For those people who have visited Vietnam or those who are familiar with the Vietnamese culture and its people, it’s a safe guess that they have encountered several people who have the surname Nguyen. And yes, they are most probably not related to each other.
Two out of five Vietnamese people have the surname, making them twice as common when compared to the Kims of Korea.
The prevalence of Nguyễn can be traced way back to the 1200’s when Trần clan leader and general Trần Thủ Độ forced the descendants of the Lý to change their surname to Nguyễn after the Lý Dynasty was overthrown from power.
In 1400, Hồ Quý Ly overturned the Trần Dynasty, established himself as emperor and killed many of their descendants upon building the Hồ Dynasty. When it itself collapsed in 1407, in fear of retribution, many of Hồ descendants changed their surname to Nguyễn.
The same thing happened in 1592, upon the collapse of the Mạc Dynasty,and in 1802, when the Nguyễn Dynasty (the descendants of the Nguyễn Lords) took power. While others fled to China, most of the Vietnamese who feared being executed of the newly established regime chose to change their surnames to Nguyễn.
During its reign, the Nguyễn Dynasty awarded many people the surname Nguyễn. A lot of criminals also changed their surname to Nguyễn to avoid being persecuted.
At present, there are roughly around 38 million Nguyễns in Vietnam. Among the prominent ones are in politics, sports, entertainment and military. Vietnam’s current prime minister, Nguyễn Xuân Phúc, recently preceded Nguyễn Tấn Dũng, who served his term from 2006 to 2016. The previous president of the country, who ruled from 2006 to 2011, was named Nguyễn Minh Triet.
Outside the country, the surname’s popularity is similarly significant wherever there’s a large number of Vietnamese population. In Australia, Nguyen was reportedly so common that it is predicted to overtake, or get very close to, Smith in the next decade in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. Figures in 2013 reveal it to be the country’s 13th most popular last name.