The Meaning and Origin of Nguyen

One of the Most Common Surnames in the World

Woman playing traditional Ruan by large white teddy bear
Wilfried Krecichwost / Getty Images

Nguyen is the most common surname in Vietnam and among the top 100 last names in the United States, Australia, and France. Meaning "musical instrument" and actually rooted in Chinese, Nguyen is an interesting name that you'll encounter throughout the world. Alternate spellings include Nyguyen, Ruan, Yuen, and Yuan.

The Origin of Nguyen

Nguyen stems from the Chinese word ruan (a string instrument that is plucked).

In Vietnam, the family name Nguyen is connected to the royal dynasties. It is said that during the Tran Dynasty (1225–1400), many members of the Ly family of the prior dynasty changed their name to Nguyen to avoid persecution.

The Nguyen family had a place of prominence as early as the 16th century, but they would rule during the last of the dynasties. The Nguyen Dynasty lasted from 1802 until 1945, when Emperor Bao Dai abdicated.

By some estimates, approximately 40 percent of Vietnamese people have the surname Nguyen. It is, without a doubt, the most common Vietnamese family name.

Nguyen can be used as a first name as well as a surname. Also, keep in mind that in Vietnamese it is traditional for the surname to be used before an individual's given name.

Nguyen Is Common Worldwide

Nguyen is the seventh most common family name in Australia, the 54th most popular in France, and the 57th most popular surname in America. These statistics may be surprising until you recall the relationship each country has had with Vietnam.

For instance, France had colonized Vietnam as early as 1887 and fought the First Indochina War from 1946 until 1950. Shortly after that, the U.S. entered the conflict and the Vietnam War (or Second Indochina War) began.

These associations led many Vietnamese refugees to immigrate to both countries during and after the conflicts. Australia saw an influx of refugees after the second of these wars when the country revised its immigration policy. It's estimated that nearly 60,000 Vietnamese refugees settled in Australia between 1975 and 1982.

How Is Nguyen Pronounced?

For native English speakers, pronouncing the name Nguyen can be a challenge. Since it's such a popular name, though, learn how to say it as best as you can. The most common mistake is to pronounce the "y."

The best way to explain the pronunciation of Nguyen is as a single syllable: ngwin. Say it fast and don't emphasize the letters "ng." It really helps to hear it out loud, such as at this YouTube video.

Famous People Named Nguyen

  • Damien Nguyen: U.S. actor
  • Scotty Nguyen: professional poker player
  • Dat Nguyen: U.S. football player
  • Nguyen Sinh Cung: Ho Chi Minh's birth name
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Powell, Kimberly. "The Meaning and Origin of Nguyen." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Powell, Kimberly. (2020, August 28). The Meaning and Origin of Nguyen. Retrieved from Powell, Kimberly. "The Meaning and Origin of Nguyen." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).