For more than a million times I’ve been asked just this question. What’s the meaning of your country’s name? Many foreign visitors, as well as many Vietnamese, Have been thrown for a loss by this question. What does the word “Vietnam” mean? Because the geopolitical connotations of the word “Vietnam” allow a better understanding of the history of this country. The answer is of interest to more than etymologist.



The famous Opera House in Hanoi, built by the French in 1911



In Vietnamese, Viet Nam is written in two words, Viet and Nam. Not Vietnam like what you used to write in English or other languages. Same for Hanoi, Saigon, Haiphong, and Danang… they are written in two words in Vietnamese: Ha Noi, Sai Gon, Hai Phong, Da Nang, Ha Long… Viet is the name of an ethnic group among the 54 ethnic groups in the country, and Nam mean the south. Vietnam then refers to the country of the Southern Viet people.



Our guest with the Long Bien bridge, built by the French in 1903



In Vietnamese, South (Nam) often evokes what pertains to Viet Nam, while North (Bắc) evoke China. Thus, Thuoc Nam means southern (Vietnamese) herbal medicine, while Thuoc Bac refers to northern (Chinese) traditional herbal medicine. Nuoc Nam- Southern Country, is a synonym for Viet Nam.


Before beginning to talk about the Southern Viets, let’s take a look at the peopling of Vietnam. The ethnic groups that today make up the Vietnamese people belong to a group born of a cross between the Mongoloids who came down from the north and the original Austronegroid inhabitants.


In this multi-ethnic mélange, the Viet people lived with other groups in a territory extending from south of the Yangtze River in present day China to the northern part of the nowadays Vietnam.




Our guest trying to cycle a cyclo in the Old Quarter 



Among the many group of Viet peoples, those in the south created the cultural identity the Red River basin during the Bronze Age, before the formation of the Chinese Empire. This “Celestial Empire”, created the third century B.C, absorbed all the ethnic groups mentioned above territory, including many Viet groups.


Only the southern Viets resolutely preserved the national identity, resisting assimilation despite a thousand years of the Chinese domination followed by many conquests later. This ethnic group of Southern Viets today makes of 86% of the population of Vietnam ( 94 million people counted in 2014 ).



Vietnamese national flag



Before the 1945 Reolution, the world knew Vietnam as “Annam”, a name given by the French colonial administration. After reclaiming the national independence, the revolutionary government rejected the name “Annam”, which had first been used by an even earlier colonial administration, the Tang ( Chinese). Annam means the pacified South. The country then retook the old name Viet Nam, which had been officially adopted be the Nguyen dynasty- the last dynasty of Vietnam, in 1804


By Pham Tuyen