A cut above the rest : Vietnam’s outdoor barbers snip locks while dodging the law
With increasing state efforts to remove peddlers from the streets, the traditional roadside barbers of Hanoi find ways to keep their trade alive
Text and Photos Claudio Sieber
Downtown of the Vietnamese capital. It’s early morning, but there’s already a commotion: vendors being chased off the pavement by police cleanups looking to achieve the uncluttered streets characteristic of a developed country. It’s also a common sight across Jakarta and Bangkok, but here in Hanoi, alongside hawkers and flower sellers, another type of entrepreneurial citizen goes running: the street barber.
Today’s barbers might be ex-soldiers or unemployed Vietnamese scraping a living together, but they share the same humble beginnings with some of the country’s finest hairstylists, whose families have lived for years in the Dong Da district’s Kim Lien “barber village”. Between the 1970s and 1980s, almost three-quarters of the village comprised barbers, and the skills of this particular profession have been passed down from generation to generation among its residents.
Initially forced by the economic recession to venture downtown into city boulevards, this legion of self-taught barbers – armed with the tools for a quick, no-frills chop – quickly transformed entire streets into portable salons, and established themselves as a mainstay in Hanoi’s street peddling scene. Eventually, many rose up the ranks to become renowned hairstylists. This heritage is celebrated in an annual festival in April, with village hairdressers offering stylish free haircuts.
Outside of these celebrations, the tradition of street barbers continues strong today, with ad-hoc trims happening in parks and out of suitcases for the princely sum of between
USD1 to USD4 (the exact amount depending on your relationship with the barber and on his repute). Many Vietnamese still value a frugal snip, so barbers continue to ply their trade despite new fines from police, says Trần Quốc Cường Libor, a Czech-educated, self-taught barber. Cường studied to be a machinist as a young man, but found no work on his return. Instead, he learnt hair-cutting skills by practising on mannequin heads for a solid month, then set out to rid pavements, back alleys and car parks of split ends. The 54-year-old now tackles six heads of hair a day, and watches movies on his phone the rest of the time. He likes that his job is relaxing.
Of course, owners of barbershops (often with the sign cắt tóc nam, or “men’s haircuts”) resent their unregulated counterparts for shirking rent, taxes and work registrations. But living on the run is hardly paradise. Cường aspires to afford his own shop someday, but until his – and many other street barbers’ – dreams come true, their close shaves with Hanoi police will continue.
For more stories and photographs from this issue, see Asian Geographic Issue 131, 2018