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A sociological question: Are the people of Vietnam unhappy?

A sociological question: Are the people of Vietnam unhappy?

Old Jan 9th, 2015, 06:14 PM
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rje
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A sociological question: Are the people of Vietnam unhappy?

I ask this because I have been going through a great many photographs I took while traveling in Southeast Asia during September and October, and I've started to notice that the only country with very few smiling people is Vietnam. More specifically Northern Vietnam, as we didn't get to the south this trip.

I'm struck by how many Vietnamese people in my photographs look glum or are scowling.

In contrast, the people of Bali and Laos look joyful. They often have big smiles, or are laughing.

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.

Now smiling isn't proof of happiness, nor is frowning a sure sign of unhappiness. But from my memory, many people in Vietnam seemed more stressed and less warm and happy than those in other nearby countries.

Could it be change due to increasing industrialization?
Or greater emphasis on materialism and the pressure to make money? (We noticed more people in Vietnam trying to get as much money as possible from us than in other countries during this trip.)
A colder climate?
Or is it cultural?

Or were your experiences just plain different than mine?
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Old Jan 9th, 2015, 07:11 PM
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I'm not a sociologist, so I can't speak to the 'why' of your question but I do agree that when we were in Northern Vietnam I definitely observed that people seemed more "harsh" than the rest of Southeast Asia. That may have something to do with the plight of communist Vietnam over the decades ... or it may just be us Westerners being overly sensitive to facial expressions.

Either way, interesting discussion topic.
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Old Jan 9th, 2015, 07:23 PM
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filmwill, interesting point about the possibility of one being overly sensitive to facial expressions.

And like you, I thought about the communist aspect, and also the suffering of the Vietnamese people during the long years of war. And after.

But Laos is also communist, and suffered terribly both during and after the war. Yet somehow the people seemed to us to be much more likely to smile and laugh, both with their fellow Lao and with us.

This is all of course not scientific, but it would be interesting to hear the experiences of others on the forum.
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Old Jan 9th, 2015, 08:00 PM
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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.

Conversely, I'd assume that lack of smiling, where it's not a requirement, doesn't indicate unhappiness, only lack of the requirement to smile. I have a friend in Hanoi who, I believe, is a very happy person and she smiles all the time. A sample of one, but I don't think it's unusual.
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Old Jan 9th, 2015, 10:29 PM
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>>something to do with the plight of communist Vietnam over the decades

There is that. There is also the history of Vietnam over centuries.

I only spent a few days in Vietnam. That first impression would lead me to use the word "anzious" rather than "unhappy".

Am not a sociologist but the difference, I think, are entirely cultural. The other factors that you considered seem secondary to me. You put VN and Bali in tbe same region, ok. But Bali is over 2,000 miles from Hanoi. That is only a 4 or 5 hour flight today. But centuries ago, as those cultures were developing, that was a huge distance.

You know, if you look at a world map then yuo see that VN and Laos and Indonesia and Cambodia all seem to be close to one another. They aren't, even in today's small world. Those cultures (and attitude on life) developed over centuries when the world was much larger.

At 4 mph, Hanoi to Vientiane would be a journey of over 4 days of continuous travel.
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Old Jan 9th, 2015, 10:41 PM
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An interesting question!

Just coming to the end of 10 weeks in Vietnam and I have to say my experience was entirely different. I found the vast majority of Vietnamese people to be friendly and welcoming. A little shy perhaps but after making the effort to engage with them, they soon open up. If they look glum or stressed in your photographs, could it be that they weren't happy being photographed? I remember years ago trying to photograph some minority people in the far north and, even when asking permission first, they refused. Perhaps because of superstition, perhaps because ether were shy or just maybe they don't like being photographed ( I know I dont!)

As for making wanting to make money, the vast majority of vietnamese we chatted to have on aim, to provide for their extended families as best they can. Who can blame them. Post Doi Moi There has been exponential growth in Vietnam's economy but the benefits are not being felt equally. Corruption is rife and teh dived between rich and poor is growing. Vietnam is a one party state rather than a communist state in the true sense of the meaning. The state does not provide, far from it. The number of beggars on the streets is testament to that.

