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Saigoneer's Favorite Original Photography of 2021

If Vietnam was able to skirt the worst of the pandemic in 2020, that was no longer the case this year, which saw major localities in the country battered by waves of COVID-19 deaths and extended bouts of economic downturn.

Last year, even with tightly restricted international borders, domestic tourism could survive when hospitality enterprises shifted their focus to cater to Vietnamese travelers. However, even that was shut down for the large part of the third and fourth quarters of 2021, though travel has started to pick up this month.

Saigoneer and our contributors went through an autumn of lockdown as well, though the first five months of relative freedom did yield a range of picturesque and fascinating glimpses into local life, such as our first-ever Đà Lạt travel guide, visual documentation of modernist architecture on Phú Quý Island, and a day with Hội An’s jovial octogenarian vegetable vendor.

Here are some of our favorite photographic moments that we published during this year of upheavals:

A spice and dry goods vendor in District 5’s Phùng Hưng Market is busy at work during the days right before Tết. One can feel the excitement in the air as shoppers hurriedly make the stops to procure the last items to prepare for their family’s Tết break.

Immerse in Cho Lon’s pre-Tết busyness through the complete photo essay here. Photos by Giang Phạm.

Across the main town on Phú Quý Island off the Bình Thuận coast, families live in one-story detached houses featuring a diverse array of architectural elements pulled from the country’s collective modernist “vocabulary.” Still, modernist houses on Phu Quy Island have also developed unique traits on their own, with unique quirks and deviations that only exist here.

Feast your eyes on the island’s colorful modernist architecture here. Photos by Alberto Prieto.

Enthusiasts of Vietnamese modernism will probably find Quy Nhơn’s leprosy village a destination of interest as well, though for different reasons than Phú Quý. Here, apart from the architecture, there are important historical events to educate oneself on regarding the country’s complicated relationship with its less fortunate, chronically ill citizens.

Walk around the village via the photos here. Photos by Alberto Prieto.

This photo essay was our first collaboration with young photographer Trương Hoài Vũ, who recently won second prize in the 2021 Royal Society of Biology’s photography competition. Vũ documented the detailed process of how Phú Yên artisans make bamboo basket boats — a step of which involves spreading fresh cow feces across the inner surface to plug the gaps between bamboo strips.

Photos by Trương Hoài Vũ.

A sun-drenched morning on a train platform in Myanmar. Photos by Adrien Jean.

A view of Kim Sơn Bảo Thắng Pagoda, just below the Fansipan summit. View more breathtaking vistas of the mountain here. Photos by Peter Walls.

A ship’s-eye view of a river thoroughfare in the Mekong Delta. Another photo from this Darkroom article has since become a meme, which is one of the best highlights of our year on social media.

Traverse a Mekong Delta canal here. Photos by Alberto Prieto.

In Quy Nhơn, a cemetery is slowly taking over the foot of Vũng Chua mountain, replacing foliage with a tapestry of yellow-and-blue graves. The result is a macabre but visually arresting sight. See more here. Photos by Alberto Prieto.

Devastatingly, we did not eat much street food in 2021 because for most of the year, restaurants could not serve dine-in customers. Luckily, the few times we managed to, the food looked like this. Here, a plate of xôi khâu nhục — with a giant slab of braised pork belly — is being prepared by the cook. Find out where to sample this bastion of decadence here.

Photos by Lê Thái Hoàng Nguyên and Alberto Prieto.

The charming smile of 85-year-old Huỳnh Thị Xuân, Hội An’s oldest vegetable street vendor. Her husband passed away during the war, and none of her relatives are still alive except her two sons and one daughter who are grown up and married, so she lives alone. “Hoi An people treat me warmly as a member of their family. I don’t know how to describe that feeling clearly,” she shares. “I love Hoi An. It is my home. I imagine that when I pass away, I would still see Hoi An.”

Get to know Xuân here. Photos by Nguyên Phan.

The foliage-filled courtyard and cafe at Ươm Art Hub, a new creative commune in Saigon and house for a number of studios. Learn the story behind the hub here. Photos by Lê Thái Hoàng Nguyên.

Bonus

Apart from original photography, our design team has also produced a number of editorial images that have since become Saigoneer favorites — not to toot our own horn too much. Here are some standout picks.

In a city forever embracing new fashion fads, from urban streetwear to unisex styles to sustainable materials, why haven't cải lương tuồng cổ costumes caught on? Sure, there may be some logistical issues, and it wouldn't be as cheap as the latest Uniqlo offering, but we think they would look pretty badass.

Have a look at Saigon Postcard No. 28 here. Illustration by Hannah Hoàng.

There is a sordid market for endangered turtles lurking behind closed communities on Facebook. In this feature, our writer delves into the world of illegal turtle trading and how its existence is detrimental to local turtle populations. The illustration encapsulates the alarming nature of the topic with aplomb.

Read the article here. Illustration by Hannah Hoàng. 

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