The 100-year haircut

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A young barber from Kim Lien Village cuts a customer's hair in an open air barber shop

The next time you need a haircut in Hanoi, eschew the high-end, luxurious salons.

Instead, make your way to Kim Lien Village (Phuong Lien Ward, Dong Da District) just a twenty minute amble from Lenin Park.

If you're lucky you'll find a barber from the century-long birthplace of the nation's barbers. If you're not in the mood to wander, take my Uncle Minh's advice and go see Pham Duy Hao. "He's not only a good barber," Minh told me. "He's a cute, funny, little guy."

Nestled behind the cluttered clothing clothes stalls in Kim Lien's second-hand market, Duy Hao Hairdressing Shop doesn't bear any outward signs of belonging to a local master. But once Hoa's scissors are out and snipping, Hoa will unfold Kim Lien Village's great legacy like a hot towel.

"I am the third generation in my family doing this work," Hao said, as he worked. "My grandfather Pham Duy Hien was among the first barbers in Kim Lien Village; he opened the first barber shop in Hanoi nearly a century ago when he was just 19-year-old."

Hao swelled through the tiny shop as he recalled his ancestral past. "My grandfather's skill brought him the great honor of an invitation from King Bao Dai to come to his citadel in Hue and work as the private barber for the royal family," he said. "The king was so pleased with his skill that he took my grandfather with him on all his trips, even abroad. Thanks to the king, my grandfather earned enough to buy a big house and provide a rich life for his family in Hanoi."

After some political upheavals, Hao's grandfather left the palace and opened a chain of lucrative barber shops on Hang Quat and Hang Dao streets. He soon became the man to see about a haircut.

Hao can recall his grandfather belonging to a dapper circle of barbers who dressed like silent film heartthrobs. They wore felt hats, smoked wooden pipes, and maintained meticulous bi-bop hairdos in the style of King Bao Dai imagine a sort of slicked-back mini-pompadour sans height.

While Hanoi's famous barber class enjoys numerous stars, no one knows precisely who pioneered it all.

"According to Tu Hinh, who used to be a famous barber and now is tending the village's pagoda, no one knows who the ancestor of our hairdressing trade is," Hao said.

Hao introduced Thanh Nien Weekly to a pair of veteran barbers. These old-timers said that in feudal times, when Vietnamese men twisted long, luxurious hair into chignons, Kim Lien Village became the place to come for a shave.

Most of this work was done out of the home, Mau and Hien agreed. In their eyes, the trade took off with the arrival of the French at the end of the 19th century.

"The French guys brought scissors or clippers," 84-year-old Nguyen Van Mau remembered. "They heard about us and came to instruct us on the use of these new tools. Some of our Vietnamese customers were gradually influenced by their style."

Sixty-nine-year-old Nguyen Duc Hien is one of the few veteran barbers still working now. He clearly recalls the heyday of Kim Lien's barbers. "When the French came, we started to open a lot of shops in Cot Co Street to serve them," Hien recalled. "These foreign clients were very finicky. Before working on their hair, we had to clean every tool with boiling water and alcohol. They wanted their ears covered with cotton and asked to have scented water sprayed on their hair. When finished, they demanded that not a trace of hair be left on their clothes."

Because most of their customers were French and aristocratic Vietnamese, Kim Lien barbers at that time all learned to speak some French. "Thanks to the high standard of these foreign customers, we always strove to become perfect barbers with professional manners. These demands made Kim Lien barbers famous throughout the country," Mau added.

Beyond all the pomp, Hien says it was their sense of humor that really hooked the city's elite. "Besides learning hair design, we had to figure out how to make our customers feel at ease. We told jokes and funny stories while we cut their hair," he said. "Our customers came from different cultures and varied economic and social positions; we had to learn how to be able to talk to all of them."

From the early 1950s to the late 1960s, Kim Lien's hairdressing trade hit its peak. The town's barbers enjoyed so much renown, they were able to leave Hanoi and establish businesses based on their hometown's reputation. In the capital, barbers grouped themselves into a collective managed by Hao's father.

"I started helping my father at his barber-shop when I was just a kid," Hao remembered. "Anyone who wanted to work there had to pass an entrance exam and attend a course. I aced the first course, but I had to pass a few advanced placement exams to become a first-class barber the highest-paid honor."

Hao looks much younger than his fifty-plus years. His short hair is streaked with ruby-red highlights and quick, delicate hands. He carries a fanciful, stylish air about himself. Hoa says he needs just an instant to determine what haircut you need. Today, Hao is free to improvise with hair and take his time experimenting. He remembers a time when he served around 30 customers per eight-hour shift. "At that time everyone wanted the same haircut," Hao said. "If we were inspired by a beautiful face and added a few flourishes, they docked our pay."

As the capital continues to open up to the global economy, Kim Lien's youth has its sights set on white-collar work. Many of them have turned away from their ancestors' trade.

"In the 1970s and 1980s, 80 percent of our village was still doing the job," Hao said. "Now that figure has shrunk to around 10 percent (about 200 people)."

The remaining barbers have had to equip their shops with modern tools and techniques to meet evolving customer demands. Yesterday's barbers are now known as hair designers. Gone are the men who would arrive at your door carrying their wooden toolboxes offering a simple shave.

Now they are confined to open sidewalk stalls struggling to continue their line.

This spring, Kim Lien's remaining barbers went head-tohead in an exciting hair design competition. The event was held to honor their traditional trade and encourage young people to follow in their ancestors' footsteps.

A hairdressers club was also introduced on this occasion.

The chairman of Phuong Lien Ward's People's Committee, Bui Minh Hoang, has expressed a desire to preserve the barbers in Kim Lien. Hoang personally called on villagers to organize the competition. When we asked what he would do next, the young chairman said that he wanted to have a small street here dedicated to the preservation of the town trade.

Veteran barber Pham Duy Hao says he's willing to open a class to teach the traditional job to the next generation.

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