Sat inside this 10ft by 10ft room with peeling sky blue walls, I have been watching my boyfriend Gareth getting the whole works from a twenty-something Vietnamese girl with pink pouty lips. Like all the other men in the room, he is lying down on a creaky black leather reclining chair. One middle aged gentleman has already been seen to so is enjoying the last few minutes he has before he must venture into the sticky Saigon afternoon. Another man is waiting for Pouty Girl to finish with Gareth and work her magic, giving him his weekly going-over, I’d imagine. Two men are on the other side of the room, each has their own girl in tight jeans who panders to their every whim. And to think, we only came here for a haircut.
It appears that male grooming in Vietnam has occasionally been something to write home about, in fact, historically, getting a hair cut has lead to some blokes receiving a bit more than just a smacked bottom from mummy and daddy.
Near the end of the Chinese occupation of Vietnam, in the 1600’s, Vietnamese men began to distinguish themselves from Chinese men by growing their hair long, in stark contrast to the traditional ‘do’ of choice, which was the front of the head shaved and a ponytail at the back.
When the French settled in Vietnam in the late 18thcentury they brought with them their legendary sense of style and shorter hair. Over time, Vietnamese men employed by the French would mimic their employer’s look by cutting their hair short. This conflicted with many people’s beliefs in Confucian principles, one being that parents had to give their consent as to whether the young man could cut off his hair. Those who didn’t ask their parents first were at times chastised by their elders; known as the crime of ‘lack of filial piety’, which could be punishable by whipping.
This quandary of ‘to cut or not to cut’ took place as recently as the 1920’s when the son of a government minister, Ton That Canh, was given ‘10 strokes with a cane’ by his father for not having his approval beforehand. Even to this day in Vietnam filial piety is considered a noble trait to possess.
The sky blue walls of the Hot Toc, or Barbers, are plastered in posters of modern Vietnamese teenage boys with quiffs, mohawks and curtains adorning their delicate young features. The men being pandered to are wearing paper-thin white masks mid-facial, while the girls in tight jeans are massaging their sparklingly clean scalps.
As soon as we arrived at the Hot Toc Gareth was beckoned to sit down. He was immediately seen to by a short, clean shaven young man who motioned for Gareth to explain what he wanted. Just a trim. Out came the scissors, and the young man confidently snipped away at Gareth’s black locks. Then the electric razor was raised towards his head. At this point I locked eyes with Gareth in the mirror, doing my best to reassure him he wasn’t being given a skinhead.
The young man was almost done but he decided that before he was satisfied, Gareth still needed his unkempt side burns clipped along with his nose hairs and uni-brow. While this was all going on Gareth had noticed that the rest of the men in the room were getting some extras; a wet shave, an ear clean, not to mention the multiple facials going down. He wanted to get in on the action.
The young man summoned Pouty Girl over and told her what to give Gareth. With a nod, she flattened out the barber chair until Gareth was horizontal and pooled her tools for a wet shave. Like a painter creating their masterpiece, each drag of the blade was carefully choreographed, the residue then lobbed onto the floor. The last drop of shaving cream was wiped off Gareth’s chin and he looked a million dong.
Pouty Girl then dragged a light stand across the room, like a bulldozer lugging black hair as it scrapped over the floor. The light stand was hastily plugged into the wall socket and instruments of torture were slowly pulled out of a drawer, glistening in the bright light that now shone down Gareth’s ear hole.
Meticulously, Pouty Girl stuck what looked like a blunt dagger inside Gareth’s ear, gradually pulled it back out, then wiped it against a fat cotton wool bud. Her lips were even more pouty as she showed the focus of a brain surgeon. Before she entered him again, she diped the blunt dagger end into a small white bottle of clear liquid. This process lasted for 15 minutes and each time she went inside Gareth his whole body tensed, knowing that one slip of the hand could leave him with more than just the haircut he came in for.
The lamp is switched off and Pouty Girl leaves Gareth to sit up and admire himself in the mirror, and for him to discreetly get the 40,000 dong together before we’re allowed to leave. For me, there’s only so much male grooming I can take, so this week I have decided I am getting a manicure, pedicure and my straw hair chopped off, mainly just to bring balance back to the universe.