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Vietnamese Genealogy Research – the Tips and Challenges…

As someone who is half-Vietnamese in heritage, it is no surprise that I have learned a thing or two about Vietnamese research; and I have to say it is pretty tricky. Vietnam has never really been a country that has kept genealogical records, most likely due to the country’s tumultuous history. But here I will share with you my experience with doing Vietnamese research, what I have learned, and some tips on how to better research.

Here are a few tips I would like to share, knowing this will help you make sure you are recording your genealogical data correctly! Even if you don’t have Vietnamese heritage, it may still be interesting to read about.

Date Order:

The date order that Vietnam uses is day/month/year compared to the U.S.’s month/day/year format. The date format that Vietnam uses is pretty commonplace across the world but still something to remember. When recording dates for your Vietnamese ancestors, make sure you specify which date format you are using.

Vietnamese Names

General Info & Naming Order:

  • Most Vietnamese full names consist of 3-4 names
  • In Vietnam, the naming order goes in this order: Family Name | Middle Name | Given Name. Compared to how in the West where the naming order is the opposite. So for example, in Vietnamese, my great grandmother’s would be recorded as Phạm Thị Yên… 
  1. Phạm, the last name
  2. Thị, the middle name
  3. Yên, the given name
  • However, in English, the order of the name would be Yên Thị Phạm. I record my ancestor’s names with the Western name order simply because I am more accustomed to it and so I know what is the given, middle, and family name. However, you can use whichever order you feel like comfortable with, just make sure you are consistent with which order you use. So double check you have the name order correct!
  • This is the same naming system used in countries like China, Japan, & Korea.
  • Still, most people in Vietnam go by their given or “first” name.
  • Many Vietnamese Catholics also have Christian names, my grandmother’s Christian name, for example, was Maria.
  • Vietnamese immigrants to the US or other English speaking countries also adopted American or English sounding names.

Family Names:

  • Another thing to note is that Vietnamese women will keep their maiden even after marriage. However, when introducing themselves, Vietnamese women typically use their husband’s given name. For example, my great great grandmother often went by the name “Mrs. Khang” because Khang was her husband’s first name. An American example would be if a woman were to go by the name “Mrs. John” or “Mrs. William.”
  • Vietnam also has a limited number of unique surnames. The family name “Nguyen” is used by about nearly 40% of Vietnam’s population. The most common 14 surnames account for 90% of the population. So be careful when looking at records because there’s a lot of people with the same surname.

Middle Names:

  • Middle names are often used to distinguish people with the same family and given name.
  • In the past, women mostly had the middle name “Thị” and men had the middle name “Văn.” These middle names implied gender, however, these names are now considered out-dated. 
  • Sometimes they can also indicate family generation, for example, siblings often shared the same middle name.
  • Other middle names simply add meaning to the full name, with some meanings relating to happiness or intelligence 
  • Sometimes the mother’s maiden name could be the middle name for the children

Given Names:

  • Most Vietnamese given names have a literal meaning, similar to middle names.
  • The majority of these names are Chinese in origin.

Character Markings:

As you could see with my great grandmother’s name, the Vietnamese language uses the Latin alphabet but uses tonal markings, these specify the tone you need to speak/read the word and a change in tone can completely change the meaning of the word. So make sure you include these character markings when recording your ancestor’s names. 

My experience with doing Vietnamese Genealogy

How I got Information:

  • Getting information about my family was pretty difficult. As mentioned, Vietnam basically has never kept vital records of any kind until recently. So for the most part, I had to interview my family members about my ancestors and my family’s background.
  • If you or your family happens to be Catholic Vietnamese, there is a better chance of finding vital records at the parish your family was a part of in Vietnam. Often, the parish kept records such as baptism or marriage records. You may even be able to visit your ancestor’s gravestone in the parish cemetery. But, at the moment, none of these possible records are online.
  • However, many cemeteries have been converted to public land since the end of the Vietnam War.
Notre Dame Cathedral, Ho Chi MInh City

Birthdates:

  • Many lied about their age during the Vietnam War to avoid military service, usually the person would say they were a year or two younger than they actually were. So make sure you gather both dates, if they did lie about their age.
  • Remembering your year of birth wasn’t something that was super important back in the day in Vietnam. However, people usually knew what Chinese zodiac sign they were so you find that a relative doesn’t exactly know what year they were born. You could ask what Chinese zodiac they are and get the year from there.

Research all you can in the new country

  • When conducting research on your Vietnamese relatives, make sure you research all you can in the country of your relatives immigrants, whether it is the United States, Australia, etc. Often you can find public records on genealogical websites to see where your family lived and many still have their naturalization papers or certificates.

Sources and Images

Information:

  1. Vietnamese Names | ThingsAsian
  2. Vietnamese Names | A Guide
  3. Why 40% of Vietnamese People Have the Same Last Name | Atlas Obscura

Images:

  1. Map of Vietnam
  2. Common Vietnamese Names Pie Chart
  3. Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon
  4. Chinese Zodiac Wheel

By Tyler's Lineage

Gen Z Genealogist (16) | Hidden Branch Co-Founder

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