Do you have Vietnamese ancestry and want to know what your surname means? Or, do you have a co-worker with a difficult-to-pronounce Vietnamese name?
Pronounced like “Lee?” with an up-tone
- Korean 이 – Lee
- Chinese 李 – Lee
The Vietnamese family name Lý is the 14th most common name in Vietnam, comprising approximately 0.5% of the population. The name is very popular in Korea, where it is the 2nd most common Korean surname. It is also one of the top 5 family names in China. In the Vietnamese language, the word can mean physics (vật lý) or reason (lý do), but these are considered archaic.
The origins of Lý may be related to the famous Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, who is proposed to have actually been named Ly Nhi. If so, Ly Nhi would be considered the founding ancestor of the Lý family.
There is an interesting connection with the Vietnamese Lý family and the modern Lee surname in Korea. Lý Long Tường (born 1174) was a prince during the Lý Dynasty of the Kingdom of Đại Việt. Upon the ascension of the Trần dynasty, Lý Long Tường had to flee Vietnam, together with thousands of his mandarins and handlers. After wandering in exile in places like Taiwan, he landed in Goryeo (now Korea). There is a myth that the Monarch Kojong had a vision of a southern phoenix landing and saving his nation. Lý Long Tường was thereby given a royal welcome and allowed to stay at one of the king’s manors.
Lý Long Tường went on to be a great Korean general and thwarted two Mongolian invasions in 1232 and 1253. There is a pillar erected in his honour that is still standing in Korea. In Korea, he is known as Lee Yong-sang (이용상) and is the progenitor of the Lee family.
Pronounced like Zoo-un in the North, and Yoo-un in the South
- Chinese 杨 – Yang
- Korean 양 – Yang
Dương is the 13th most popular family name in Vietnam, with approximately 1% of the population claiming the name. The word means the ocean in modern Vietnamese, and can also be used as a first name for both males and females.
The name is very popular in other Asian countries like South Korea and Mainland China, where it is pronounced like “Yang”. In Mainland China, it is the 6th most popular family name.
Chinese scholars claim that the name originated in China around 1040 BC in the ancient kingdom of Yang (now Hongdong, Shanxi Province). The residents of the Yang kingdom took the place-name as their family name, as was common in ancient and Vietnam. One of the earliest records of the name is attributed to King Zhou Kang, who named a son “Yang Hou”.
The name Dương is not pronounced like “Dong”, Rather, the Vietnamese letter D (as opposed to Đ) is pronounced like a “zzz” sound (read more about other z-sounds in Vietnamese ). In Southern Vietnam, D is pronounced like a “y”; therefore, Dương is pronounced like Youong, somewhat similar to the originating Mandarin name.
The closest Anglicized approximation is something in-between “no” and “(m)go”
- Chinese 吳 – Woo
- Cantonese 黄 – Ng
- Korean 오 – Wu
Ngô is the 12th most popular name in Vietnam, constituting 1.3% of the population. The word means “corn“. Many kings and great Vietnam figures have had the Ngô family name. The sino-ized versions of the name are popular through-out Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking places. For example, the popular Singaporean name Ng has the same root as Ngô. Other romanized variants include Wu, which is the 6th most popular surname in mainland China.
LEARN MORE: How to Pronounce Ngô
The Vietnamese Ngô family-name goes back to Ngô Nhat Dai from the 700’s. Later, in 938, Ngô Quyền was a heroic leader who defeated the dominating Chinese forces at the Battle of Bach Dang. His victory ended nearly a thousand years of Chinese domination of the Viet people and opened-up a long period of Vietnamese independence. Ngô Quyền then took the throne and established the Ngô Dynasty.
There is a popular hero-story from those formative battles, as depicted in the image below. As told, the Chinese navy was massive and professional, whereas the rebel Viet armies consisted of mostly peasants. However, for what they lacked in power, Ngô made-up for with cunning and craftiness: at low tide, they planted massive underwater stakes into the nearshore navigable zone. These subsequently ensnared the attacking Chinese fleet, who, being neither able to manoeuvre nor flee, became like prey and were vanquished. This story is beloved in Vietnam as a Viet-version of the classic “David vs. Goliath” architype.
