Vu clan. Another explanation for compound family names is that the second element, originally a middle name, came to be used jointly with the family name to identify members of one family among so many Nguyen’s or Tran’s, after the clan got broken up because of urbanization and displacement. Thus, we have such family names as Tran-Dinh, Tran-Thanh, Tran-Nhu, Ngo-Dinh, Nguyen-Dinh, Nguyen-Khoa, etc. The two examples (Uat-tri, Gia-cat) given in Huard, Durand (1954, 92) are Chinese, not Vietnamese names. Male members of the royal family who are not in direct line with the ruling Nguyen family take the name Ton-that ‘Revered Family’. The women have the name Ton-nu.
The middle element, when there is one, nearly always tells you about the individual’s sex, since girls’ names – 100% before 1945 and 87% after 1945 – have Thi ( < Chinese shi) (Pham 1988, 187). Middle names for men are usually Van, Huu, Duc, Dinh, Xuan, Ngoc, Quang, Cong. The middle name may remain the same for all male members of one family. Only one set of three middle elements indicates the relative ages of the siblings. Brothers with manh, trong, qui as middle names are respectively the first, the second and the third in the family, all the following ones taking gia. An older brother may be identified with ba, and his younger brother with thuc.
As a rule the middle names does not indicate generation. Some families may, however, set up arbitrary rules about giving a different middle name to each generation. The case of the last royal family, founded by Nguyen (-Phuc) Anh in 1802, is an often quote example. Emperor Gia-Long’s fourth son, upon ascending the throne in 1820 under the dynastic tittle of Minh-Mang, established a list of middle names to be given to his descendants successively (Laborde 1920, 388-389). These names were arranged in four lines of verse with five word each:
Mien Huong Ung Buu Vinh
Bao Dinh Qui Long Tuong
Hien Nang Kham Ke The
To Quoc Bao Gia Xuong
Minh-Mang’s son, Thieu-Tri (1841-47), and his collaterals had Mien. In fact, Thieu-Tri’s full name was Nguyen(-Phuc) Mien-Thi. Nguyen(-Phuc) Huong-Nham was the name of Thieu-Tri’s descendant (Tu-Duc), who reigned from 1847 to 1883. In the next generation, Ham-Nghi, as well as Duc-Duc, Hiep-Hoa, Kien-Phuc had the name Nguyen(-Phuc) Ung- …The former Chief-of-State Bao-Dai is the seventh descending generation, so his name is Nguyen(-Phuc) Bao-Long. Overseas, members of the former royal family have dropped the family name Nguyen(-Phuc), thus making it difficult to identify one individual and his uncles (or nephews): people have to refer to the above quatrain to realize that Buu Hoan, for instance, calls Ung Trinh his uncle, and Vinh Dan his newphew. Another example is the Le family, with the generation makers Cam, Hong, Phuoc (Huard, Durand 1954, 93).