Names over time

A new exhibition in Hanoi brings to light the different names Vietnam has been known as over the course of its history.

By Jessica Nguyen on July 11,2019 10:45 AM

Names over time


The names adopted in the past for modern-day Vietnam were chosen to express the legitimacy of a kingdom or government and were then used in diplomatic, legal, and commercial relations. The name and location of capitals during Vietnam’s long history were also of particular importance.

“Vietnam has had many names in its different historical periods,” said Dr. Nguyen Van Cuong, Director of the Vietnam National Museum of History. “Determining the national title of our feudal dynasties expressed national pride, with names such as Dai Co Viet, Dai Viet, Dai Nam, and Vietnam. The location and names of capitals were thoroughly considered by the country’s leaders, as they would be the political, military, economic, and cultural center of the country.”

The museum is holding “The National Names and Capitals of the Dai Viet (Vietnam) through Historical Periods” exhibition, introducing to the public the national names and capitals adopted over the course of the country’s history.

Names over time


Van Lang is considered the first national name of Vietnam. The ancient Vietnamese territory was established and ruled by the Hung Kings, in the Northern Delta region and what is today the three provinces of Thanh Hoa, Nghe An and Ha Tinh, with a capital in Phu Tho province’s Phong Chau district.

In 257 BC, Au Lac was established by linking the Lac Viet (Van Lang) and Au Viet peoples, and included Van Lang’s former territory and part of the Guangxi region in southeastern China. The capital of Au Lac was located in Co Loa, in modern-day Dong Anh district in Hanoi.

In 40, Hai Ba Trung rebelled against the rule of the Han Dynasty, established the country named Linh Nam, built the capital in Me Linh, now in Me Linh district of Hanoi city. In 43, the Hai Ba Trung rebellion was suppressed, beginning the period of being dominated by the Chinese.

Van Xuan was the national name of Vietnam during a short period of independence from Chinese dominion. The name existed from 544 to 602 under Emperor Ly Nam De, with a capital located in the To Lich estuary.

The country was known as Dai Co Viet from the time of the Dinh Dynasty to the beginning of the Ly Dynasty, founded by Emperor Dinh Tien Hoang in 968. This name remained for 86 years, until 1054, when it was changed by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong. The capital of Dai Co Viet was located in Hoa Lu commune, Ninh Binh province.

The Ly Dynasty adopted the name Dai Viet in 1054, when Emperor Ly Thanh Tong was crowned. Use of the name was interrupted for seven years by the Ho Dynasty and for 20 years by the Ming Dynasty, but otherwise used by the Ly, Tran, Le, Mac and Tay Son Dynasties for 743 years, until 1802. The capital of Dai Viet was in turn called Dong Do and Thang Long (in what today is Hanoi) and Phu Xuan (or Hue citadel).

Dai Ngu was used during the Ho Dynasty (under the very short regime of Emperor Ho Quy Ly) around the 1400s. The capital was Tay Do on An Ton Hill in Thanh Hoa province.

The name Nam Viet officially appeared during the Nguyen Dynasty, which started in 1802, when Emperor Gia Long proposed that China’s Qing Dynasty recognize this as the country’s national name. But Nam Viet was also the name of an ancient nation in China under the Zhao Dynasty, in what is now Guangdong and Guangxi. To avoid confusion, the Qing Dynasty requested the Nguyen Dynasty change the order of the words to Viet Nam, and a capital was established in Hue. This national name was officially declared in 1804.

In 1820, Emperor Minh Mang was enthroned, asking the Qing Dynasty to permit the change of the Vietnamese national name to Dai Nam, implying a large South country. However, the Qing did not officially approve. When the Qing began to weaken, Emperor Minh Mang officially unilaterally announced the new national name Dai Nam on February 15, 1839. The national name existed until 1945.

After the August 1945 revolution, Vietnam’s feudal regime was abolished, and Vietnam became the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. This name was maintained from 1945 to 1954, with a capital in Hanoi. The state was established on September 2, 1945 (now celebrated as National Day).

Geneva Agreement was signed by July 1954 to restore peace in Indochina. The agreement resulted in the termination of the presence of the French army on the Indochinese peninsula, officially ending the French colonial regime in Indochina. Vietnam was divided into south and north and governed by two different governments. The north still held the name Democratic Republic of Vietnam until 1976. In the south, the name “State of Vietnam” had been chosen by former Emperor Bao Dai and officially registered with France on March 8, 1949. On October 26, 1955, South Vietnamese Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem - who was supported by the US - deposed Emperor Bao Dai and established the Republic of Vietnam, of which he became President.