A famous Ngô in Western pop-culture is the Vietnamese-American journalist Andy Ngô, one of the few journalists to cover violent left-wing extremism in the USA. He is routinely subject to racist, anti-Asian harassment and physical assault by the domestic terrorist group known as “Antifa”.
The pronunciation of Ngô is almost impossible for English-speakers to pronounce (or even hear properly). This is because the “ng” sound (as in running or talking) doesn’t occur at the beginning of any English word. See our article dedicated to the Ng sound to learn a clever trick to pronounce it properly . The closest Anglicized approximation is something in between “no” and “(m)go”, although most people have settled on “No”.
Pronounced like “hoe” with a down-tone
- Chinese 胡 – Hu
- Korean 호 – Hu/Hoh
Hồ is the 11th most popular family name in Vietnam. It literally means “small lake” in modern Vietnamese. It is popular in China and South Korean, where it is romanized as “Hu”.
The name is originally from an ambassador from China, Hồ Hưng Dật, who settled in what-is-now Nghệ An during the 10th century. Later, starting in 1371, one of his descendents established the Hồ Dynasty, which lasted less than a century. The period was associated with Confucianism, the first issuance of paper currency, as well as a lot of war and strife — this included war with the Champa to the south and a Chinese Ming invasion in the north. Fun fact: during this time, Vietnam was called “Đại Ngu”, which meant “Grand Happiness” in the 15th century, but means “Super Stupid” in the modern Vietnamese language.
One famous “Hồ” is the nation’s national hero and founding father figure Hồ Chí Minh, although he was originally known as Nguyễn Sinh Cung.
Pronounced like “do-ew?” with a broken up-pitch
- Taiwanese 杜 – Du
- Korean 두 – Du
Đỗ is the 10th largest family name in Vietnam, with approximately 1.4% of the Vietnamese population claiming the surname. Đỗ means both “passing an exam”, as well as “bean“, such as black bean (đỗ đen), and mung bean (đỗ xanh). Some parents feed their kids lots of beans before an exam, believing that it will help them đỗ (pass the exam).
The name is also popular in China, Taiwan and South Korea. In Korea and Taiwan, this surname is transliterated as Du.
According to the Chinese, the name originates from a tribe of Yi/Qi in the 1000’s who were moved by King Zhou Cheng to the Du-Cheng region (Shaanxi Province), whereupon they adopted the place-name (“Du”) as the name of their clan (as was common in both China and Vietnam).
The Vietnamese name Đỗ isn’t pronounced like Du or Doo: the presence of the diacritic ỗ (tilde above the vowel) indicates the “broken up-tone”. This tone has a slight double-syllable quality to it. It also must be pronounced with a rising pitch, as if you were asking a question. Learn more about the 6 Vietnamese tones with our Audio Pronunciation Guide for Vietnamese Tones .
Pronounced like “buoy” with a deep falling-pitch
- Chinese 裴 – Pei
- Korean 배 – Bae
In Vietnam, the Bùi family name is the 9th most popular surname with more than 200 families, accounting for 2% of the population in Vietnam. In China, the related surname Pei is common in the northern provinces of China. In South Korea, the name Bae comprises approximately 2% of the population.
The Vietnamese family Bùi is considered indigenous to Vietnam, originating in ancient times during the mythological “Hung Kings” who are part of Vietnam’s origin stories. They formed the old Van Lang country which was the progenitor of the Lac Viet people. According to Vietnamese myth, the first Hung King was the son of Lạc Long Quân, the ancient dragon king/diety who birthed the Vietnamese people, and whose son took the throne in 2879 BC. Therefore, Bùi is considered as old as the oldest stories of Vietnam.
The Muong and other minority ethnic groups in northern Vietnam have a high percentage of Bùi families, particularly in regions like Hoa Binh , Thanh Hoa, Phu Tho, Son La, and Ninh Binh.
One issue for foreign speakers is that Bùi sounds very similar to a vile curse-word for male genitals (buồi) — it has the same social stigma as the “c-word” in American English. While “Bùi” sounds like a buoy, “buồi” sounds more like boy. They are almost identical to an English ear, and it can be sometimes difficult for a proper Vietnamese speaker to distinguish the words without further context.
