he fire-damaged old building, which has been the family home and business for the last three generations, is an embarrassment to him. So much so that he won’t give his name or allow photographs to be taken inside the house. So let’s call him The Barber.
The Barber comes from a long line of barbers. The family’s four generation trade is irrevocably marked in stone on the family building; an impressively decrepit old three-storey house on the corner of Hang Bong and Quan Su. Hieu Hot Toc va Nha Tam is part of the brickwork, etched in the kind of art-deco font Europeans these days reserve for cinemas and theatres.
The building echoes the grandeur of the past but shows decay throughout: the family’s fortunes wrapped up in their house and business. The original wooden beams that used to hold up the outside awning are now just charred stubs thanks to an electrical fire in the 1980s. For 30 years, the family hasn’t had enough money to fix it and the upper two storeys of the house have been propped up on the inside by a network of scaffolding. The building’s public shower room is long gone.
Stepping over the original tiles that The Barber’s grandfather installed three generations ago, customers head straight to the high-ceilinged room’s only chair: the same Japanese-made chair that The Barber’s grandfather bought from a French colonialist three generations ago. The chair’s original red has been rubbed to a fascinating yellow by three generations of customers who would’ve enjoyed its built-in ashtray. The central cushion is split up the middle by three generations of bums whose owners would have chatted with three generations of The Barber’s family or read whatever newspaper happened to be lying on the thick wooden table facing them.
The Barber has always taken part in the family business. His father taught him “everything” at the age of 16, allowing him to help out in the shop while studying. Later, when The Barber started teaching music theory at a local high school, he still worked part-time in his father’s shop to supplement the low wages. When he retired in 1991, he didn’t receive a pension, just a golden handshake, “all together, enough to buy a TV.” So he came back to the family trade that was starting to serve the family increasingly badly. Today, business isn’t good, only long-term regulars still drop by for some of the same old.
Etched in Stone
The Barber is the last in a long line of barbers. His two children are both studying in Singapore on development scholarships. It’s a safe bet that they aren’t studying hairdressing. So, too, The Barber’s business is one of the last remaining shops to have its name carved into the brickwork of a building. Plenty of examples are still dotted around Hanoi — the radio shop at the crossroads between Hang Bong and Dien Bien Phu, which has sold ao dai for the last two generations, still attracts plenty of attention. But their time has passed.
People aren’t born into trades anymore, and few trades can remain from generation to generation. And so it is that 100 years of hairdressing knowhow and a much older architectural practice will stop here.