Mirrors of the past – Hanoi’s Outdoor Figaros

Jobs are quite comparable all over the world, but not the setting. When coming to Vietnam I was instantly fascinated by the presence of ambulant hairdressers. You’ll find them almost everywhere, in back alleys, on sidewalks, in parks, next to markets, on bicycles. Half a century ago dozens of outdoor barbers would line a street, bringing along essential tools to get the job done. Time has slightly changed. There is still a demand for low-cost haircuts, furthermore not anyone can afford the rental fees for a proper barbershop. The more the country develops, the more these nostalgic scenes vanish. One of the Vietnamese outdoor barbers within my photo set is a former machinist. As the son of a UN-worker, Cường alias „Mr. Libor“ (so his Czech name) had been educated in the Czech Republic. Besides Russia, Cuba and China one of the countries having excellent ties with (northern) Vietnam. When returning back to Hanoi from his venture, he could not find a well-paid job within the field and life felt just too hectic anyway. So he decided to avoid the system and to become an outdoor barber. Done within one month. He currently gets around 5 to 6 hair jobs done a day, the rest of the time he watches movies on his phone. If he wants to improve, I asked Cường. He’s more than happy he told me, even he’d like to own a nice shop one day. Since so many Vietnamese are in need of a cheap haircut, his self-taught proficiency lets him survive well. Cường is just one out of thousands of Asian outcasts, who are working as self mades without a work registration. Many Asian countries allow their citizens a lot of space to survive. So does Vietnam. Paying governmental taxes is sort of „not compulsory“,  therefore a good amount of street sellers are going for the risk. Social insurance pensions are insufficient to live on, and the vast majority of elderly people in Vietnam still depend on their families to care for them regardless of whether or not they receive a pension.

In contrast to the cosmopolitan megalopolis Ho Chi Minh, conservative Hanoi has well retained its historical identity over the decades rather than losing most traditional aspects in the rush for modernisation. Nonetheless has the trend of short hair styles started earlier in Vietnam’s South, where French colonials settled at first. Local tales indicate that street barbers in Vietnam are cutting hair off-street since the 18th century, when French colonists apparently inspired the Vietnamese men to wear their hair „en ordre“. During the time of the “Indochinese Union“ many Vietnamese intellectuals were able to attend Universities in France, returning to Vietnam with short and tidy haircuts. This also contributed to the fact that short hair was to become more “up to date”. And somewhen in the early 1900’s, the popularity of outdoor figaros was at its peak. Many skilled barbers were the offspring of families living in „barber village“ Kim Lien (Dong Da District, Hanoi), where the age-old tradition of cutting hair was fairly preserved throughout generations. Hence this tiny village produced many of the country’s finest barbers for a long time. Between the 1970s and 80s, roughly three quarter of all the villagers were hairdressers, many of whom became famous. Until now, Kim Lien and some surrounding villages hold an annual festival to honor their hairy ancestry in April, where visitors are offered free and stylish haircuts. During the time of economic recession, legions of self-taught hairdressers from various corners of the city ventured downtown, transforming an entire Hanoian boulevard into a “barber-street”. Many ex-soldiers were encouraged to be creative in those harsh years, thus to sustain their livelihood. Despite being citywide popular, the arising modernisation (cars/ shops) of the capital in the late 90’s abolished the barber-streets forever, forcing the figaros to scatter elsewhere. Some of them opened their own salons, many applied for other jobs, and a handful still remains in the business until now to keep up the Hanoian hair-cult.

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