Tim Walker’s Vietnam XXXIII

As well as everyday Vietnamese dishes of pork/beef/unidentified meat with vegetation/spices/indescribable heat and rice/noodle, at Loan’s Café Loan specialised in classic Western dishes – hamburgers/fries, steak/sausages, bacon/eggs, etc.

Arriving at the Yen Trang I had noticed, over the other side of the road, as many hotels do in Vietnam, along with basic accommodation a number of these premises were advertising a ‘spa service’ (which I believe is supposed to be more of a makeover/massage service than it is actually immersing oneself in a bubbling bath devoid of bubble-bath, or soap), with many flaunting large headshot posters of a chiselled young man and his svelte ‘60s-style hairdo, advertising, ‘Haircut – $5’…

Although Loan’s Café was only in the early stages of its trading life it was already a hit with many, particularly the kind of arrogant middle-aged Westerner who, although it mightn’t have been above them to travel to a Third World nation, while they were there, they were not going to make any attempt to assimilate the culture, to speak any of the native tongue, to mix with the locals in any way, and they were certainly not be cajoled into eating any of the local food.

…As mentioned, most everything in Vietnam is related to US culture – if you’re White locals seem to assume you’re American and when converting currencies, invariably the translation is to USD (which I then double to reach the approximate NZD value) – meaning that when a poster/billboard reads ‘Haircut – $5’, chances are, it’s somewhere close to 120.000VND, which is actually more like 10NZD, which is still a cheap haircut,  if it’s a good haircut…

As I recall, when I emerged from my room, seedy wreck that I was, in preparation for my fourth (or perhaps fifth) dentist appointment, I had legitimately not eaten for days – this, for someone who typically struggles to go three hours without a sustenance top-up – I therefore wasted no time in heading down the stairs and locking in my order with Loan for the priciest thing on her menu, a ‘Big Breakfast’. This gargantuan meal of sausages, hash browns, eggs, toast, tomatoes, (Vietnamese) mushrooms (which may look peculiar but in fact taste no different to Kiwi mushrooms), came complemented with my very own condiment basket – spices, herbs, and four sauces including tomato – and took me the best part of an hour to eat after which, I had to conclude, it was worth each of the 120 (thousand) dong I had paid for it.

…One morning, freshly showered and shaved (also almost passed out in front of the bathroom mirror, indicating my health still could have used some improvement), I headed over the road to take advantage of one of these ‘$5 Haircuts’. Stepping into the building’s lobby, four women, some seated, some supine, but nobody appearing particularly fussed, eventually acknowledged my entry; the place was dark and, other than for these ladies, the place was deserted. Nonetheless I asked for a haircut. I was shown to a chair. A tall, well-dressed woman with marvellous hair, the woman I expected would be cutting my hair, stood behind me, making a task of covering me with a sheet. “What hair cut you want?” she asked brusquely.

“Two around the sides and back,” I indicated as I spoke, as always, maintaining eye contact in the wall mirror, “cut up quite high at the sides, blended into a short trim on top … Oh and, do the sideburns,” again indicting, “number one, thank you.”

“OK,” the woman looked bemused, as though she had no idea what I’d just said which, honestly, was a little worrying. Another woman, in a shady corner of the room, was fossicking through a well-used cardboard box I’d watched her pull from some cupboards along the wall. I stared through the shadows; it appeared to be a box of hair-clipper attachments. This lady stood and laboriously walked towards the tall woman and me, chirruping something to the woman at my rear. The other two women could be seen mooching about the premises, sometimes sitting, often chatting, usually watching, but never really doing much else. Suddenly the lady behind me was speaking loudly in what sounded like admonishment. The one carrying the haircutting equipment stopped, turned, dropped to her knees and started rummaging on the floor, through a pile of what appeared to be hair-clippers. Selecting one set from the tangled mass she resumed her steady approach, while the lady at my back breathed menacingly down my neck. The two exchanged more words then the taller woman moved aside. I looked in the mirror at the laboriously-walking newcomer; I didn’t want her cutting my hair. As she raised her eyes to meet my gaze I admit, I struggled to hold eye contact; I genuinely wasn’t sure which of her two differently-angled eyes my eyes ought to be contacting. Lazy eyes (or some other issue, I didn’t inquire) notwithstanding I didn’t want this woman cutting my hair. I heard the clippers start. They sounded awful; underpowered, undermaintained, underperforming. Right now, I didn’t want anyone cutting my hair.

