The Faces of the Season

Growing up, my immediate family never celebrated Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year), preferring to dodge all the superstitions that surround it, like it being ill-advised to sweep your house for fear all the good luck would go out with the dust, or the fear of being the first person to step on the ground on New Year’s Day.

But my extended family did celebrate it, and I remember it as a time when aunts and uncles traveled in from far and wide to be with my grandparents. In the month leading up to Tet, my grandmother would unload her freezer full of steak and duck, clearing out the old to make way for the new. Adults handed little red envelopes to all the grabby kids with a single, crisp bill folded up inside. Every year, my older sister would always get more than me, except for one year when my elderly grandmother confused the identical envelopes and I ended up with $50 while my sister clutched her measly $20 in a gleeful reversal of fortune.


This year is my first ever Tet spent in Vietnam, a holiday that has the gift-giving of Christmas, the family gatherings of Thanksgiving and the abandon of Spring Break wrapped up into one crazy, exhausting 10-day period. Makeshift vendors line the street selling all the accoutrements of the season. The entire city is virtually carpeted in fruits and flowers. People are chattier than normal in the lead-up and the streets are blissfully clear and quiet, shops shuttered, as the city empties, people returning to their hometowns to be with family.

Here are some of my favorite photos of the past week as I wandered around the city, checking out the many markets, flower shows and parks.


With the advent of spring, pink is a popular color for young and old. While southern Vietnam is a bit too hot for cherry blossoms, artificial blooms signal new growth.

Brown - Small

While most leave the city for the holidays, some take advantage of the lull to come and gawk at the big city, including these monks from the countryside, visiting a downtown flower show.


Part of the celebration is the dragon dancing. These students are all dressed up for the acrobatic show and heart-thumping drumming as the dragon does flying leaps while balancing precariously on raised pedestals.



This lady is selling bánh tét, round sticky rice cakes with a mung bean filling, eaten year-round but especially popular during Tet.


One thing I love photographing even more than the vibrant colors are people’s faces. Personally, I’ve found that half of the time, Vietnamese people don’t like their photo taken, especially people at work (eg. selling at the market), but during Tet, I took advantage of the overall jovial atmosphere to photograph these older women with so much character in their faces.




Not to be outdone were the gorgeous kids, dressed in all their finery. Almost makes me wish I had kids of my own. Almost.





I think this little girl’s face is just as round as the huge watermelons her mom was selling on the side of the street. But perhaps, not everyone was as impressed.


I snapped this photogenic young woman selling bright yellow chrysanthemums and posted her photo on my Facebook page. A reader found inspiration and drew her take on it using acrylics on canvas paper. Thanks, Gwen!

Mum seller

For more about the colors of the season and the foods they remind me of, check out my post on Korean blogger Waegook Tom’s site.

Check back soon as I post my photos of street scenes around the city during Tet, including gnarly fruit, red pineapples and hundred dollar flowers.

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13 thoughts on “The Faces of the Season

  1. Gwen Healy

    Thanks for the wonderful blog, Jimmy. Love the colors and excitement they generate. I could almost feel myself walking along with the crowds and enjoying all the sights and smells of food. Thanks for the the shout out as well. Now I must get busy, where is my canvas and paint?

  2. Dave @ Travel Transmissions

    Showing off your penchant for taking great photo faces again? 😉 In the first picture, are those the little red envelopes for lucky money? Not sure if that’s the right name but that’s what my Chinese employers told me the name was…

    Reminds me of last year’s Lion Dance in HCMC

    Have you seen a lion dance before?
    Dave @ Travel Transmissions recently posted..How Traveling Will Save the WorldMy Profile

    1. James Post author

      Thanks, Dave! I love the word “penchant”. Except every time I use it, I end up pronouncing it the French way (merci beaucoup! high school French) and so sound quite snobbish. Sigh…

      Yes, the envelopes are for lucky money. In Vietnamese, the practice is called “li xi”.

      Cool video of the lion dance! I saw one this year but it wasn’t as acrobatic. I wonder what those performers do the other 51 weeks of the year?

    1. James Post author

      Thanks, Cosmo! I took most of these at the “flower show” so people were in a picture taking mood, replete with crazy dork poses. If someone was taking a photo of them, I just jumped in there (like the old lady, doing a pose with her glasses!). If I wanted face shots, I asked and I think people were in such a good mood, no one said “no”. I definitely asked when taking photos of kids. Usually, I have problems getting photos of sellers because there’s a fair amount of superstition that it’ll bring bad luck. In those situations, two golden words: telephoto lens!


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