Dilemma of a Vietnamese Name?!


—– Đọc bài tiếng Việt —–

Borrowing is never an ultimate solution. If you love something so much, create your own. This holds true for the Vietnamese language. Long gone were the days when Vietnamese people had to use Chinese characters to write their spoken language. Modern Vietnamese has been widely used since 1919. Evolved from a history that reflects a mixture of foreign influences that dominated the course of the nation since the earliest days, Vietnamese language uses the Latin alphabet of abc intersected with diacritics (or the accent marks.) Without a doubt, the uniqueness of Vietnamese language lies, among other things, in the diacritics. As a Việt Nam-freak, (e.g., I jealously guard anything Vietnamese) I even think that without diacritics, it is not Vietnamese.

Then I realized that in the past years I had omitted the diacritics in my name without a blink, in my email, Facebook, and miscellaneous online accounts. I started to think. I didn’t have a choice? I was a creature of habits? Or I believed that Vietnamese names with no diacritical marks were a sign of globalization?

‘Before’ technology

2001, a few months of stepping foot on American land, I began to read books about the so-called Vietnam War. It drove me crazy every time I came across quotes in Vietnamese without diacritics. Even in specific contexts, the quotes are oftentimes unintelligible. With Vietnamese names, it was even worse because there is no guessing game at times – either you know it, or you don’t. (The frustration was the first hint that I quickly ignored.)

But let’s not talk about Vietnamese without diacritics here which is a bigger issue given the scope of this piece. The focus in this writing is only on the Vietnamese names for people in my situation who consider themselves Vietnamese, whose mother tongue is Vietnamese, and/or who hold a special love for the Vietnamese language in their hearts, but who un/consciously type their names unaccented.

I had looked at my names on all online accounts, in emails and on Facebook. No diacritics.

Barely half a decade into the 21th century, life was, to my generation, already ‘impossible’ without the internet. Yet I knew it was quite understandable to type Vietnamese names without diacritics. In fact, the sight of Vietnamese names without accent marks has almost become ‘second nature’ to me.

Even though the software to type Vietnamese was available for free, users could only type Vietnamese in word documents. The diacritics were not compatible with the language of web programs and browsers, therefore they would not show on internet programs or web pages. Worse, they would deform and make the Vietnamese names look ridiculous. As a result, no diacritics was the way to go, whether I liked it or not.

That said, I would automatically type my Vietnamese name without accent marks, whenever asked to create an online account. My name looked western, and I felt a sense of belonging to the gigantic mixed family in America. I did that so many times that it became an unconscious act of betrayal. Then frustration kicks in whenever I come across Vietnamese names I could not decipher in emails, and then on Facebook. For example, Hoang Le Ha. Is it Hoàng Lê Hà, Hoàng Lệ Hà, Hoàng Lê Hạ, Hà Lê Hoàng, Hà Lệ Hoàng, or Hà Lễ Hoàng??? Either one of them could be correct. I went berserk. I blamed technology.


‘After’ technology

Not any more. These days, with advancements in script encoding starting with Unicode 4.0, the typing of correct Vietnamese in all programs and interfaces becomes a breeze. (Unicode 4.0 launching was in 2003 but I did not pay attention to it until recently.) The diacritics would show in emails, in search engines, on any website. And they’d stay. By now, after years of getting used to Vietnamese names without diacritics, it is so difficult to switch off the familiar sight of them and to think about typing Vietnamese with diacritics. I have not stopped and thought about the change. I didn’t see a need. Maybe I never did, without a jolt.

One day, news was up about the Chinese occupying a border town of Việt Nam… One day, a stranger at a party asked me, “Are you Chinese?”… One day, more and more Vietnamese Americans entered the political arena… One day, the voice of the Vietnamese diaspora in America grew strong and continues spreading… One day, I started writing for a Vietnamese newspaper in Orange County… One day, I set up my own blog. Feeling nationalistic, I couldn’t stand the names without diacritical marks anymore. Foreigners would look at my last name and guess it to be Chinese or Korean. I want them to see me as a Vietnamese.

I added diacritics to my last name.

Then I realized, it is never too late. The software that facilitates Vietnamese typing is readily available. One can even choose from several options – UniKey, VPSKeys, for example. Whatever the choice, it is a very light operational program to download, and wonderfully convenient to have on hand as an icon on the task bar. “On” and “Off” to Vietnamese typing is now only a click away. Unicode is already embedded in the major software and programs on any computer. Whatever I wish to do with Vietnamese, it sticks.

I went back to my email and Facebook accounts and added the diacritics to my contact names. They show, and they stay, and they look like they are supposed to be. For the first time they look ‘right,’ and they make me feel good, indeed. I thanked technology.

I am not suggesting adding diacritics to my name in any official American documents, though. The reasons are simple: there is no way Americans can type my Vietnamese name with correct accent marks. Neither is there guarantee that the diacritics I submit online will stay as they are in whatever electronic systems I am dealing with. These uncontrollable elements are better left untouched. I’d play safe with what I can control, e.g. the presentations of my Vietnamese names in emails and on Facebook. (And online accounts!)


Most foreigners don’t know that Vietnamese language uses the Roman alphabet (also called Latin alphabet) just like that of the English language. What to do? Simple: A bunch of Vietnamese names will do. A hundred of them will be enough to familiarize them with the look of Vietnamese language in no time. In this age of globalization, that is no big deal.

I started to dream: More than ten million Vietnamese at home facebook, and many more email. Plus, millions of Vietnamese abroad do the same things. By sheer number, we seem to be perfect messengers, if we choose to be so. Besides, heck, what globalization is it when you cannot read your fellow people’s names properly? Guessing is a dangerous game when it can lead to embarrassment for both parties. Play safe: Just click and add the diacritics.

In retrospect, the more I think about the issue of “to type or not to type diacritics,” the more angry I become with myself. The question actually presents itself only as an iceberg of something more crucial. After all, it does not bother me as much as the thought that by choosing to get rid of the Vietnamese-ness in my name, I had chosen to give up a part of my identity. And I had done that without even putting up a fight. What else did I abandon, would I have abandoned, and would I be willing to abandon had I not stopped to think and turned “On”?

The ‘Việt Nam-freakiness’ in me continues to dream…

The Vietnamese version of this article has been published by the Vien Dong Daily News. Read the Vietnamese version here.

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