by Xuan Hiep
Nguyen Van Cuong, 42, never imagined that one day he and his children would have to change his surname from Nguyen to Nguyen, a slight difference to foreign eyes but not to Vietnamese ears, as the tone mark of the final vowel sound of the name is not the same.
The story began 18 years ago when Cuong applied for a birth certificate for his daughter in his hometown, Phu Thinh village in Tam Binh District in the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta province of Vinh Long.
Unbeknownst to Cuong, a local judicial officer, now retired, made an error, or according to some, a "foolish" mistake, on the birth certificate.
Not until his daughter, Nguyen Thi Thuy An, was preparing her papers for a university entrance exam did she notice the error.
Although a minor mistake, the incorrect name created problems for her university admission because An could not show proof that her name was the same as that on her family passbook and ID.
So An and her father rushed to apply for a correction of her surname on her birth certificate.
But the procedures were more complicated than they had thought.
An was told that she would have to prove that her father's surname was Nguyen, not Nguyen.
But matters became even worse when documents showed that Cuong's family name was incorrectly listed as Nguyen as well.
An was then told by the district administrative offices to certify her grandfather's surname.
"But, my gosh, my grandfather had passed away and we could not find his birth certificate anywhere," An recalled recently.
The bizarre solution? Her father decided to apply for a "correction" of their family name in their family passbook and ID. So their new name on these documents is Nguyen.
Cuong's family was far from alone in their predicament.
Hundreds of residents in the village with the family name Nguyen, the most common family name in Viet Nam, were having problems because of incorrect surnames on their birth certificates.
In 1999, the village had 11,571 people. There are currently about 1,000 residents with the surname Nguyen in the village.
Nguyen Hoa Khoi, a judicial officer at Phu Thinh Village who was in the job from 1994 to 2005, was identified eventually as the person who had made the error.
"What is inexplicable is how he could have made such a mistake since his own surname is also Nguyen," Nguyen Van Bay, the current chairman of Phu Thinh Village's People's Committee, said last week.
Khoi had always fulfilled his duties well, Bay said, and the district office had never received complaints about his work, except for this one unfortunate error.
Many village residents, after learning about Cuong's discovery by word of mouth, had also begun noticing the error when their children began applying for college or university.
According to Bay, residents must present their father's birth certificates to the village committee for certification if they need a correction, and then they must go to the district office for further certification.
If their father's name was written incorrectly as well, as in the case of Cuong's, then the bureaucratic process will be even more of a headache.
Another local resident, Nguyen Thanh Danh, 17, had even worse luck. He was refused admission to his college because his surname on his birth certificate was not the same as that in his family passbook and ID.
His father, Nguyen Van Ghi, had lost his birth certificate and had reapplied for a birth certificate at the same time as his son. Thus, his name was listed as Nguyen.
Ghi and his son, like many others in the village, are terribly frustrated about the protracted administrative hassles they have to go through now.
Bay, the village chairman, said the former official Khoi is now over 60 and that it would be hard to blame or punish him as he resigned in 2005 for personal reasons.
"We seek sympathy from the affected residents. We will create the most favourable conditions for any resident to have their name and surname corrected," Bay said.
Many of Viet Nam's greatest heroes and heroines have had the surname Nguyen. None of them were known as Nguyen because, well, there is no such name. - VNS