23 May 2024

Faced with modernity, makeshift barber shops along the streets of Vietnam are now dwindling in number. The few that remain, however, still continue to represent the old-world charm that regular habitués have come to love and enjoy.

Along the streets in Saigon and Hanoi, many entrepreneurial barbers work day or night under the shade of a tree or an improvised canopy, snipping and shaving, often with little more than a few grooming tools, and a small mirror attached to the wall with a single rusty hook.

They continue this trade that has, over the years, become part of a tradition which, by some accounts, dates back to many generations.

These sidewalk barbers are not only experts in hair styling but also in entertaining their customers with their sense of humor.

Grooming tradition

A haircut, both for men and women, are very important in Vietnamese culture. “Good grooming for us connotes having a nice and clean set of teeth, and a well-styled and nicely cut hair,” shared one local.

Barbers operating in small makeshift salons along the streets of Vietnam are now a common sight where an assortment of daily activities happens – from eating and cooking to child rearing.

In this part of the world, having a haircut out in the open is not something to be shy about.

“It is part of the local tradition,” said Fritz, a long-time European customer, after having his haircut in one of these roadside salons. “I feel very relaxed, very comfortable. I keep coming back because they are my friends,” he said, referring to the barber and ladies selling foods and drinks nearby.

He said that the people are very friendly and accommodating, providing relaxation and familiarity. “And the price is very affordable,” he added.

Lively atmosphere

Vietnam’s roadside barbershops, indeed, make up for the lack of the luxury and comfort offered in expensive salons with their friendliness and familiarity.

In a spot where a lot of activities are happening, other services are also offered aside from cutting hair, such as nose hair trimming and ear waxing.

Food and drinks are also available, along with the lively conversations with some locals and other customers.

“Even when one does not need a haircut, one can just sit around these people and engage in lively conversations. Topics range from politics, current news, and even local gossips,” said Nicolas, a band musician.

Modernity threats

Sidewalk clearing campaigns, which began in 2017, have contributed to putting some sidewalk barbers out of business in Vietnam, as many were no longer allowed to take up space in sidewalks.

“The initiative shows how the concept of modernity can change the landscape of a country,” said Pui, a university student. He said that the campaign aims to transform the city streets of Vietnam into clean and modern spaces like Singapore.

Fortunately, not all roadside barbers have been displaced. There are still some who are still allowed to operate, thanks to some business owners who do not mind having the roadside salons nearby.

“It adds a certain charm to the atmosphere,” confided one restaurant owner.

Evolving beauty standards influenced by foreign trends also contribute to the declining patronage.

“Some customers now prefer going to expensive salons, and they view sidewalk barbers as crude and old-fashioned,” lamented one sidewalk barber in Saigon.

Street clearing

Meanwhile in Thailand, the fun street vibe is what tourists always find fascinating, especially the food stalls and vendors along the roads.

“Every time I visit Bangkok, I make sure to visit my favorite food stalls, especially those ambulant noodle shops gathered along the streets at night,” said Eileen, who had spent more than 10 years in Thailand as a PR professional.

She is also a fan of the street night markets. “However, many things have changed and I no longer see some of those street-side shops that I used to frequent,” she added.

Just recently, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) has cleared street vendors from the footpaths along Lang Suan Road in Pathumwan district. According to one BMA official, “The move was to return the sidewalks to pedestrians.”

The ban was enforced by Bangkok Deputy Governor Jakkapam Phiewngan, who visited the area to inspect work on improving the footpaths near Chit Lom intersection.

Street vendors had been allowed to occupy certain stretches of the sidewalks on Lang Suan Road from 6 am to 3 pm.

Unique charm

What makes Southeast Asia generally appealing is its unique street-side charm, with its sidewalk vendors, ambulant kitchens, and roadside barbershops that win the hearts of visitors.

“These sidewalk businesses, while facing immense challenges, continue to remain loyal to their trade and their customers. I think they should be appreciated for the charm that they lend to the locality,” concluded Aaron, a frequent visitor.

(This story is part of a series of articles about the vanishing cultural traditions in Southeast Asia.)