Saigon’s street barbers are humble and cultured, aging with the walls of the city. By Ruben Luong. Photos by Vinh Dao.
A faint staccato of metal snips sends a trail of hair to the concrete sidewalk, and street barber Diep, 58, shuffles to his left, fluttering a comb and scissors with coarse, sunspotted hands.
“I’ve been cutting hair for more than 20 years,” he says. He tilts his head to assess his handiwork and grins, revealing an overbite punctuated by a protruding golden tooth that contrasts the silver spears in his hand. “I prefer to cut hair on the street because it’s cool outside and customers can walk by.”
A mirror on a deterioriating wall, no more than half a dozen small hair tools and a black chair on the sidewalk earn Diep and Saigon’s street barbers a modest living at around VND 20,000-VND 35,000 per cut.
But if there is anything street barbers should be proud of, it is that they are loyal to their profession. Every morning from 8am to 5pm, Diep sets up on Nguyen Binh Khiem Street, where he’s stationed his makeshift awning and streetside vanity for 24 years.
Other street barbers have likewise endured, whether side-by-side, like on Nguyen Khac Nhu Street, niched within a narrow hem on Nguyen Van Nguyen Street or roadside on Ton Duc Thang Street, but there are always the trees, shade and crumbling walls that seem to age with them.
Certainly street barbers are remnants of an old-fashioned set in Vietnam. Street barbering was the tradition, particularly in Hanoi, where 18th-century colonialists encouraged Vietnamese men to cut their hair to suit modern times.
The barber culture in Saigon paints a similarly stately picture of humble, earnest gentlemen but also inherently industrious, self-made and well-discoursed in current events.
“I learned how to cut hair from a few friends,” says Diep, who moved from the north to live a more comfortable life. “It’s not hard at all. It’s my job and so I choose to do it. And when I don’t have any customers, I’ll wait by reading the newspaper or books.”
The sight of a newspaper is at once indicative of their generation. Although students from down the street also get their haircuts from Diep, most customers are men of the same age, both regulars and passersby who pull up on their motorbikes, park and wait on stools with newspapers.
“Mot dau duoc khong?” a customer cries to Diep from a motorbike, asking if there’s room for him to cut his hair.
Much like the morning and afternoon coffee circles among office workers, waiting and socialising with Saigon’s street barbers is a comfortable experience. They are classic companions for the outdoors, where it’s free, close to nature and life in the city.
“We talk about jobs, companies or current events,” says street barber Ngoc, 46, who also offers newspapers and reading material for his customers as everyday conversation starters. “Most recently I remember the conversations I had with customers about Vietnam’s relations with China, the recent storms, traffic accidents, things like that.”
Ngoc, a lively man from Saigon with an infectious laugh, quit a job in construction and apprenticed for eight years under a barber, now 85 with a long grey beard and big belly, before setting up his own spot for another 24 years.
“My customers like high hairstyles, clean and professional,” Ngoc says from his current spot on Nguyen Van Thu Street in D3. He has around 10 to 15 customers per day. “I used to have a few foreign customers. They were Americans and French who lived around the corner, but it’s been awhile since I’ve seen them. They must have left the country already!”
For as many customers that they’ve seen in their lifetime, street barbers seem to remember faces well. However they are just as memorable even after a brief visit, if not for the debate they inspire or the heritage they represent, but for their mirror on the wall, where they can always be found.