The neutral way to ask “What is your name?” in Vietnamese is:
· Bạn tên là gì?
Literally, it translates to “Friend/you name is what?” Listen carefully for the down-tone on là and gì — you shouldn’t use an upward inflection at the end of the question; instead, there should be a downward inflection.
An example of an answer is…
· Tôi tên là Lynn – My name is Lynn
Asking “What is your name?” Politely in Vietnam
The above example uses a particular pronoun Bạn which is appropriate for talking to people who are your own age, or people of a similar status. Bạn is a neutral/impersonal word for ‘you’.
However, if you want to master Vietnamese politeness, you need to modify the second-person pronoun according to the other person’s sex and age. Read more about this here.
For example, if you are talking with an older man, you would swap the pronoun Bạn for Ông (which literally means grampa, but serves as a honorific ‘Sir’).
- Ông tên là gì – Hello sir, what is your name?
Likewise, for an older woman, you could ask…
- Cô tên là gì – Hello Ma’am, what is your name?
The Vietnamese language has a lot more pronouns based on one’s precise age-differential. It is super confusing for foreigners. So, at first, stick with Bạn — it will suffice coming from a foreigner.
The Order of Names in Vietnamese: the Family-Name Goes First; the Given-Name Goes Last
Vietnamese people typically have three names.
The first-name is the family-name in Vietnamese (aka surname or “last-name” in English), which is inherited along patrilineal lines. See our list of the most common Vietnamese family-names (including Nguyen, of which ~40% of the population has).
The name in the last position is the given-name (aka, “first-name” in English). A person’s given-name is typically something random or arbitrary, and not connected to a grandparent or other esteemed family member. It is the most important name when referring to and speaking with other individuals. For example, there is no referring to someone as “Mr. Nguyen” in Vietnamese — that would be so weird! Instead, he would be politely referred to as Ông <FIRST-NAME>, like “Ông John“.
The middle-name is also something arbitrary and, like in English, it is typically not very important — friends and acquaintances do not refer to each other using their middle-names. However, one’s middle-name is always necessary for identification. So, unlike in English, where someone will typically introduce himself excluding his middle-name, in Vietnamese, a person will always use his full three-word name, for both formal and informal identification.
An exception is if there are two people with the same given-name, then people will refer to those individuals via their full middle- plus given-name.
FUN FACT: In the past, most Vietnamese females would have a middle-name Thị and most males would have a middle-name Văn. Thị means “market”, and Văn means “literature”. But, nowadays, this convention is considered provincial and old-fashioned.
How do Vietnamese people enter their names into English forms?
One source of frustration for Vietnamese people is the last-name / first-name terminology on English-language forms.
Usually, when Americans/Canadians ask for one’s “last-name”, what they really mean is one’s family-name. Therefore, Vietnamese people are often in the awkward position of entering in their first-name as their last-name, and vice versa. Thereafter, their IDs are often messed-up and incorrect! Western banks seem to be particularly oblivious to this issue.
Even worse, if a form lacks a field for one’s middle-name, a Vietnamese person will have to enter his middle-name and given-name name jointly in the given-name field. The computers will think that the person’s preferred name is their middle-name! Terrible!
Fortunately, there are two institutions that have a remedy for this confusion: airlines and passport-issuers. On all passports there is a barcode along the bottom that is specifically used to highlight a person’s family-name, regardless of the ordering of names in the “names” field above. Therefore, there should be no confusion about name ordering when using a passport.
Diversity and Inclusion Tip: If you want your business to be “diverse and inclusive”, please consider using the “given-name” and “family-name” terminology, instead of first- and last-name. It is very confusing for non-Vietnamese and Vietnamese alike!
Common Names in Vietnam and What They Mean
The 10 most common given-names in Vietnam are:
- Linh (female or male) – shimmer; sophisticated
- Nam (male or female) – south
- Mai (female) – tomorrow; a southern spring flower
- Anh (male or female) – older brother; England
- Huy (male) – halo; bright light; hopeful expectation
- Thảo (female) – meadow; generous (weird tone)
- Tuấn (male) – handsome (up-tone)
- Huyền (female) – mysterious (down-tone)
- Trang (female) – elegant; nobility; flower
- Phương (female or male) – direction (up-tone)
For the most common family names and their meaning and origins, see our list here.
Funny Names in Vietnamese
We have a whole article dedicated to common Vietnamese names that sound funny or vulgar in English, like the mythical Bích Phúc Đạt meme (which isn’t actually a name — but it could be!)
Aside from the above, the Vietnamese are famous for having funny names that are funny according to Vietnamese people. For example, in the recent past it was common to give your children “ugly names” — humble, simple, unpretentious names that demonstrated one’s desire not to stand-out from anyone else.
Here are some humble names that somewhat common in Vietnam:
- Một – one
- Hai – two
- Ba – three
- Chó – dog
- Đá – rock
- Thìa – spoon
- Đũa – chopstick
- Quả – fruit
- Cây – tree
- Chiều – afternoon
The Vietnamese ugly-name phenomenon may have been due to three factors. First, prior to Socialism, it was illegal to have the same personal name as a ruling monarch, which was punishable by death! This punishment was even retroactively bestowed if/when a new monarch was crowned king. Therefore, peasants tried to avoid the names that sounded nice and may eventually become the personal name of any future ruler. So, instead of pretty names like Phúc (happiness), peasants may have opted for something unassuming and boring (Một)
A second possible contribution to the ugly-name phenomenon was the tradition of avoiding names of one’s recent ancestors and family-members. Unlike in Anglo-Saxon countries, Vietnamese children should not be named after grandparents, or even aunts and uncles and other extant family-members. This presented a problem in the recent past when families had 7-10 children and lots of cousins and uncles: a family would quickly run out of common non-ugly names, thus resorting to funny names.
Finally, there used to be the tradition that Vietnamese people would have names which suited their station or occupation in life: high class people would have poetic names or names of virtues, whereas more working-class people would have names of landscapes or base elements.