Too late. She’d slipped on a comb and had already hacked into the hair at the back. This was horrible; the blades – moving sluggishly as the were – were clearly blunt. Where a good Kiwi hairdresser can have the back and sides down to a number two in a few minutes, this woman took a few minutes just to perform one stroke/swathe/blow. The tall lady was positioned to the side, overseeing the job and suddenly stepped forward to halt the lazy-eyed woman. I heard stifled snickering behind me and felt my neck again become hot with exasperation/infuriation. The lady performing the cut leaned around beside me and showed me the clippers. She took off the comb, held it up, as if for clarification, and asked, “This?”

I looked down; without my glasses and in he murk of this room I couldn’t see a lot anyway. I studied the comb; I thought I understood. “Yes,” I said, nodding, “this is number one … This do sideburns.” I drew the comb quickly over my sideburns in demonstration, then handed it back to her. She clipped the comb on the clippers and attempted to run them up the side of my face. They gripped, they bumped; she drew them back and tried again. She held the clippers more forcefully; this time, fighting to keep my head upright, the clippers gripped and crinkled the skin of my face, but still the comb refused to slide. “It’s because I’ve just shaved,” I pointed out, “the skin is moist, smoother, you have to lift the comb more onto the points.” (For the record, I always shave before haircuts in NZ and they never seem to have too much trouble; I just know what it’s like from my own sideburn-trimming experience.) Unsure if the woman had interpreted what I had just said – far be it for me to be offering hair-cutting advice to a ‘hairdresser’ anyway – I sat and tensely awaited this hairdresser’s next movement. She clearly had no idea what she was doing; looking, tentatively cutting, assessing, unsteadily trimming, reassessing – regarding hairstyling this woman appeared clueless. The tall lady returned holding a picture of a classically handsome man wearing a clean-cut, classically handsome hairstyle, not unlike the one that I usually wear. She showed it to me; I smiled, nodded and gave affirmation. She then showed it to my lazy-eyed hairdresser who also nodded and went back to work.

Alas with each stroke/swathe/blow taking around ten minutes the haircut was a time-consuming procedure; with each pointless, time-wasting action I saw occur before my eyes in the mirror, and the delayed, time-wasting reaction I saw follow it, I felt myself becoming increasingly agitated. At one point, such was my disbelief at my hairdresser’s incompetency, I recall turning to the taller woman – who was always looking on – and demanding, “This is ridiculous, has this woman even cut hair before?!”

To which another of the four women replied, “Yes, she has cut, four hairs.”

“Four hairs,” I muttered to myself, “fucking wonderful.”

About an hour after the nightmare had begun, after I had instructed the incompetent hairdresser precisely what she needed to do before she could consider the haircut complete, I stood and walked to the front to pay (I’d had a lot of time to consider and had decided that I must suppress the compulsion to just walk out). From what I could tell the job was as much done as it was ever going to be therefore, much as I didn’t believe the situation warranted it, I was obligated to pay. I removed a 100 and a 20 dong note, handed them to the tall lady at the desk then in a calm voice said, simply, “That was awful … If you are going to advertise five dollar haircuts, you at least need someone who knows how to cut hair and, for God’s sake, get some decent bloody equipment.”

The lady smiled and took my money although, as I walked toward the exit, I swear I heard them snickering at me.

I walked back past Loan’s Café and warmly acknowledged Loan, sitting out front with her husband, not a customer to be seen. “You buy something now?” Loan jokingly inquired as I passed.

“Ga kohm tien (Have no money),” I jested in response.

“You can’t use that on me,” she laughed, “I taught you that!”

“Doi kohm hew (I don’t understand),” I fired back, as I climbed the stairs.

Walking past the main desk I smiled at the receptionist, Thao (remember, ‘Towel’; Thao worked mornings while Lieu came on after 3 p.m.), then took the stairs to my room. I collapsed onto my bed, closed my eyes then ran my hands over and around the back of my head; my hair was a mess, I didn’t need to see it to know that.

Given the current state of my health, given all that had taken place that morning, I was questioning why I hadn’t just stayed in bed.



Article by Tim Walker

Edited by Bosch D Hare-Cot

Photography by Celia Woman

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