Where the sound of scissors is especially sweet

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Barbers from a Hanoi district known as "haircut village" want to see the traditional trade returned to its glory days

Free haircuts being given the haircut festival in Hanoi's Kim Lien Village on April 24, 2013

From a nearby corner, Pham Duy Hao, 56, happily observes dozens of barbers simultaneously giving free haircuts.

The clatter of scissors and razors harmonizes with the sound of water being sprayed as clusters of hair fall onto the white shawls draped over the shoulders of the lucky customers, whose hairstyles are being transformed with each click of the scissors.

Hao, however, is not the barbers' boss nor the event's organizer, but the most well-known hairstylist from Kim Lien, known as "haircut village," in Hanoi's Dong Da District.

The free haircuts are not a promotion put on by a local shampoo producer, but part of activities which celebrate and attempt to revive the village's traditional art during the third lunar month each year.

This year, the festival took place on April 24, attracting barbers and hairstylists from 22 northern cities and provinces.

Hao, a fourth generation member from a family of barbers, has won the village's annual haircut contest three years in a row.

"My only wish is to have the next generations pursue the art," said Hao, who has experienced all kinds of ups and downs since becoming a barber.

His grandfather was a personal barber to Bao Dai (1913-1997), the last monarch of Nguyen Dynasty who ruled from 1926 to 1945, and father was head of the Dong Tien Barber's Cooperative. Hao has traveled far and wide, even abroad, in his quest to master the scissors.

According to Hao, an experienced barber should be able to replicate the same haircut for customers repeatedly if they are disinterested updating their hairstyles. But at the same time, gifted barbers must always keep abreast of the latest hair fashions, which are always changing, especially those which come from more developed countries.

In addition, a skilled barber should be able to create hairstyles that compliment customers' facial features.

Hao learned the art as a boy from other senior barbers in the village, where the trade has been popular since the early 20th century.

"The way a barber holds his scissors indicates how skillful he is," he said.

According to Pham Duy Coc, who has been a barber for more than 60 years, during the village's golden era, thousands of people were able to find work as barbers.

"During that time the whole village, old to young, had no other jobs, besides barbering," said Coc. "Even nowadays, the people depend on cutting hair to survive, especially when they are desperate."

Barbering revival

The village reached its height in popularity as a haircut hub between 1954 and 1968, which propelled the careers of several barbers who went on to open hair salons in other areas.

In the 1970s and 1980s, about 80 percent of local residents made their living cutting hair. Now only 10 percent work in the trade.

A barber, who attended this year's festival and wished to remain anonymous, refers to himself as one of Kim Lien Village's "adopted barbers," as he hails from another village but learned the art from Kim Lien locals.

"To visit Kim Lien is to bring myself to the source. As a young hairstylist, I never forgot where I learned the art," he said.

"In the past, it was difficult working in the cooperative, where barbers were reprimanded the minute they created a new hairstyle. However, customers still preferred the Kim Lien barbers because we knew how to give the best haircut," said Hao.

The difficulty nowadays, Hao said, is to find a place where barbers can express themselves creativity.

"I am lucky that I have my own hair salon, while so many barbers have to work for others, or as street barbers on sidewalks or in apartment buildings," said Hao.

According to Vu Hoa Huy, president of the Union of Northern Haircut Clubs founded last November in Hanoi, the union's launch was the first step toward uniting local barbers and to establish a national barber's day.

However, according to one hairstylist who has worked and studied abroad, hairstylists are a tough bunch to unite. "It is not easy to ask them to respect each other and bring them into unity."

Therefore, Hao thinks it is more practical to prioritize promoting Kim Lien as a haircut village. "Though the local government promises to revive the trade and return us to our previous status as a working haircut village, I think that day is still far away," said the best barber of Kim Lien.

"I am afraid that without taking action the trade will have soon fade away, and then we will have lost the chance to revive it," said Hao, who like other villagers, dreams of seeing several hair salons on every street and would also like to see museum built that would be dedicated to village's hallowed history of barbering.

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