Pronounced like “Da!” with a short down-tone
- Taiwanese 鄧 – Teng
- Mainland China – Deng
- Korean – Deung
Đặng is the 8th most common family name in Vietnam, with 2.1% of the population claiming the name. The transliteration of Đặng is considered to be identical with the Taiwanese name Tēng 邓. The name is rare in other Sino-Asian countries like Korea, where it is transliterated as Deung.
The earliest records of Vietnamese people with the Đặng family name include famous generals of the Đinh dynasty (968–980) in the kingdom of Dai Co Viet, such as: Đặng Chân, Đặng Trí, Đặng Chiêu Pháp, Đặng Sỹ Lẫm, Đặng Sỹ Nghị, Đặng Sỹ Phan.
The pronunciation of Đặng is not like “dang”: instead, the ặ tone (little dot beneath the a) means that Đặng is spoken with a sharp, percusive down-pitch, and the trailing ng is almost unarticulated. It sounds like an angry Da! in a deep voice.
7) Vũ / Võ
Pronounced like “Vu-euw?”with a broken up-tone
- Chinese 武 – Wu/Vu
- Taiwanese – Wu
- Hong Kong – Mo
The Vietnamese family name Vũ is the country’s 7th most common surname, with 3.9% of the population claiming the name.
Vũ literally means “wind“. It is spelt and pronounced as Vũ in the north and Võ in the south (however, it is controversial whether they are related or independent family-names).
Unlike many other Vietnamese family names, Vũ is not uniquely ascribed a single Chinese surname. Rather, there are many Chinese surnames which may be related to the Vietnamese Vũ/Võ, such as 武, 禹, 羽 or 萭 (variously Anglicized as “Vu” or “Woo”). In Korea, the name is somewhat rare, and would be transliterated as “Woo”.
The Vietnamese name Vũ isn’t simply pronounced like Vu or Woo: the presence of the diacritic ũ indicates the “broken up-tone”. This means that the “u” has a slight double-syllable quality to it, as well as being spoken with a raising-pitch, as if you were asking a question (like “Vu-euw?”). Learn more about the 6 Vietnamese tones using our Audio Pronunciation Guide for Tones .
Pronounced like “fan”
- Chinese 潘 – Pan
- Korean 반 – Ban
Phan is the 6th most popular surname in Vietnam, with 4.5% of the population claiming the name. The name has no meaning in modern Vietnamese, but is likely derived from Chinese. The name is common in the Ha Tinh province of north-central Vietnam.
In Korea, the Phan surname is pronounced “Ban”. For example, the former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is a member of the Phan/Ban tribe.
One of the most famous contemporary Phans is Vietnamese-American social media influencer Michelle Phan . Her Youtube videos routinely get over 1 million views and delve into topics ranging from Bitcoin, to make-up, to Vietnamese cuisine. Her series about visiting her ancestral homeland is beloved by young Vietnamese people. She is estimated to be worth over $50 million USD.
5) Hoàng / Huỳnh
Pronounced like “hwahn” with “ah” as in father.
- Taiwanese 黃 – Wong
- Korean 황 – Hwang/Hoang
Hoàng (also spelt Huỳnh) is the 5th most popular name in Vietnam with 5% of the population claiming the name. Hoàng means “king” or “yellow”, the latter being the Vietnamese colour for royalty.
The name is very popular in China, Taiwan, and Korean, with transliterations such as Wong or Hwang.
There is a humourous story about how the first Hoàng/Wong arrived in Korea: a Chinese ambassador to Vietnam was supposed to travel by sea to Vietnam in 28 AD, but due to inferior Chinese nautical arts, he instead arrived in Silla, now South Korea, and just decided to remain there. Over 650,000 Koreans now bear his family-name.
Pronounced like “fa!” with a short down-tone
- Taiwanese 範 – Fan
- Korean 범 – Bum/Boem
Phạm is the 4th most popular family name in Vietnam, with 7% of the population claiming the name.
There is no single ancestral lineage to the Phạm name, nor has there been a monarch named Phạm. The name doesn’t have any official meaning in modern Vietnamese. Instead, it is of ancient Chinese origin, with parallel derivatives in Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Korea. The name appears in old legends dating back to the 3rd century BC, with revered figures like “Phạm Quốc Lang” and “Nam Hải Đại Vương Phạm Hải”.
The most famous Phạm in Vietnam is Phạm Nhật Vượng, Vietnam’s richest person and founder of VinGroup (HOSE:VIC).
