My novel set during the fall of Saigon is named Last of the Annamese. Those who have read the book understand very well what “Annamese” is, but those who haven’t often ask me what the name means or who it refers to.
“Annamese” is the adjectival form of the Vietnamese place name An Nam (安 南 in Chinese), an ancient name for what we now call Vietnam (越 南). The Chinese chose the name “Vietnam” for the non-Chinese rebellious tribe in southern China who eventually moved south into Vietnam. The name means “those who cross over in the south” or “the trouble makers in the south.” The Vietnamese adopted that name for themselves but called their new nation by a series of different names. One of those names was An Nam, meaning “peace in the south.”
One of the principal characters in the novel, Last of the Annamese, is the South Vietnamese colonel named Thanh. He dislikes the name “Vietnam” because of its meaning and prefers “An Nam” because he considers himself both a southerner and a peace maker. By his way of thinking, his wife and son are also citizens of An Nam. The reader is left to answer the question who is the last of the Annamese referred to by the title.
Given the etymology of “Annamese,” the reader can understand why the name appealed to me, a dyed-in-the-wool linguist comfortable in seven languages other than English. The close relationship between the Vietnamese and Chinese languages has fascinated me since I first studied Vietnamese as a young soldier, well before the Vietnam war.
And I, like Thanh, prefer the name for a place I love that means “peace in the south.”