Since its inception around 2000 years ago, Viet Nam (or Nam Viet) has always been spelled two words. The name derives from the two words: Viet, meaning “people” and Nam, meaning “south.” This was to differentiate the Viets, the people of the south from the people of the north, the Chinese. Yet western style manuals indicate the spelling of Viet Nam as “Vietnam,” a convention which appears to have originated some 50 or 60 years ago.
Noted photojournalist and author Philip Jones Griffiths suggests that the name Viet Nam was changed by Westerners to “Vietnam” in the 1940s or 1950s, when reporters filed stories by telex. The telex system charged for each word, so a story including Dien Bien Phu, Ha Noi, Ban Me Thuot, Da Nang, Sai Gon, and other multisyllabic locations could be fairly expensive.
It made economic sense to condense their story. As a result, the names were changed to Vietnam, Danang, Hanoi, Saigon and so on.
Style manuals eventually set standards for use, although with little understanding or appreciation of Asian culture when creating the rules of the written road. Dictionaries simply report the current usage of words. These days, email and other communications are far less bound by commercial restraints. A space or two costs nothing, so perhaps it is time that the rest of the world began to recognize the true spelling of Vietnamese place names. (Or should that be “Viet Namese”?)
My main reason for suggesting this change is to help Western Readers, especially Americans, realizes Vietnam as a country, not a war. It is my opinion the old spelling is often associated, at least subconsciously, with the chaotic emotions of the American war of the 1960s and 1970s. To help move into the current world and appreciate the culture, people, and experience that is uniquely Vietnamese, spelling names as the Vietnamese would cause a new process of not only thinking, but feeling.
You might ask why the Vietnamese have not raised this issue. Perhaps they feel it is impolite to point out others glaring mistakes. Or perhaps they are unwilling to attack the status quo. When you see “Vietnam” written on products, you can be pretty sure it’s for export. It makes economic sense to meet the expectations of your customers. But perhaps the time has come to educate the rest of the world to align their expectations with the true spellings of Vietnamese words.
Hidden meanings of the names.
Buon Ma Thuot: A pronounciation of Ede ethnic language. Buon: an Ede village. Ma Thuot: King Thuot. Ama in Ede means King.
Da Lat: Lat is a skewed pronunciation of Lac (lake).
Dien Bien Phu: A Chinese Vietnamese name. Dien means stable. Bien means border. Phu is an old administrative unit, like a district or county or province. So the name means The Province of Stablised Border.
Hai Van (Pass): Cloud and Ocean. On top of the pass you can see both the cloud and the ocean beneath you.
Ha Long: Descending Dragon. A reference to the legend of the creation of the bay’s spectacular formations.
Hanoi: Inside a River. If you look on the map, the Red River curves to the east, and Hanoi is inside that curve.
Nha Trang: Viet pronounce of the Cham word YaLang or YaTrang, meaning The River.
Sai Gon: A Vietnamese pronunciation of Prai Knor, Khmer for Forest of Gon Trees. This has been a frustrating subject for many historians. Saigon actually indicates the Cho Lon area in the 18th Century (District 5), because it was next to the forest, and the District 1 area was called Ben Nghe originally (Nghe Quay). Since the mid19th century, Ben Nghe has been called Sai Gon, and Saigon became Cho Lon. So the original site of the Gon forest is actually 7km from the contemporary Saigon.
Tam Dao: Three Islands. The mountains of Tam Dao National Park are close together. If you look out form the peak of any one of them on a cloudy day, you’ll see three islands (three mountain tops surrounded by clouds).
Van Mieu: Temple of Literature