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Importance of Vietnamese Names

By Dana Sachs, Author of "The House on Dream Street"

Vietnamese names carry a powerful force.

Names are important in Vietnam. Introducing themselves to foreigners, English-speaking Vietnamese will often translate the meaning of their names, "I'm Orchid (Lan)," one might say. Or "Shining Jade (Ngoc Minh)" or "Spring Rice (Lua Xuan)." Some names sounded like poetry. I knew three brothers names "Mountain (Son)," "River (Giang)," and "Ocean (Hai)." I had a friend named "Moon Lute (Nguyet Cam)" in honor of a traditional Vietnamese stringed instrument. Another couple had named their three boys, all born during the years of the American War, Linh (after Abe Lincoln), Red (for the Communists), and Binh (which means "peaceful"). Binh must have been a popular name during the years of war, because I knew a lot of Binhs who were born at the time. When I told people that "Dana" doesn't mean anything in English, they were often baffled. If it doesn't have a meaning, they would ask, why bother?

In Vietnam, names also carry a powerful force. Tradition claims that evil spirits like to steal babies, particularly the attractive ones. In the countryside, wher old customs linger longer, new parents would go to lengths to make their children seem unappealing. They would never compliment their newborns. Instead, they'd call them "ugly," or "rat," or even "shit," in order to trick the spritits into staying away. Ironicaly, even such hideous names wold come to sound lik ethe sweetest of endearments when they were uttered by adoring parents. Urban Vietnamese, like Tung and Huong, like to scoff at superstitions, but even they would cringe when I forgot the custom and cooed over how beautiful a baby was. "Trom via," they'd hiss, reminding me to say that phrase before the compliment. As one friend later translated it, ftrom via meant "to sneakily talk behind a spririt" -- in other words, to keep evil away. Although Tung and Huong climed that it was indecision that made them wait so long to name the baby, it seemed to me that superstition and ancient tradition had more to do with it then they cared to admit. The supposedly irrational concern over "evil spirits" actually spoke to very real, and widespread, dangers that newborns in Vietnam had faced forever: poor hygiene, inadequate nutrition, and lack of medical care. Because infant mortality was such a risk, tradition dictated that only close family members would visit a new baby before its one-month birthday, the time at which its chance of survival was thought to be more secure and the moment at which it could be brought into society and openly named. In that context, Tun and Huong's so-called indecision made more sense. Rationally, they probably knew that their child's health would not be affected by whether or not they named it. But, in the same way that I avoid walking under ladders, they refused to take any chances.

Dana Sachs is the author of The House on Dream Street, a entrancing memoir of her time with a Vietnamese family, as she explores her emotions and thoughts amid the beauty and enticement of Vietnam, poised in balance between past and future. The House on Dream Street is a remarkable story for those interested in the daily life of Vietnamese people. She is the author of several other books including The Secret of Nightingale Palace and The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam. .

From The House on Dream Street by Dana Sachs. © 2000 by the author. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a division of Workman Publishing.