Meaning of “Annamese”

My blog posts on my novel Last of the Annamese led one reader to ask what “Annamese” means. I explained the word here some time ago, but I’ll risk repeating myself.

“Annamese” come from an old name for Vietnam, An Nam. “Vietnam” was bestowed by the Chinese on a group of rebellious people living in southern China many centuries ago. Vietnam in Chinese is Yuè nán or 越南 in characters. That means “those who cross over in the south” or “the trouble-makers in the south.” That troublesome population moved south out of China into what is now Vietnam and established its own independent nation. Over the years, the name of that nation changed numerous times, finally settling on Vit Nam—越南.

One of the numerous names for that nation during those interim centuries was An Nam, taken from the Chinese 安南 (Ān nán) meaning “peace in the south.” One of the three principal characters in the novel Last of the Annamese is South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Phạm Ngọc Thanh, an incorruptible officer fighting to save his country from the communists. He dislikes the accepted name for his country, Vietnam, because he doesn’t like being called a trouble maker in the south. He prefers the old name, An Nam, because he wants to be thought of as a peacemaker in the south.

That raises the question: who is the last of the Annamese referred to in the title? It could be Thanh, or maybe his wife Tuyet, or maybe his toddler son, Thu. I leave it to the reader to decide.

From the foregoing, it may be obvious that Last of the Annamese could never have been written without my knowledge of French, Chinese, and Vietnamese, the three languages of Vietnam. That knowledge plus the years between 1962 and 1975 when I spent more time in Vietnam that I did in the U.S. gave me the grounding I needed to tell the story of the fall of Saigon—which I lived through, escaping under fire after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city.

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