Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung Reuters

The current prime minister of Vietnam is Nguyen Tan Dung. The former president of the country, who ruled from 2006 to 2011, was named Nguyen Minh Triet. During the chaotic 1960s, when Vietnam was engulfed in a bloody civil war that involved the U.S. military, the country’s leaders included: Nguyen Ngoc Tho, Nguyen Khánh, Nguyen Xuân Oánh, Nguyen Cao Ky, Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Văn Loc. Last October, one the country’s greatest military generals, Vo Nguyen Giap, died at the age of 102.

In the United States, prominent Vietnamese-Americans (who have generally adopted the Western custom of placing their surnames at the end) include actor Dustin Nguyen, news presenters Betty Nguyen and Leyna Nguyen, film director Steve Nguyen, tech entrepreneur Bill Nguyen, author Kien Nguyen, poet Nguyen Chí Thien, U.S. Circuit Court judge Jacqueline Nguyen, football player Dat Nguyen, "Flappy Bird" creator Dong Nguyen and California lawmaker Janet Nguyen. Finally, the most famous Vietnamese figure of the 20th century -- revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh -- was actually christened Nguyen Sinh Con.

Notice a pattern?

Indeed, Nguyen is the most common surname in Vietnam -- an estimated 40 percent of people in the country (and the Vietnamese diaspora) carry the name, according to Vietnam's Tuoi Tre News. Given that the global Vietnamese population totals about 94 million people, this means that some 38 million of them answer to "Nguyen." The overwhelming prevalence of Nguyen -- on a percentage basis -- even surpasses the popularity of "Kim" and "Park" in Korea, "Singh" and "Patel" in India; and "Smith" and "Jones" in the Anglo-Saxon countries.

Nguyens Down Under

Consider the situation in Australia, which has a Vietnamese population of some 220,000. As far back as 2006, the Australian Associated Press (AAP) reported that, despite the relatively small size of the Vietnamese community Down Under, Nguyen was already the seventh-most common surname in the nation, behind the familiar English-Scots-Irish appellations Smith, Jones, Williams, Brown, Wilson and Taylor.

At that time, Michael Dove, managing director of a Melbourne-based company called MD&A, which analyzed data on surnames, told AAP: "The data is reflecting the diversity of the cultural background. One of the things that is probably quite surprising is that the non-British names are so dominated by Asian names."

Dove further noted that Australian migrants from other parts of the world -- including Greece, Cyprus and Italy -- tend to have a wider array of surnames, whereas many East Asian surnames (like Vietnam's Nguyen) are more widely dispersed among their peoples. "There is much more diversity of Greek names and Italian names than in Vietnamese, Chinese and Hong Kong names," Dove said. (Indeed, consider that the world’s total population of Greeks does not exceed 20 million, less than one-fourth of the size of the global Vietnamese community.)

By June 2003, Australian media reported that Nguyen was on pace to supplant Smith as the most popular surname in urban areas by the following decade. News Limited Network noted at that time that Nguyen already ranked as the second-most common name in Melbourne and the third-most popular in Sydney, the nation's two biggest cities. KPMG demographer Bernard Salt boldly predicted to News Limited Network then: "Nguyen will [overtake Smith] in Melbourne and Sydney within 10 years." Thus, it is reasonable to assume that now, in 2014, Nguyen has climbed to the very top of the name charts in Australia’s urban centers.

Rise Of The Nguyens

The surname Nguyen is believed to have originated in the Chinese surname "Ruan" (in the Mandarin language) or Yuen (Cantonese), owing to China’s long domination over Vietnam. Periodically, during both periods of Chinese rule as well as Vietnamese dynastic power in Vietnam, the name Nguyen was either forced upon the public (sometimes by threat of violence and even pain of death) by new regimes or adopted by the subjects voluntarily for various reasons.

By the early 19th century century, the Nguyen Dynasty seized power in Vietnam (which unified the country), prompting yet another wave of surname changes and adoptions. That dynasty, which "awarded" their surname to many people, ruled the country until the end of World War II. Esther Tran Le, a Vietnamese-American journalist based in New York, said that the name ‘Nguyen’ was the last name of the last dynasty of Vietnamese emperors. “Apparently the last King's name was Bao-Dai, but his real name was ‘Nguyen-Vinh-Thu,’ she said. “Many of the Vietnamese [peoples’] last names derive from the former Emperors' last names.”

Dr. Quang Phu Van of the Council on Southeast Asia Studies at Yale University also said that throughout Vietnamese history, due to dynastic changes, clans of royalty and loyal subjects changed their family names to protect their identity in order to avoid persecution by the new rulers. “Others adopted the Nguyen name for political and personal reasons, including opportunities for jobs, privileges, power, affiliation, and so forth,” he added.

As such, the surname Nguyen does not necessarily denote one's regional origins, class or even lineage. “The surname itself has nothing to do with social class, unless it's combined with, say, Phúc which is a combination of [the names of] the last royal family,” said Dr. Nguyen-vo Thu-huong, associate professor in the departments of Asian Languages and Cultures and Asian American Studies at University of California, Los Angeles.

Ball of Confusion?

Given the proliferation of Nguyens in Vietnamese society, one might conclude that this would create much confusion and chaos in daily discourse. However, this scenario is largely avoided by the Vietnamese custom -- adopted from the Chinese -- of addressing people by their last name (that is, what is considered the 'first' or personal name in western society). Most Vietnamese have three names -- the surname (or clan name), followed by a middle name, ending with the personal name. For example, with respect to the aforementioned Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, his family surname is "Nguyen," his middle name is "Tan," and his personal name is "Dung." Unlike western custom, the Prime Minister is usually referred to as 'Dung' (or 'Mr. Dung') in the media and even in formal occasions. In some cases, he may be referred to as 'Tan-Dung.' (Also, some Vietnamese use dual surnames to further alleviate any confusion).

In stark contrast, in the west, the current British Prime Minister is called 'David' only by his family and close friends, while the media and general public address him as 'Cameron' or 'Mr. Cameron.' Other surnames – including Tran, Le and Pham – also circulate heavily among the Vietnamese, but Nguyen remains the undisputed champ by a wide margin

Presumably, as Vietnamese communities in Australia, France, Canada and the United States increase in number and political influence, we may see a new wave of lawmakers and other prominent public figures with the ‘Nguyen’ surname.