Hidden smile in Vietnam

By Réhahn

When the world thinks of Vietnam we might think this country has endured so much hardship that surely it doesn’t feature on the ‘Happiness Richter Scale’. With its complex history and often mysterious culture, it’s easy to think the people here might be too sad inside to be considered a smiling nation. Like many others we are sure, before coming to this country, all that was known to us about Vietnam was what we had seen through the eyes of the media. All the movies we’d ever seen were about the war. Therefore, it might come as a surprise to most to discover Vietnam was ranked fifth on the Happy Planet Index and second in the Asia Pacific region. Characterized by its tropical forests and mountains, Vietnam has a strikingly low Ecological Footprint. It also has an impressive average life expectancy compared to other countries.
Source http://happyplanetindex.org/countries/vietnam
Hidden Smile of Cham girl

Behind the smile

Almost every dictionary describes the definition of a smile as ‘a pleased expression, typically with the corners of the mouth turned up and the teeth exposed’. So if there’s one thing we can all agree on it’s that all people smile in the same language.

However, we all know that a smile can hide many different emotions and can change many different situations. A smile is a powerful tool. It can break the ice in an awkward situation and we all know too well that the lack of a smile can also feel as cold as ice. Which makes one wonder, what kind of emotions can lie behind a smile?

No black teeth, no marriage

There are interesting tales related to the Vietnamese smile that date back centuries, prior to the first Hindu Cham settlers making their home in Vietnam during the 7th century AD. It was a common belief among Vietnamese that only evil spirits, savages and wild animals had long white teeth. At adolescence, females would be taught to file and blacken their teeth so that they would not be mistaken for an evil spirit. The painful annual blackening of the teeth process became an essential part of the beauty ritual, but as the colour began to fade, women started looking for new ways to prolong the effect.

The answer came from the Cham people who introduced the Areca (Betel) nut to the Vietnamese. When chewed, the Betel quid causes a mild and slightly addictive stimulating effect. The side results are red lips, blushed cheeks and blackened teeth. It wasn’t long before a whole new beauty industry was born and the Betel nut became a crucial part of Vietnamese culture. Children were taught from a young age to prepare the mixture of lime powder, Betel leaf and nut into what is known as the quid and to keep stocks replenished to welcome visitors to their home.

An old proverb that still stands strong today is ‘No betel quid – no courtship, no marriage’. The tradition is so deeply rooted in society, that it is considered an element of prestige and is a large part of the Vietnamese national identity.

The inspiration

Réhahn has set about interpreting what lies behind a smile with his collection of portrait photos titled The Hidden Smile. He believes that smiling is a global way to express emotion, a universal language. A smile has the ability to make people comfortable and often a smile from a stranger can lift one out of a dark and negative space.

But he sees beyond the physical, muscle-tensing of the face. He focuses on the details that are left behind after years of smiling, the details that are written by the wrinkles around the eyelids and the deep lines in the hands. A person’s life story leaves an imprint on the body and the human face mirrors this life story.

Hidden Smile of Hmong lady

Réhahn’s own journey of the Hidden Smile Project started by accident in the summer of 2011 in Hoi An, central Vietnam when he met Mrs. Bui Thi Xong, a 74 year old lady who features on the cover of Réhahn first successful book called “Vietnam, Mosaic of contrasts” and now in the “Hidden smile”
At that time, Réhahn was a tourist with a keen interest in Vietnam. During his photographic explorations, he met this lovely old lady while walking along the riverside and, instinctively drawn to her, hopped onto her boat.

Hidden smileFirst shot of Madam Xong before the famous one

Madam Xong, as she’s affectionately called by Réhahn is a sampan boat owner whose present day job is to ferry tourists along the waterways of her hometown, Hoi An. She was very warm and welcoming towards him. He asked her if he could take her portrait. With a shy response, she awkwardly obliged and after seeing her own photo, started giggling and covered her smile with one hand. This action inspired Réhahn to take another picture of her in this pose and then she covered her mouth with one hand and her forehead with the other pretending to hide.

Hidden Smile

Framing her eyes to do the smiling, the birth of the “Hidden smile” project began. At that moment neither of them realized that this photo would later become one of the most iconic photos in Vietnam and now the world. Her expression was so intriguing and inspiring to him. Even though her smile is hidden, there’s so much written on her face.

It turns out that covering your mouth as you smiled is a common action for the females in Vietnam, especially among elders.

Hidden smile in Sapa

Here in Vietnam, it’s common for elders to cover their mouths when they are speaking, giggling softly or laughing uncontrollably. When people are shy, they cover their mouths with their hands. A lot of older people in Vietnam, through hardships have lost their front teeth so they also cover their mouths. But besides this, look closely at the eyes, the hands and the face. What stories can you imagine about this woman’s life?

Hidden smile in Mu Cang Chai

Réhahn, who specializes in portrait photography, started seeing the smile in a different way. He saw that the whole face is an expression. Every crease where the smile forms leaves a map of lines that tells many stories. Madam Xong’s smile radiated through her eyes and her lined face and hands tell the story of her journey, a beautiful, yet mysterious portrait typical of the photographer’s style, leaving the viewer to interpret their own meaning.

When Madam Xong’s portrait was launched to the world by the international media, it was met with many questions. We wanted to know more about this woman. Who is she? Why is she covering her smile? All these questions were really inspiring to the photographer so in response he published a series of portraits under title ‘The Hidden Smile’ featuring both the young and old in similar poses, which he selected from a backlog of photographs taken over the last eight years, representing people from every corner of Vietnam.

Hidden Smile by Rehahn


The aim of the project is to publish a book with at least 100 intriguing and provocative photos of Vietnamese people hiding their smiles. This concept has never been addressed before and concerns mainly Vietnamese women who, for many reasons such as modesty, politeness or discomfort, use their hands to cover their mouth when they laugh or receive a compliment. It’s also aimed at making people aware of how powerful a smile can be.

Réhahn wants the viewer to make their own conclusions as to what lies behind the covered smile. He wants to leave people guessing, but most of all he wants people to look at the face and realize there’s a deeper story to be told, a story that can be discovered through the Hidden Smile.

Rehahn at the Women Museum

Some of the best Hidden Smiles are in the permanent collection of the Women’s Museum in Hanoi

Réhahn is an artist who is passionate about his appreciation of Vietnamese culture and heritage. His work is a documentation of the beauty that surrounds him and is not up for political debate. Thank you for being respectful of the sensitivities within this beautiful and rich culture.