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Vietnamese personal names generally consist of three parts: a family name, a middle name, and a given name, used in that order. The "family name first" order follows the system of Chinese names and is common throughout the Chinese cultural sphere, but is different from Chinese, Korean, and Japanese names in having a middle name. Persons can be referred to by either the whole name, the given name, or a hierarchic pronoun in normal usage.
Due to the frequency of the major family names such as Nguyễn, Trần, and Lê, a person is often referred to by their middle name along with their given name in Vietnamese media and youth culture.
The Vietnamese language is tonal, and so are Vietnamese names. Names with the same spelling (ignoring diacritics) but with different tones are different names, which can confuse non-Vietnamese people when the diacritics are dropped, in use outside Vietnam.
The family name, positioned first, is passed on by the father to his children. It is estimated that there are around one hundred family names in common use, although some are far more common than others. The name Nguyễn is estimated to be used by almost 40% of the Vietnamese population. The top three names are so popular because people tended to take the family name of kings, to show their loyalty. Over many generations, the family names became permanent.
The following include some other, less common, surnames, in alphabetical order:
Some Vietnamese have dual family names. This dual family name is usually passed through all people in the family, but sometimes through the male or female line only. In many cases the mother's family name is added behind the father's as a middle name, which does not make a dual family name, as the mother's family name isn't passed through to the next generation.
Most Vietnamese have one middle name, but it is quite possible to have two or more, or even no middle names at all.
In the past, the middle name was selected by parents from a fairly narrow range of options. Almost all women had Thị (氏) as their middle name, and many men had Văn (文). More recently, a broader range of names have been used, and people named Thị sometimes omit their middle name.
Thị is by far the most common female middle name. This word expresses possession; for example, "Trần Thị Mai Loan" is a person who has the given name of "Mai Loan" and the surname "Trần", and the combination "Trần Thị" means "A female person belonging to the Trần family". The combination is similar to Western surname formation like "Van" in "Van Helsing", "Mac" in "MacCartney" etc. Male middle names include Văn (文), Hữu (友), Đức (德), Thành (誠), Công (公), Quang (光) and many others.
The middle name can have three usages:
However, nowadays most middle names do not have those usages. They can either have a meaning or just be there to make the full names more euphonious.
In most cases, formally, the middle name is actually a part of the given name. For example, the name "Đinh Quang Dũng" is separated into the surname "Đinh" and the given name "Quang Dũng". In a normal name list, these two parts of the full name are put in two different columns. However, in daily conversation, the last word in a given name with a title before it is used to address a person, for example "Ông Dũng", "Anh Dũng", etc. where "Ông" and "Anh" are words to address the person which depend on age, social position, etc.
The given name is the primary form of address for Vietnamese. It is chosen by parents and usually has a literal meaning in the Vietnamese language. Names often represent beauty, such as bird or flower names, or attributes and characteristics that the parents want in their child, such as modesty (Khiêm).
Typically, Vietnamese will be addressed with their given name, even in formal situations, although an honorific equivalent to "Mr.", "Mrs.", etc. will be added when necessary. This contrasts with the situation in many other cultures, where the family name is used in formal situations, and is a practice similar to Icelandic usage and, to some degree, to Polish practice. It is similar to the Latin-American and southern European custom of referring to some people as "Don" along with their first name. It contrasts with Japanese custom, where the given name is used only by close friends, especially children and young people (and even here the family name is often used) and some family members (though in the family, hierarchical role names, such as 'older brother', are often preferred).
Addressing someone by his or her family name is rare though not unheard of. In the past, married women in the north have been called by their family name, with Thị 氏 as a suffix. In recent years, doctors are more likely than any other social group to be addressed by their family name, though this form of reference is more common in the north than in the south. Some extremely well-known people are sometimes referred to by their family names, such as Hồ Chí Minh ("Uncle Hồ") (however, his real surname is Nguyễn), Trịnh Công Sơn ("the musician Trịnh"), and Hồ Xuân Hương ("the poetess with the family name Hồ"). In the old days, people in Vietnam, particularly North Vietnam, addressed parents using the first child's name; for example, Mr and Mrs Anh or Master Minh.
When being addressed within the family, children are sometimes referred to by their birth number, starting from one in the north but starting with two in the south. This practice is less common recently, especially in the north.
Some names may appear the same if simplified into a basic ASCII script, as for example on websites, but are actually different names:
Typically, as in the above examples, it is middle or the last personal given name which varies, as almost any Sino-Vietnamese character may be used. The number of family names is limited.
Further, some historical names may be written using different Chinese characters in chữ Hán, but are still written the same in the modern Vietnamese alphabet.
According to the Chicago Manual of Style, Vietnamese names are indexed according to the final given name and not according to the family name, with a cross-reference placed in regards to the family name. Ngo Dinh Diem would be listed as "Diem, Ngo Dinh" and Vo Nguyen Giap would be listed as "Giap, Vo Nguyen".