If asked what is the most common surname among Vietnamese people, almost anyone can answer that it is ‘Nguyễn’. The popularity of this surname globally has made it the subject of many jokes, especially among the overseas Vietnamese community.
The most famous is the yearbook photo of Presentation High School (USA) that went viral on the internet in 2012. To explain that they are not from the same family, eight female students surnamed Nguyễn came together to create a quote – strung along the bottom of their photos – that could not be more funny.
More recently, a moment in the qualifying round of the AFF Suzuki Cup 2020 was shared and discussed enthusiastically in the Facebook group Subtle Viet Traits:
In this match, the Vietnam team won 3-0 against Malaysia. Notably, three scorers for the Vietnam team all have the surname ‘Nguyễn’ (Quang Hải, Công Phượng, and Hoàng Đức). But the board only shows the surnames, leaving many international viewers confused as to whether this was one hat-trick or there were three different people who have scored.
How common is the surname Nguyễn?
According to many censuses, on the global scale, up to 40% of Vietnamese people have the surname Nguyễn. In Vietnam alone, this surname appears on the birth certificates of nearly 39 million people. This is also listed as one of the most common surnames in the world, along with Lý (Li/Lee), Vương (Wang), and Trương (Zhang), according to The World Geography.
The surname ‘Nguyễn’ is also common in countries with a large Vietnamese population. It ranked 7th, 54th and 73rd in Australia, France, and Norway, respectively. In the US alone, the Nguyễn surname ranks 38th with nearly 440,000 people, according to the Name Census website. The fact that an Asian surname “proudly” stands among a series of English or Latin surnames in the top 50 has made it noticeable.
There are many opinions to explain the unusual popularity of the surname Nguyễn. According to a study by the Faculty of Literature, VNU HCMC, changing surnames to ‘Nguyễn’ was quite common among the descendants of the dethroned dynasties. The main purpose was to change the identity, avoid revenge of the ruling family before or after.
Typically, when the Hồ Dynasty collapsed in 1407, the descendants were afraid of revenge by the Trần descendants (because Hồ Quý Ly had overturned the Trần dynasty before), so they changed their surnames to Nguyễn. In 1592, when the Mạc Dynasty collapsed, their descendants simultaneously changed their surnames to Nguyễn and Lều to avoid the retribution of the Lê Dynasty.
Another reason is a tradition under the Nguyễn Dynasty (1802-1945), where people with great merit to the royal family were awarded by being given the national family name. One example is general and official Nguyễn Huỳnh Đức, whose name originally was Huỳnh Tường Đức.
The Nguyễn dynasty was also the last monarchy of Vietnam. Perhaps that’s why the descendants of the Nguyễn family didn’t have to change their last name to avoid the chase. So in the end, the Nguyễn family name dominates the rest of the Vietnamese surnames in popularity.
However, the question is, why hasn’t the Nguyễn surname become the subject of memes in its own homeland, where 39 million people have it? In addition to the popularity mentioned above, the following reasons have made the Nguyễn surname a cyber phenomenon in Western countries.
The difference in the way of addressing
In countries influenced by British culture, addressing by surname is common.
When communicating in formal contexts, the speaker/writer calls the listener/reader with honorifics and surnames — “Mr. Smith” for example. Whereas in Vietnam, we call someone by honorifics and the person’s full name. With the tradition of addressing by surnames, Westerners are easily confused when they meet too many Mr. and Mrs. Nguyễn(s) in the same area.
In addition, according to the cross-race effect, it is easier to recognize the faces of people of the same race as us than people of other races. Due to this effect, Westerners have difficulty distinguishing Asians from each other. As a result, they think that the Nguyễn(s) all belong to the same family, as in the yearbook photo of the eight female students mentioned above.
How English speakers pronounce the word “Nguyễn”
This word starts with the sound “ng” — a consonant sound that never comes first in English. In addition, the rhyme “uyen” and the tilde are also elements that do not exist in this language. For these reasons, native English speakers have a hard time pronouncing the word Nguyễn and often change it to “win”.
As a result, the surname Nguyễn is often humorously associated with success and victory, like having a Nguyễn-Nguyễn situation. This unique and difficult pronunciation made the Nguyễn surname even more noticeable, even becoming the source of many memes.
We have found the formula that makes the Nguyễn surname a phenomenon: Popularity, different traditions in addressing people, and unique pronunciation.
Interestingly, the surname Nguyễn not only belongs to Vietnamese people. In Chinese it is written as 阮, pronounced Ruan or Yuen. The similar version in Korean is 원/완, pronounced Won or Wan. However, the number of Chinese and Koreans with this surname is quite small, and Westerners do not have many problems pronouncing these words.
Over time, the surname Nguyễn has become a typical identification mark of the Vietnamese people. Whether growing up in Vietnam or abroad, just by hearing the surname Nguyễn, we immediately know that it is our compatriot. And whether it’s Nguyễn or not, we all agree that the memes about it help connect Vietnamese people across five continents in unexpected ways.
Translated by Thao Van