April 30, 1975 saw the victory of the Ho Chi Minh campaign and the liberation and reunification of Vietnam. On July 2, 1976, the National Assembly of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam changed the name of the country to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam; a name it holds to this day.


During the four months of “The National Names and the Capitals of the Dai Viet (Vietnam) through Historical Periods” exhibition, the Vietnam National Museum of History will for the first time display precious artifacts from the country’s national development.

Until the end of October, visitors will have the opportunity to admire more than 100 unique artifacts, all diverse in style, size and material, and uncovered during archaeological research in Hanoi and ancient capitals such as Hoa Lu and Co Loa.

The exhibition is divided into three parts: Treasures from Van Lang, Au Lac, Van Xuan, and the first period of national construction (about 2,000 years ago); the period of independent feudal monarchy (from 939 to 1802); and the period from the August Revolution in 1945 until now.

Artifacts from Van Lang, Au Lac, and the first period of national construction include arrows and other items made from stone about 2,500 to 2,000 years ago, which were excavated at Co Loa Citadel in Hanoi’s Dong Anh district.

Those found from the period of independent feudal monarchy are especially rich in history. This period included periods under the name Dai Co Viet (with a capital at Hoa Lu under the Dinh, Tien Le, and Ly Dynasties), the Dai Viet (with a capital at Dong Do under the Le, Mac and Le Trung Hung Dynasties and a capital of Phu Xuan under Tay Son Dynasty), and Dai Ngu (with a capital in Thanh Hoa province).

Names over time

Treasures on display from this period include earthenware statues of dragon and phoenix heads dating from the 11th to 13th centuries, white-glazed terracotta bowls and plates, and a “Xi Van” earthenware statue dating back to the 15th century. Similar “Xi Van” statues can be found at One Pillar Pagoda, Bat Giac House in Lang Pagoda, and Mong Phu Communal House (in Duong Lam ancient village) in Hanoi, and are almost intact.

“Xi Van” was the child of a dragon. According to legend, the dragon gave birth to nine offspring but none became dragons. The nine are known by different names: Xi Van, Bi Hi, Bo Lao, Be Ngan, Thao Thiet and Cong Phuc, etc. Xi Van is the dragon’s second offspring, and had a dragon’s head and a fish’s tail. It was believed to be able to create rain, so is often mounted on the roofs of wooden buildings in the belief it can ward off fires.

Treasures from Dai Viet (in the 18th century) include a Canh Thinh drum and a Nguyen Dynasty jade seal, which are two of the 20 most precious national treasures currently kept at the museum, where, according to Dr. Cuong, previous opportunities to admire them can be counted on one hand.

The Canh Thinh drum was cast in bronze in the 8th year of Emperor Canh Thinh’s reign (1792-1802) (in the year 1800 in the Tay Son era). Instead of drawing a sun on the surface of the drum, as seen on others, artisans embossed two concentric circles. The body was carved with sophisticated patterns featuring four-petal flowers, unicorns, dragons, and phoenixes.

Another special value of the Canh Thinh drum, which no other copper drum can boast, is that its history has been carved right into its body. Inscriptions in Chinese show that Mrs. Nguyen Thi Loc helped build Linh Ung Pagoda, where the drum was hung. The craftsmanship also reflects the leading casting techniques used by Vietnamese artists of the time. The Nguyen Dynasty seal, meanwhile, is made from the largest-known piece of white jade and was made during the regime of the sixth emperor of the Thieu Tri Dynasty, in 1846. It is one of three seals of the Nguyen Dynasty. Not only was it used as an object of worship at important ceremonies, the jade seal was also placed on international diplomatic documents and letters sent abroad. The significance and importance of the seal expresses the independent national ideology.

The jade seal was given to the Provisional Revolutionary Government in Hanoi shortly after the abdication of Emperor Bao Dai in August 1945. In December 1946, during the period of national resistance against French colonialists, the treasure was kept in a secret location. Following the victory at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, it was brought to the Ministry of Finance, and in 1959 was handed over to the Vietnam National Museum of History.

The 20 national treasures on display are not always kept at the museum. They were previously kept at the State Bank of Vietnam under special protection, from 1962 to 2007. Since 2007, these treasures have been stored in a special underground warehouse at the museum equipped with modern security facilities.

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