The pronunciation of Phạm is not like “fam”: instead, the ạ tone (the little dot beneath the a) means that Phạm is spoken with a rapid, sharp, down-pitch, and the trailing m is almost unarticulated. This sounds like an angry pha! with a deep voice. You can learn more about these tones in our Audio Pronunciation Guide .
Pronounced like “leh”
- Japanese れ い – Rei
- China 黎 – Li or Lai
- Korean 려 – Ryeo
Lê means pear. It is the 3rd most common family name in Vietnam, constituting 10% of the population.
Lê has its origins in China. It is abundant in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and southern China. There were two dynastic periods with Lê rulers: the Early Lê Dynasty (980 – 1009) which ruled in Northern Vietnam, as well as the Late Lê Dynasty (1428 – 1527), which occupied much of the modern Vietnamese territory under the name Dai Viet. The latter corresponded to a great flourishing of art, trade, and military prowess.
A funny thing about the Lê surname is the double-fruit name phenomenon: some Lê families will give their children first names that are also types of fruit, like “Lê Hồng Mận” which means “Pear Peach Plum”, or “Lê Đào”, which means Pear Cherry. Such double- or triple-fruit names are just one example of funny naming patterns that are common in Vietnam.
Pronounced like “chun”, with a down-tone
- Taiwanese 陳 (Chen)
- Japanese ち ん (Chin)
- Korean 진 (Chun or Jin)
Trần is the 2nd most popular family name in Vietnam, with 11% of the population claiming the name. Trần is especially popular in northern Vietnam provinces like Quảng Ninh (e.g., Halong Bay). It is also widespread in other countries with Chinese heritage, such as Taiwan (Chen) where it is the most common surname.
Trần has multiple meanings in old Vietnamese (means ‘ancient’) and modern Vietnamese (Trần: roof-top; Ở trần: naked; Trần tục: dusty), but the family-name originates from ancient China. It is accredited to the great Emperor Shun from the mythological characters known as the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors .
The popularity of the name in Vietnam is due to the famous Trần dynasty, which thrived in the Kingdom of Đại Việt from 1225 to 1400. The Trần dynasty corresponded to a flourishing of rich Vietnamese culture, and produced a revered canon of literature and poems, as well as saw the raise of Buddhism in Vietnam. The period was rife with war and strife and foreign incursions, especially from the Chinese. Such conflict is reflected in period’s art, which has a proud, nationalistic, militant and warrior-centric character.
Best Anglicized approximation is “When?/Win?”
- Chinese 阮 – Ruǎn
- Korean 원 / 완 – Won or Wan
The most popular Vietnamese surname is Nguyễn, with approximately 40% of the population claiming the name. If you are from America or Canada, there is a high-probability that you know or work with someone named Nguyễn. In fact, it is the 57th most common surname in the USA.
Nguyễn is the most difficult Vietnamese name for English-speakers to pronounce — it is next to impossible to pronounce unless you study both Vietnamese tones (such as the ễ tone) and practice the ng-sound . We have an entire blog post dedicated to the Nguyễn family name, including a helpful trick for English speakers to quickly master the pronunciation of Nguyễn . In lieu of that, the best Anglicized approximation of Nguyễn is something in between “win?” and “when?”, with an upward pitch and slight double-syllable on the ễ.
The popularity of the surname Nguyễn is reflective of the recency of the Nguyễn dynasty: they were the final Vietnamese monarchy before the rise of the present Socialist Republic. Therefore, many Vietnamese families changed their name to Nguyễn. This was common in Vietnam’s history that, upon dynastic turnovers, many people would change their surname to new present rulers, both voluntarily or forcefully. For example, when the Ly dynasty fell in 1232, the Lê family descendants were forced to change their names to Nguyễn, under threat of criminal prosecution.
The Nguyễn reign ended in 1945 upon the Việt Minh Revolution. Their imperial palace was located was in Huế, central Vietnam, which is still known for its high-culture and sophistication. The Nguyễn dynasty officially lasted for 143 years, and shaped much of the modern boundaries of the Republic of Vietnam. The Nguyễns were notable for expanding the Viet nation from its pre-modern borders around northern Vietnam, to a large united kingdom controlling south Vietnam, Laos and parts of Cambodia. They even named the country Việt Nam, prior to which it was called Đại Việt.