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[Video] Sidewalk Barbers: A Glimpse of Old Saigon

Sidewalk barbershops are a symbol of old Saigon. In the face of globalization and its demands for westernization, the sight of a simple chair placed beneath an awning where one can get an affordable trim just a few meters from a busy street is gradually vanishing. 

As people seek modernity and newness, old traditions are being devalued and lost. Nothing exemplifies this trend more than the disappearance of barbers practicing their trade among a valued group that resembles friends as much as customers.

A makeshift barber's station usually just consists of a mirror, a chair and a toolbox.

Only a couple of years ago, cheap and simple barber shops filled areas like Ton Duc Thang and Nguyen Binh Khiem streets. Now only a very few remain in Saigon. Servicing low-income Vietnamese or older patrons who are accustomed to the service, the shops are largely operated by grooming veterans with at least 20 years of experience. The barbers develop close relationships with their customers because they want to establish trust and keep them coming back.

The barbers make up for the fact that they cannot provide the same experiences as big salons and hairdressers with friendliness and familiarity. Even so, cutting hair alone can’t bring in enough income, so they also offer other services: everything from nose hair trimming and ear waxing to selling food and drinks. In general, the success of their business depends more on forming relationships and less on the actual haircuts. Even when not there for a haircut, people sit around on the sidewalks and engage in lively conversations with each other over politics, news and local gossip. Thanh, a friendly barber in District 4, explained to Saigoneer that his customers are like family and he cares about them very much, which is why he’s continued going to work every day for the past 31 years.

Thanh has been offering haircuts on the pavement of District 4 for 31 years.

Anything from styling, ear wax removal to nose hair trimming, street barbers are happy to oblige.

The ongoing sidewalk-clearing campaign, which began in 2017, has played its part in putting some sidewalk barbers out of business. No longer allowed to take up space on sidewalks, many have resigned. The campaign represents a clear example of how concepts of modernity affect Vietnam, as it aims to transform the city streets into clean, sterile spaces like those found in more developed countries. Doan Ngoc Hai, the former vice chairman of District 1 and leader of this effort, once said that he hoped to turn the district into a “Little Singapore.” Many argue that, while trying to chase these standards, the city is losing its unique culture.

Diep used to be a soldier, but is now content with his work on the street.

Not everyone has closed, however. A few barbers we interviewed said that the campaign hasn’t affected their business, in fact. Diep, a barber who runs a sidewalk location on Nguyen Binh Khiem Street, explained that because they don’t take up as much space as restaurants and are considered more “civilized,” they are allowed to remain open. Thanh, who works on Ton That Thuyet Street in District 4, offered similar confirmation, sharing that he served in the army and upon returning to the city, the government allowed him to have his business as a way of returning the favor.

A crew cut in progress.

A toothy smile from a satisfied young patron.

Even if they are allowed to continue offering street haircuts, Saigon’s changing culture has a serious effect on sidewalk barbershops. Evolving beauty standards, often influenced by foreign trends, drove customers to extravagant hairstyles and luxurious experiences. Accustomed to fancy salons and hairdressers, many now view sidewalk barbers as unskilled and old-fashioned, lacking knowledge and using dirty, outdated equipment.

While many sidewalk barbers can’t afford to take their businesses off the pavement and open fancy stores with air conditioning and a full staff, even those that can often choose to remain at their humble sidewalk shops out of pride and passion. They have stayed loyal to their job and customers for over 20 years, and plan to continue doing so for many more to come. We should all be thankful for such commitment and the unique charm it provides to Saigon.

Video produced by Anh Nguyen and Alberto Prieto.

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