Addressing people is a difficult thing in every language. English speaking people are usually easy and non-formal, but other Western nationalities focus highly on their titles and correct names. Vietnamese are also very easy, but there are some points you should keep in mind!
First, not last name
Let us consider how a Vietnamese name is built The recent Prime Minister of Vietnam is Mr. Nguyen Tan Dung. Usually, Nguyen is said to be the surname, whereas the first name is Dung. The Middle name Tan often shows you if the person is male or female. Nguyen is more than a surname, it is a clan name, a special Vietnamese relic phenomenon from the depths of history. This results in a high number of people with the name „Nguyen“. Please note also, that the surname comes first and the first name is the third name (Some people have a name consisting of four names, but this is the same like in the West, where some have only two and other have three First and Middle names).
The difference between Vietnam and other countries now in the custom of addressing is, that you use the first name. So, in the case of our Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, we have the first name „Dung“. But do we really address him as Mr. Dung? Of course not. It is not so easy. Although Vietnamese use the first names, they also differentiate between people of higher society and everyday people. And how can you do that? By using titles. The Prime Minister is addressed in Vietnam as „Mr Prime Minister Dung“. In the news we refer to him as PM Nguyen Tan Dung.
Addressing in everyday life
However, I am sure, most of us do not talk with Mr PM Dung so much, so we should see how we deal in with everyday life. You address people in Vietnamese using the personal pronouns anh, em, co, chi…which in these cases should be translated as Mr./Mrs., followed by the first name (if known). If the person has a title, so you should use it, like Mr. Director Hung, or Mrs. Teacher Tram. So you pronounce, whether your partner is higher or lower in society. If you’re the director, you can address your lower partner using ong/anh/em (co/chi/em) with the name. Using the surname is considered as impolite, but since most Vietnamese know of the Western custom using surnames and will not be angry with you. However, foreigners using the correct formal habits are considered more polite, smarter and friendlier, because they show that they know of the customs of the guest county. In the same manner than other East and Southeast Asian countries, the information about the correct names and titles is given on the business cards. So, if someone gives you a business card, you should take some seconds to study the name and title. If you don’t know the name, you can address the partner as Mr/Mrs. Maybe you can suggest a title (Mr. Salesman) or you can discover the title? And remember! If someone addresses you with your first name, it is polite and not a signal of disrespect of your person! All my contracts with Vietnamese names are signed under my first name „Karsten“ only. But I am sure, in Vietnam there are not so many Karstens in the moment…