Travel Right
Hanoi Haircut

by Mike Tidwell (Democratic Republic of the Congo 1985–87)

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AGAINST A WORN STRIP of water buffalo leather, the Vietnamese barber slapped his straight razor back and forth. He paused to tilt my head back, leaving my Adam’s apple fully exposed to the blade. Looking up now, I saw the flowers of a flaming mimosa tree, its branches forming the delicate ceiling of this one-man outdoor barbershop. I smelled the incense of a 900-year-old Confucian temple located around 100 feet away. I heard the bright bells of bicycles gliding down a wide Hanoi boulevard.
     Yet we’d gotten off to a bad start, this barber and I. I figured he was trying to fleece me when, after I asked how much he charged, he demurred. But he was just being polite in Vietnamese fashion, saying I would pay afterward, as much as I wanted, only if I was happy. When I pressed the issue, he just waved me into his wooden chair. I got in, huffing, our cultures colliding as we attempted to communicate.
     “How many fallen yellow leaves do you have?” the barber asked me, still whacking his long, gleaming razor against the leather strap. He was asking my age. “Thirty-three fallen yellow leaves,” I said.
     He asked what country I was from. “America,” I said.
     “I killed many Americans during the war,” he said. “Many Americans.”
     Moments later, I felt the razor on my throat.
     It’s a fact of traveling life that if you wander far enough from home, sooner or later you will need a haircut while on the road. It’s an experience I learned early on not to dismiss as routine. With an open mind and flexible fashion standards, the overseas haircut can be one of the most edifying, satisfying experiences the road has to offer.
     After all, the barber’s chair is where you’ll experience the most intimate contact you’re likely to have with the local culture. Even the friendliest guides and cabbies and rickshaw drivers don’t touch you, don’t run their fingers through your hair and fuss over the aesthetic possibilities of your face. When it’s over, you’re transformed, usually in more ways than one. If nothing else, you’ll look more like the locals, because no matter what kind of haircut you ask for, what you get is the local variety. Forget the charms of being invited into people’s homes or wearing colorful national clothing: A local haircut is your one best shot at partial assimilation, a chance to assume a part of the local culture onto your own body.
     My first overseas haircut came in Africa, under the eave of a grass hut in a tiny village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When the barber finished cutting, he obsessively swept up every bit of hair from the dirt floor, then plucked, one by one, the tiniest fallen hairs from my neck and shoulders.
     These he poured posthaste down the hole of a latrine, saying he didn’t want any of the nearby witch doctors using my hair to work bad juju on me. Now there’s a service worth a handsome tip.
     Once, in a slum in Bangladesh, an 18-year-old barber cut my hair and then massaged my shoulders, temples, hands and, finally — saying it would help me better pray to Allah — my eyelids, rubbing them so gently it nearly put me to sleep. In an oil town deep in the Amazon jungle, I once found the only place for haircuts was the local brothel. A prostitute dutifully trimmed away my sludge-flecked hair, then seemed disappointed when, newly beautified, I didn’t avail myself of other services.
     In Istanbul, amid the tangled alleys lining the Bosphorus, a barber once nearly set me on fire, using a lighted match to give me the sort of “singe-trim” around the ears that was the fashion there. It turned out to be the best haircut I’ve ever had.
     That afternoon under the mimosa tree in Vietnam, my education was continuing. The barber had finished shaving my face and was putting away his razor. Only then did it seem safe to raise again the issue of price. Years of travel had led me to anticipate this tactic: The merchant insists on an enormous, unmovable price after the service is rendered.
     But I hesitated bringing up the subject again. The barber seemed to read my mind nevertheless.
     “We Vietnamese people are not so direct as you. We are easier in our ways,” he said. “For us, it is not so hard to trust.”
     He pulled out his scissors now.
     “So will I like this haircut?” I asked with a conspicuous hint of sarcasm.
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