“In the United States, the most popular last name is Smith. As per the 2010 census, about 0.8 percent of Americans have it. In Vietnam, the most popular last name is Nguyen. The estimate for how many people answer to it? Somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of the country’s population. The 14 most popular last names in Vietnam account for well over 90 percent of the population. The 14 most popular last names in the US? Fewer than 6 percent.” SOURCE: ATLAS OBSCURA
So many things are cultural beyond language, religion, and ethnicity, but those are the biggies in book chapters and in the curriculum. Should you strike up a conversation with that stranger in the elevator? How far from home is it appropriate for children to go from the house unattended? What clothes are appropriate for a teacher to wear in the classroom? These are all questions about cultural norms, but we don’t think about them as cultural at times because we are so used to our own cultural context that it seems natural. The importance of last names and naming conventions aren’t natural but are created by cultural norms and institutions.
So here’s the condensed version from Atlas Obscura:
The entire idea of a family name was unknown to most of the world unless you were conquered by a place that used them. Those conquerors included the Romans, the Normans, the Chinese, and later the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Germans, and the Americans. It was the Chinese who gave Vietnam family names.
The last name, in Vietnam, is there, but just isn’t that important. And when it’s not that important, you might as well change it if a new last name might help you in some way. This may or may not be a continuation of the way names were used before the Chinese came—we really don’t know—but ever since, Vietnamese people have tended to take on the last name of whoever was in power at the time. It was seen as a way to show loyalty, a notion which required the relatively frequent changing of names with the succession of rulers. After all, you wouldn’t want to be sporting the last name of the previous emperor.
“This tradition of showing loyalty to a leader by taking the family name is probably the origin of why there are so many Nguyens in Vietnam,” says O’Harrow. Guess what the last ruling family in Vietnam was? Yep, the Nguyễn Dynasty, which ruled from 1802 to 1945. It’s likely that there were plenty of people with the last name Nguyen before then, as there were never all that many last names in Vietnam to begin with, but that percentage surely shot up during the dynasty’s reign.