This entry was sparked by a sentence in an excellent New Yorker piece by Thomas A. Bass called “The Spy Who Loved Us” (unfortunately not online, but you can get a summary here). It’s about Pham Xuan An, who served simultaneously as a Time correspondent in Saigon and a high-ranking North Vietnamese spy, and the sentence in question is this: “Dominating the far end of the room is an altar covered with flowers, bowls of fruit, and four hand-tinted photographs of Mai Chi Tho’s parents and his two famous brothers: Dinh Duc Thien, the two-star general who helped build the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and Le Duc Tho, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who snookered Henry Kissinger at the Paris Peace Accords.”
Before I continue, I have to explain how Vietnamese names work. Fortunately, this site has done it for me, so all I have to do is quote:
Vietnamese names put the family name first followed by the middle and given names. Take Pham Van Duc, for example, Pham is the family name or what we call the last name. Van is the individual’s middle name, and Duc is the given or first name.
Vietnam has about 300 family or clan names. The most common are Le, Pham, Tran, Ngo, Vu, Do, Dao, Duong, Dang, Dinh, Hoang and Nguyen—the Vietnamese equivalent of Smith. About 50 percent of Vietnamese have the family name Nguyen.
The given name, which appears last, is the name used to address someone, preceded by the appropriate title. Nguyen Van Lu, for example, would be called Mr. Lu.
The only notable exception to the last rule is Ho Chi Minh, known as President (or Uncle) Ho. (On the other hand, Duong Van Minh, the last president of South Vietnam, was General Minh, or “Big Minh.”) Of course, Ho was not his original family name (it was Nguyen), which brings up the other important issue, that of noms de guerre. No self-respecting revolutionary (aside from Mao) uses his or her birth name, so the family relationships among Communists are often not apparent on the surface. The sentence I quoted from the New Yorker article is a sterling example; it turns out (after much digging) that their family name is not Mai, Dinh, or Le, but rather Phan: Le Duc Tho was originally Phan Dinh Khai, Dinh Duc Thien was Phan Dinh Dinh (found here), and Mai Chi Tho was apparently Phan Dinh Dong (only here, in the not very clear entry “Mai Chi Tho Phan Ðinh Ðông, Hôi ky, tomes 1 et 2, nhà xuât-ban Tre 2001″—but it’s gotta be him, right?). I wonder whether the legendary New Yorker fact-checkers went to all that trouble? Nah, they probably have a book that lists all Vietnamese public figures with birth names and pseudonyms. I’m jealous.
(Oh, one other thing: Vietnamese has two d’s, one plain and one with a bar through it; the latter is like an English d, but the former is pronounced y in the south and z in the north, so that Ngo Dinh Diem, really Ngô Đình Diệm, is /ŋo din yiəm/ in the south and /ŋo din ziəm/ in the north. It’s a truly annoying bit of alphabet creation; thanks a lot, 17th-century missionaries!)