Many foreign visitors, as well as many Vietnamese, have been thrown for a loss by this question. Because the geopolitical connotations of the word allow a better understanding of the history of the country, the answer is of interest to more than etymologists.

The Meaning of Vietnam

Viet is the name of an ethnic group that today makes up the Vietnamese people. This ethnic group belongs to a group born of a cross between the Mongoloids who came down from the North and the original Austronegroid inhabitants. Nam means South. In Vietnamese, South (Nam) often evokes what pertains to Vietnam, while North (Bac) evokes China. Thus, Thuoc Nam means ‘southern (i.e., Vietnamese) medicine’, while Thuoc Bac refers to northern (Chinese) medicine. Nuoc Nam, Southern Country, is a synonym for Vietnam. Viet Nam then refers to the country of the Southern Viet people. We can draw a parallel to the name Yugoslavia (Yugo = south and Slavia = country of the Slavs): country of the Southern Slavs. In Vietnamese, Vietnam is written in two words, Viet and Nam. But in English, they are combined together: Vietnam. Both of names are right and widely accepted.

meaning of vietnam

The Names of Vietnam in History

The Ancient Time (Before Christmas)

When Hung Kings united Viet tribes in the North of Vietnam, they created the independent country name Van Lang (2524 B.C – 258 B.C). In 258 B.C, Chinese invaded Van Lang. Hung King XVIII failed to lead Viet people fighting against the invaders. Then An Duong Vuong took the control of the country from Hung King XVIII; became the leader of the Viet and gained the independence for Van Lang. In 257 B.C, King An Duong Vuong renamed the country Au Lac. After the death of King An Duong Vuong, Au Lac had been the colony of China for nearly a thousand years.

hung kings - meaning of vietnam

The 10th Century

After a thousand years being the slave of China, Ngo Quyen (897-944) won the legend fight on Bach Dang River against Han invaders in 938. Then he got the throne and set “Dai Viet” (the huge Viet country) as the name of the country. However,  The death of King Ngo Quyen in 944 created a turbulent period in Vietnamese history. In 968, Dinh Bo Linh (924-979) united the Dai Viet and became the first emperor of Dai Viet. He added “Co” (Co also means huge) into Dai Viet to be Dai Co Viet. This name was also used in the period of King Le Dai Hanh (941-1005).

war at bach dang river - meaning of vietnam

The Return of Dai Viet

In 1009, Ly Cong Uan (974-1028) took the reign of Dai Co Viet. He said that Dai Co Viet had the similar meaning to Dai Viet but was too long. Therefore, he named the country Dai Viet again. This name became the official name of Viet country till the 19th century.

king ly thai to - meaning of vietnamking ly thai to - meaning of vietnam

The Appearance of Vietnam

In 1802, King Gia Long (1762-1820) used the name “Vietnam” for the country. But in the period of Minh Mang (1791-1841), he changed it into Dai Nam (the huge country in the South).

In 1945, after King Bao Dai (1913-1997) abdicated, president Ho Chi Minh read the declaration of independence on September 2nd 1945. The official name of Vietnam has been Republic Socialist of Vietnam or Vietnam for short.

president ho chi minh read the decralation of independence

Throughout the history with many ups and downs, the name of Viet country has changes dozens of times. But there is only one thing that never changes – the freedom and independence of Viet people.