Keeping Up With The Nguyễns

Published May 11, 2015 in Episode 3

Whether you pronounce Nguyễn as nuwen, win or wen, have you ever wondered why almost every second Vietnamese person you meet has this surname? With a population of over 95 million spread across Vietnam and the diaspora, an estimated 40 percent of all Vietnamese people share the surname Nguyễn.. So what makes it so common?

History has it that the name Nguyễn originates from the Chinese surname Ruan and dates all the way back to the first Vietnamese tribes that settled in Southern China and what is now Northern Vietnam.

However, there was one particular instance in history that propelled the Nguyễn name to the forefront.

In the 13th century, the Trần dynasty overthrew the Lý dynasty. The Trầns then  tried to get rid of the Lý name altogether, not just by killing them, but through official decree. They ordered the Lýs to change their name to Nguyễn, which was then a commoner’s surname.

Dr. Anh Nguyễn, President of the Vietnamese Community in Western Australia and Vietnamese historian, says people did so out of fear of persecution. The fate of the Lýs - compounded over time - is the main contributing factor to the prevalence of the Nguyễn name today.

Other factors, although not nearly as significant, may have contributed. The last of the dynasties, the Nguyễns, reigned from the early 1800s up until 1945. During this period, some Vietnamese adopted the surname to gain social privileges, power or out of loyalty. In royal tradition, the Nguyễns also officially bestowed their surname upon favoured citizens.

“When you do something good for the royal family, they awarded you the surname as an honour,“ says Dr. Nguyễn, who by all accounts is not related to Vietnam’s last royal family.  

Finally, what about the theory that all the Nguyễns in the world could be related? Dr. Nguyễn reveals there might just be the tiniest truth to this belief, which also traces back to the Nguyễn Emperors.“They had a lot of concubines. The first king of the Nguyễn dynasty had about twenty princes and princesses. The next one, Minh Mạng, he had more than a hundred princes. From there, they spread and they flourished,” he says.

With so many Nguyễns, a KPMG demographer in Australia projects that in less than ten years, the surname Nguyễn will surpass Smith as the most common surname in the country.