Given that the country was occupied for the last hundred years or so first by the French and then teh Americans, during which time millions were killed, it has always surprised me that there is not more resentment towards the west. That said, the vast majority of the population are under the age of forty Asi I suppose few remember, or prefer to forget. The Vietmamese are nothing if not pragmatic!
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Old Jan 9th, 2015, 11:07 PM
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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.
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Old Jan 9th, 2015, 11:11 PM
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>>, it has always surprised me that there is not more resentment towards the west

Good post Crellston, as your experience in VN was more in-depth.

Am guessing, but the new opportunities today in VN are creating some anxiety to keep up with the changes and taking advantage, somehow, of those opportunities. The "I gotta get mine while the getting is good" kind of anxiety inducing attitude. Maybe.

Anyway, before the French, the Chinese dominated VN over 8 or 10 centuries. There is some xenophobia there, I think.
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Old Jan 9th, 2015, 11:29 PM
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I suspect that there are qualified scholars who are looking into this issue, and many other related questions. If you are interested, go to your nearest library and ask a reference librarian to help you. I'm sure you will end up with far more accurate information that you will get by asking Fodorites what might be going on....
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Old Jan 10th, 2015, 01:02 AM
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I definitely think you have to get under the surface of a country, and travel it extensively to even begin to get a feeling of who's happy and who's not.

Bali for example, is just a small part of Indonesia. Indonesia is a massive country in population, size, and religions. Yet it's ruled centrally from Jakarta, which it seems is where all the money and power is....

http://wikitravel.org/en/Indonesia
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Old Jan 10th, 2015, 08:24 AM
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I think smiling is not a good measure of happiness, as it is so culturally determined.

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.

I wondered, when I was in Hanoi, about how the years of Communist rule, which has consciously tried to stamp out religion has impacted people. And MrW is quite right, it's not just occupation by western powers that has scarred VN, but also occupation by the Chinese. Being cut off from ones' spiritual roots can certainly have a huge impact.
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Old Jan 10th, 2015, 09:23 AM
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crellston ,
I was taking candid photographs, so they didn't know they were being photographed.

And I'd point again to Laos. Sharing a border with Vietnam, in recent history their people have been invaded repeatedly by the Vietnamese, heavily bombed by the US in an unauthorized "secret war", ransacked by an invading Chinese bandit army, oppressed by the Pathet Lao, occupied but neglected by the French, and are now basically being plundered by China, Vietnam, and Thailand for their natural resource. The dams on the Mekong are one part of that, and the train tracks soon to be constructed from China to Vientiane are being built to assist that process.

And yet we found the people to be warm and welcoming, and they laughed and smiled freely. Both with each other and with tourists.

And laughter is less of a social obligation than smiling, and is not usually done out of politeness. Obviously one can be unhappy and still laugh, though.

As several have suggested, maybe it is largely cultural. Although I suspect one shouldn't discount the effect on societies of rapid change due to increasing industrialization, etc.

And all this is not to say that we didn't also meet many warm wonderful Vietnamese people, who were kind and generous to us.

I'm just wondering here out loud here about an observation, and I'm finding all your thoughts very interesting, so thank you!
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Old Jan 10th, 2015, 09:36 AM
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Kathie,

The example of Bali really is very interesting. It is indeed a Hindu island in a sea of Moslem people. I was struck by the fact that several people there spoke to me in moments of candor about the way their religion was a huge comfort, but also a burden. Particularly a woman who has so many religious obligations that it sometimes seemed like a full-time job to her and her female friends. But in addition to spirituality, the way that their religion also acts as a social network seems to be very beneficial to many people there.
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Old Jan 10th, 2015, 09:58 AM
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And here are Gallup results on happiness:

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Happiness_Report
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Old Jan 10th, 2015, 04:08 PM
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"That may have something to do with the plight of communist Vietnam over the decades."
Maybe they were contemplating the atrocities committed against them by the US during the Vietnam War years?
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Old Jan 10th, 2015, 05:47 PM
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"My experience in most Asian countries is that people love being photographed."

Some do, some don't. Are you aware that the Akha people of Lao believe that you are stealing their spirit f you photograph them? Sould they observe you taking a photo in any way you would be contributing to their physical distress.

