Why Don’t Vietnamese Smile? And Is Taking Candid Photos of People Wrong?

Upon reviewing his photos from a recent trip throughout Southeast Asia, rje noticed something peculiar. Nearly all of his photographic subjects were smiling, with the notable exception of the Vietnamese.

While this admittedly wasn’t a scientific study, rje did inadvertently control for at least one factor:

Now you might reasonably ask if the reason for the lack of smiling was because they had just met me. If that were the case, who could blame them? But most of the photographs were candid, the subjects never knew they were being photographed.

So what’s the story here? Is it a cultural thing? Are the people of Vietnam under some sort of stress. Did rje just happen to take random photos of non-smiling people in Vietnam?

Fodor’s members offer some thoughts on the subject:

I don’t think we can assume that because people smile, they’re happy. In some Asian societies a smile is expected, a show of politeness, rather than happiness. And why public anger is considered so uncivilized and insulting to the recipiant. ~MmePerdu

My understanding is that in some cultures, smiling is a VERY private thing — something shared ONLY with close relations, or those one is inviting into that intimate circle. ~kja

One of the things that struck me about VN is how removed the people are from their spiritual roots. I’m always struck by the way in which people in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Burma are so immediately involved with Buddhism. Bali, of course, is Hindu (so very different from the rest of Indonesia, culturally) but the Balinese spiritual connection always seems so accessible, so palpable. For me, their spiritual connections is some of what makes these counties so appealing. … Being cut off from ones’ spiritual roots can certainly have a huge impact. ~Kathie

Oddly and interestingly, the thread soon turns into a passionate and sometimes heated discussion on the subject of taking candid photos. Evidently, some feel very strongly that no one should take pictures of others without their permission – even if those being photographed are in public and don’t even know they are being photographed.

Far too many ignorant folk pointing their cameras without any consideration for the people they’re aiming at. ~LancasterLad

Just because I am out in public does not mean that I am volunteering to be part of someone’s art project, nor that I want my photo posted all over the Internet. ~thursdaysd

rje and others present strong arguments for the other side of this candid photography debate. And though it starts out a bit contentious, the Fodor’s community as a whole provides a great demonstration as to how to passionately argue two sides of an issue with respect, and without resorting to name calling.

Perhaps this thread should be required reading for partisan politicians.

Read this two-interesting-subjects-for-the-price-of-one thread in its entirety: A sociological question: Are the people of Vietnam unhappy?

“Vietnamese grandpa” by Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier. CC BY-SA 2.0. Note: I had a very difficult time trying to find a photo of a Vietnamese person not smiling to use for this post. Found plenty of photos with smiling Vietnamese.


  1. Having lived in Vietnam for a few years recently, I found them to be some of the happiest people I’ve met. In fact, the Vietnamese are routinely rated as the happiest people in surveys on this topic.

    I suspect the ‘trend’ identified in the photos by rje are either coincidental or say something about the circumstances in which the photographer took the photo.

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