Opinion & Analysis

What's in a Vietnamese name?

Vietnamese parents’ best wishes are reflected in their children's names | Photos by Bùi Thu Hà

Different from most other names, a Vietnamese one usually has a meaning which shows the "wish and blessing" of the parents to their baby. Local writer Nguyễn Lệ Diễm uncovers some stories behind Vietnamese names. 

When a child is born, his or her name is usually one of the parents' first concerns. Who doesn’t want a "good" name for their beloved baby? In Vietnam, it's more than that, as most words have deeper meaning. 

Wishes of parents

There was a period when many Vietnamese people had an "ugly" name, especially in the countryside and remote areas where it was believed that good names would attract evils to come to the new-born baby. Then, many were called Chó (dog), Tý (mouse), Cu (penis), Đen (black), Sửu (buffalo), Chum (jar), Nồi (pot), etc., to avoid such evils. 

Today, people no longer believe that. Instead, they think a name with a good meaning not only shows their blessing to the baby, but may affect him or her somehow by a "invisible power".

Therefore, popular names are usually selected for boys such as Dũng (brave), Mạnh or Hùng (strong), Tuấn (handsome), Hoàng (golden– the colour of place and king), Thắng (victory), Vinh (glory), Minh (intelligent), Phú (rich), Phúc (good luck), Đức (virtue), Trung (faithful) , Dương (sun), Sơn (mountain), Hải (sea), Lâm (forest), and Phong (wind). 

For girls, flowers like Lan (orchid), Hồng (rose),  Cúc (daisy), Huệ (tuberose), Đào (peach), Hương (fragrant), Trang (graceful), Hiền (gentle), or soft and charming images like Hà (river), Thủy (water), Thu (autumn), Hằng or Nguyệt (both mean moon), Vân (cloud), are typical.

However, some parents wishes seem don't seem to manifest in the bright future they hope for their children, I discovered.

When a couple from the southern city of Cần Thơ named their daughter as Mỹ Nhân (extremely beautiful), they expected her to become a physically attractive girl.  She then became the target of bullies, as they believed her appearance to be wildly different from her name.

Another girl from the central city of Vinh, Cao Chót Vót (very tall) totally understands the misery of Mỹ Nhân, as her height of around 150cm (around five feet) amuses a lot of people.

Despite no conflict between the name and physical appearance, Ngọc Bích Kim Cương (sapphire and diamond) from Hồ Chí Minh City and Rực Rỡ (splendid) from the northern province of Thanh Hóa unexpectedly become the butt of jokes whenever they are called by their names, as they are very rare and not typically used as first names.

Meanwhile, some other parents intend to name their kids something unusual, to signify being different. Few parents expect troubles would come from being "too unique", however.

Đào Thị Long Lanh Kim Ánh Dương (sparkling golden sun) has been known as the longest name in the northern province of Thái Nguyên. She never has her name written fully in personal documents; people only use her first and last name plus initials for the others. At school, she was often pulled up by teachers to check homework or correct problems about her outstanding name. Years later at work, colleagues from other departments usually come to see her for curiosity. Moreover, some don't call her actual name but, instead, "Ms long name".

Unforgettable memories

Some others unfortunately have their name derived from a reason or event at their birth. The central province of Quảng Nam has many examples. Its Department of Justice received two requests for changing the name from Dương Thị Ly Tan (broken relationship) and Lê Thị Vô Lý (unreasonable).  Both of them received their names in the same context - their father left their mother when they were pregnant. Growing up, they always felt bad as their name reminded them of their parents’ unhappy marriage and were laughed at by others.

However, "broken relationship" and "unreasonable" seems to be mild compared to the unbelievable Phạt Sáu Nghìn Rưởi (fined six thousand and five hundred dong) in Đại Lộc District. Born in 1987, the last fifth boy of a boatman was named by the amount of money that his father was fined for having more kids than the rule. In the same situation, another father from Tiên Phước District also named his last daughter Xin Thôi (stop here) to remind himself to not have any more kid as well as being fined.

Some from other areas also join in the list, including Ba Xị (three bottles) from Hồ Chí Minh City, who was born (not surprisingly) at the time his father just finished three bottles of liquor, or Lang Thang (wandering and homeless) from the southern province of An Giang. 

Cool foreign call

Using Vietnamese transcription of foreign names is also favoured by Vietnamese for different reasons.

Cuban President Fidel Castro might've been happy to know that a man in the southern province of Đồng Tháp loved him so much to name his son as Đỗ Phi Đen Castrô. Meanwhile, Vietnam now has a little "Rô Nan Đô" and a "Messi" of its own, so perhaps they may bring a football world cup to the country in the future. 

Some Vietnamese seem to be not only crazy football fans but also big lovers of Korean movies. Again in Quảng Nam Province, two sisters of Cơ Tu ethnic group are named San U and San Ốc, two characters in ‘First Love’, one of the first Korean movies shown in Vietnam. The trend of naming children following Korean movie characters also spread to Quang Nam’s neighbouring province of Quang Ngai, where strange half-Vietnamese and half Korean names were popular like Đinh On Jun So, Bling Giang Gun, PoLong Kim Su, and Bnuoc Thị Chu In. 

What's more, names go from movie characters to mobile phones. The Ca Dong ethnic people in Quang Ngai were famous for a while, as a series of newborn babies named following popular mobile phone brands such as No Ki A , Sam Sung and Mo To Ro La were popular. According to the parents of No Ki A, when the first mobile phones appeared in Vietnam, they just could see them from TV advertisements and couldn't afford to have one. So they named their son that to feel like they had "a Nokia".

Other parents name their kids by a foreign name just because it sounds "cool" like a Vietnamese person overseas or a mixed-race person. Names exist such as Đinh Good Otani (maybe a Vietnamese-English-Japanese hybrid) in the southern province of Đồng Nai, while three siblings in the central province of Quảng Binh are named Võ Ê Vô (following the Hungarian name Evo), Võ Ghi Ta (maybe following guitar in Vietnamese transcription) and Vivien Võ (a mixed-race name). 

Some people not only want a foreign name for their kids but also, one for themselves. Although they have a Vietnamese name, they choose a foreign name to use more often among family members and friends, and especially to introduce themselves when they meet a foreigner. In the age of social networks, this doesn't need to be done legally, you just use a foreign name as your profile name, and friends/followers start to call you by it. For example, names like Jennifer Dang, Jose Nguyen, Valeria Le, Amy Tran, or Peter Vu are very popular in Facebook, even amongst those who are 100 percent ethnically Vietnamese and live in Vietnam. "Having a Vietnamese name is normal. A foreign name sounds much cooler, like I come from another country. So I prefer being called by it to my Vietnamese name," said Jennifer Dang.

 - Asia Media Centre