"court decisions in the US have come down firmly in support of the right of photography in public places, as long as there is no commercial use of the image."
Maybe its about time you realised you are not in the US and that US laws do not apply in Asia. Your comment here reeks of cultural supremacy.
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Old Jan 10th, 2015, 05:52 PM
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IMO, the fact that candid photographs might have artistic or historic merit does NOT mean that taking candid photographs is right. In some cultures, it is decidedly offensive.

It sounds, rje, that you are at least sensitive to some of the issues and try to take at least some steps to obtain permission from people. Unfortunately, MANY people do not take such steps and don't stop to think about the ethics of their behavior.

BTW, in cultures where a premium is placed on accommodating others, I don't know that someone's after-the-fact laughter is really a sign that they are OK with it -- it could be the nervous laughter of someone who has no culturally appropriate way to say NO. Just something to consider....
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Old Jan 10th, 2015, 06:22 PM
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thursdaysd,
I think one of the strongest reasons for the widespread dislike of Google glass (which I share) was because people would never have any way of knowing if they were being filmed or photographed, which for me is wrong. Plus, they just look creepy!

Vientianeboy,
The reference to US courts was addressed to thursdaysd, as we are both from the US, and I was speaking of the importance of freedom of expression that courts recognize here. I'm sure you're in favor of that concept!

And my behavior when photographing hill tribes would be different from when photographing people in the wonderful city of Vientiane. Like I said, it is important for photographers to be aware and sensitive to individual situations.

For the record, I loved our time in Laos!


kja, you have a good point, and it is one I to which I try to be sensitive. I'm quite aware that people in some cultures are uncomfortable saying no. Or are afraid that it will end up losing them potential business. But when after-the-fact laughter is accompanied by smiles, waving, and encouragement to continue, including bringing their other family members into the shot, followed by friendly goodbyes, even someone who was just referred to as reeking of cultural supremacy can tell it was not a problem!
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Old Jan 10th, 2015, 08:00 PM
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I'm surprised that you found so many people unsmiling, or seeming to be unhappy. I was in Hanoi in November and really thought people were quite friendly and welcoming. The smiles or lack thereof seemed to depend on what they were doing... hard physical work does not lend itself to smiling, but out enjoying morning exercises with friends does. I spent a lot of time chatting with students around Hoan Kiem Lake and they were wonderful. I also watched a lot of students in various locations taking graduation photos alone or in groups and they definitely seemed happy! There was lots of laughing, joking around, proud smiles, etc.


As for photographing people I think it's a fine line to try to navigate. People often take photos of me in Asia and it can be done politely or be quite rude and make me feel like a zoo animal. I think that it's generally okay to take photos of people in public as long as you ask first if you are close enough to them to ask.

Otherwise if you're far enough away that they won't know/assume that you're taking a photo of them, then that's a different situation. Then you can't really ask easily and have to use your judgement... would they likely be bothered by the photo, are they doing anything embarrassing, is it a private moment where a photo would seem intrusive even from a distance, etc? If in doubt, don't.

If you're out in public you have to assume that someone may take a photo of you and if you're going to take photos then you have to do your best not to bother people with it. If someone walks up to you and sticks a camera in your face, then it's completely understandable to get annoyed with them and ask them not to do that, nobody likes that. One reason I love a zoom lens is that you can take photos from quite a distance and it's less likely to bother anyone simply due to the fact that they don't know. I don't care if people take my photo, and I simply expect it in Asia, but I'm happier not knowing how many people have photos of a crazy redheaded tourist because they took the photo from a slight distance.
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Old Jan 10th, 2015, 10:29 PM
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" I was speaking of the importance of freedom of expression that courts recognize here. I'm sure you're in favor of that concept!"
Only if that freedom of expression does not impinge on the personal rights of others. When we are talking about beliefs I have no such reservations. For example if people were offended by Cerano's Piss Christ then they should not go to any art exhibition where it is displayed; the same applies to Charlie Hebdo's reprinting of the prophet cartoons. If you are offended don't buy the magazine or boycott it. However if it impinges on my personal rights, then you have no right to do that.
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