On a sidewalk next to little Yen Phu, Hung cuts hair. His ‘shop’ is an old rusty barber’s chair, surrounded by many weeks’ worth of matted hair clippings that have cemented together between cracks in the cobblestones. A mirror hangs on green metal sheeting, a wall Hung shares with a garage on the other side. In a corner of the mirror, Hung has written his name and number, his only form of advertisement. Traffic rushes by in an almost constant flow, honks and engines the soundtrack to his workday.
Hung is intently lining the sides of a haircut, fixing the edges with an orange electric shaver. He smiles at me slightly, with soft eyes that have seen a lifetime of work. “You should capture me when I have more customers, I am too ugly for the photos!” he laughs modestly. He finishes the trim, brushing stray hair onto the sidewalk, and his customer hands over VND50,000.
Hung has been cutting hair in the same spot for over 20 years. He remembers when Yen Phu was nothing more than a village. Now five-star hotels line the streets, and affluent westerners buy expensive cheeseburgers at gastropubs on West Lake. All of his customers live nearby, and many have been coming to him since he started in 1992. “I know when a customer doesn’t like my haircut, because they don’t come back,” he tells me. But his regulars are fiercely loyal to their neighbourhood barber.
Hung’s workday starts at 8.30 in the morning, and he barely ever has a day off, unless it rains. Most days he will do nine to 10 haircuts, and he goes home when the clients stop coming, around six or seven at night. It’s easy work, he says, and comfortable, too. His operating costs are low, his shop is rent-free, and he has no boss but himself. He sees no reason to stop this street barber life, one that he began out of necessity. Hung previously worked in a state-owned textile company with his wife, but he couldn’t make ends meet. Now he earns enough to support his family and pay his children’s tuition — one just finished high school, and another is in the fourth grade. His wife still works in her government job, but makes much less than Hung does on the street.
The sun is creeping towards the horizon now, and Hung begins to pack up his tools. He stores them in the garage next door, where they will stay safe until tomorrow. Not one to be rude, he offers me a parting gift — home-made tea in a 7-Up bottle. I politely decline and he shrugs, nods a goodbye, and hops on his bright orange motorbike. It must be his favourite colour. I wave goodbye as he merges into a mass of traffic and heads for home. — Jesse Meadows
To see the other stories in this series, please click on the links below:
The Banh Mi Seller
The Shoe Repairer
The Banh Canh Cua Seller
The Street Barber
The Flower Seller
The Salad Professor
The Tuk Tuk Driver