The street haircut is not unique to Ho Chi Minh City, but for centuries, the streets of Saigon have been filled with these lone businessmen, servicing the community whilst fighting the heat, weather, and evolution of the city to stay in business and make a living.
Having lived in Ho Chi Minh City for almost a decade, I have ridden past these street haircut services around the city, and in the countryside, and not given them a second thought. When I get a haircut, I like the relaxation of a cool room, pleasant smells of the creams and lotions, and quietness of a room closed off to the outside traffic. But I just didn’t know what I was missing by avoiding the street barbers in Ho Chi Minh City.
In a backstreet of District 1, Vinh stands under a makeshift canopy. Every morning around 8:00 am, he brings his entire haircut operation on his motorbike, chair included, and spends about 30 minutes setting up for the day. Regardless of the weather, Vinh is there at the same time, seven days a week, to ensure anyone wanting a haircut, face shave or ear cleaning will be serviced at his small pavement business.
Opposite his set-up is a café. After saying hello to Vinh, he told me he had two customers waiting and I should go and have a coffee while I was waiting for him to finish. He even offered me the Vietnamese Tuoi Tre newspaper that is available to all his customers every day of the week.
As I sat for coffee while I waited, I was amazed at the flow of men, young and old, that were there. A young man sat and got a haircut, then an older man followed. Another simply stopped to say hello and read the newspaper for a few minutes.
|A man has a haircut at a roadside barbershop in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Ray Kuschert / Tuoi Tre News
Vinh, who comes from the central city of Da Nang, is now 37 years old. He arrived in Ho Chi Minh City 20 years ago with a dream to be successful and create a living for himself, and whilst this small street service may not make him rich, he certainly is a success in the local community.
He gave me a shout as the last customer handed him a small amount of money. I walked across the road to a smiling and energetic man. He doesn’t really speak much English but was so excited that I was able to communicate in Vietnamese.
Even before I sat in the chair, he told me of how he has serviced people from all over the world in his 20 years at this location. People from the U.S., England, Germany, South Korea, and many other countries have all sat in the same chair to have Vinh cut their hair and shave their face.
I was asked if I wanted my hair cut, but I declined and asked for just a face shave. I had not had a shave for a few days, so it was rather thick and heavy. It was going to be a challenge for any barber to clear my face of these whiskers.
As I looked around from the chair, I noticed how little he uses to deliver his services to his customers. Under the canopy of bamboo poles and plastic was a chair that was clearly 20 years old if not more. On the wall was a small mirror and to the left were a few items such as scissors, an electric cutter and other small old tools, plus the daily newspaper. On the floor sat a large red plastic water container that I was to find was the most important part of his service.
Even though meeting Vinh was the best part of my day, his skills were to surprise and delight me in a very unique way. He had no creams or lotions. He began by going to the red bucket on the floor and taking out a very cold wet towel. With it, he vigorously massaged my face and head. It was so cold, but in the hot sun, it brought some relief and surprising comfort.
After just a minute I found the noise of the traffic and the heat of the sun fade away. Vinh continued to massage my face with the support of a cold spray bottle. He was squirting freezing cold water from the bottle onto my hair face then vigorously massaged my face. I assumed this was to soften the whiskers to make it easier to shave.
As I was lying back under the heat of the sun with cold wet hair, time seemed to slow down a little. Then Vinh took a razor and, on my creamless face, began shaving. My trepidation of pending pain never eventuated. It just didn’t hurt like I thought it would. It was a little more intense than a regular shave, but I didn’t feel any pain.
With monotonous regularity, Vinh would grab the icy spray bottle from his red bucket and spray my face. Every time he found an area that was difficult, the spray bottle would chill the skin and he would continue shaving, without any discomfort.
I just seemed to learn so much from these 15 minutes in the chair with Vinh. I learned that this is not just a street haircut business, this is the center of a community. Then, an old man appeared on a bicycle. He took the newspaper and began to read it. At the same time, he was asking questions about me. Vinh replied with a smile, “No he is from Australia and he speaks really good Vietnamese,” to which the old man seemed to smirk and accept like he was accepting me into his community.
Then it was over and with a final wipe with the icy towel, Vinh said, “Finished already!” Normally, at the end, I will ask how much it is and pay the fee with a small tip. On this occasion, I was so overcome by the sense of community, the sense of acceptance, and the skill of this man that I just gave him a larger than expected note and thanked him for his service. I seemed to learn so much in such a short time, but I only learned it because, after 10 years of avoiding it, I lived it.
|Ray Kuschert poses for a welfie with Vinh, owner of a barbershop on the street in Ho Chi Minh City.
For the last decade, I have been riding past the street haircut services and not giving them a thought. What I learned is that these dynamic small businesses operate as a window to the past. They operate as a cornerstone of the local community and they are at the very heart of what Ho Chi Minh City and Vietnam are about, the people and the community.
If you don’t try this service at least once in your life, you will be missing out on a window to the past and a moment in time that will be forever remembered. It won’t be my last experience at a street haircut because the feeling of being part of a community, even for just a few minutes, gave me a feeling that I will never forget, and the shave I got was so much better than I expected.
Love comes in many shapes. The love shown by Vietnam comes from the centuries of struggles when everyone stood hand in hand to make sure everyone got ahead. The street haircut is a lingering part of the past culture when all they had was each other. And today, their numbers might be reducing but the feeling is just as strong. If you are visiting Vietnam, you need to make it a point to visit a street haircut service. In my mind, it’s more than a shave or a haircut, it is a connection to this culture and community, which share love to all.
|A man is pictured having earwax removed at a barbershop on the street in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Ray Kuschert / Tuoi Tre News