Nguyen: A Look into Vietnam’s Most Common Surname

If you have come across any individuals of Vietnamese descent, there’s a good chance their surname is Nguyen – a designation so widespread it comprises 39% of the total population. Compare that with Smith, the most common last name in the United States, which makes up just 0.83% of the population.

Correct Pronunciation of Nguyen

Written with diacritics, the correct Vietnamese pronunciation of Nguyễn can be heard here.

But because Vietnamese tones are unique to the language (and thus difficult for non-native speakers to pronounce), there are several acceptable ways for foreigners to say Nguyen:

  • Win/When: Silent Ng
  • N’win/Ng’win: One syllable. Ng’win is closest to the correct Vietnamese pronunciation
  • Noo-yen/Ngoo-yen: Two syllables
  • Nuh-goo-yen: Three syllables. Avoid this one due to the incorrect hard G sound

Notable Nguyens

A little known fact is that the most prominent figure and founder of modern Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh (or Uncle Ho, as Vietnamese call him), was born Nguyen Sin Cung. Though just a tiny list, some other well-known Nguyens today include:

  • Nguyen Xuan Phuc: Current president of Vietnam
  • Nguyen Huy Thiep: Considered Vietnam’s most influential contemporary writer
  • Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao: Self-made businesswoman and founder of VietJetAir (net worth of 2.8 billion USD)
  • Betty Nguyen: Anchor of CBS News
  • Dustin Nguyen: Actor, main character of 21 Jumpstreet (TV series)
  • Johnny Tri Nguyen: Actor, recently in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloodz
  • Tyga (real name Michael Ray Nguyen-Stevenson): American rapper
  • Jeff “Phi” Nguyen: Jabbawockeez dancer
  • Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen: MC and singer
  • Son Tung M-TP (real name Nguyen Thanh Tung): Singer-songwriter, known as the “Prince of V-Pop”
  • Nguyen Tran Khanh Van – Miss Universe Vietnam (2019)

Origins of the Surname Nguyen

The etymology of Nguyen, like many other Vietnamese words and names, comes from the country’s northern neighbour of China. Beginning in the 4th century AD, Chinese migrants with the surname referring to an ancient string instrument, Ruan (Mandarin)/Yuen (Cantonese), started to trickle into the country. Over time, they would assimilate into the population while their family name morphed into the Vietnamese-adapted Nguyen.

History and Why There Are So Many Nguyens Today

Throughout the last millennia, political intrigue and endless power struggles between dynasties heavily influenced aristocratic family names.

The first mass-conversion of surnames took place during the 1230s when the Ly dynasty was overthrown by the Tran dynasty. In order to remove the Ly name from existence, those with the name were forced to change to Nguyen (the reason as to why Nguyen was chosen specifically is unknown).

When the Le family seized power in 1400, the surviving Trans also took on the Nguyen name in order to escape deadly retribution and persecution. This process would repeat itself several times over the following centuries, with the losing family changing their surnames to Nguyen.

A final dynasty change occurred in 1802 – this time by a Nguyen. In addition to awarding the name to those loyal to the family, many commoners (who did not have surnames) also adopted Nguyen in order to gain favour with royal officials. 1945 was a monumental year, as it marked Vietnam’s transition from fighting the Japanese in WWII and straight into the battle for independence, parallel to the nation’s final monarch abdicating the throne.

Now free from dynastic rule, Vietnamese no longer have any political motives to change their surnames, resulting in today’s proliferation of Nguyens.

Heritage Line: Luxury River Cruises in Southeast Asia

As fate would have it, Heritage Line was founded by our very own Mr. John Tue Nguyen. With a deep connection to Vietnam’s rich history, culture and heritage, he launched Jayavarman along the mighty Mekong River in 2009.

Passionate to the core about creating unforgettable and refined river voyages, Heritage Line’s ship collection has since expanded to eight luxurious boutique vessels plying Southeast Asia’s most fascinating waterways in Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos.