Hanoi Haircut (page 2)
Hanoi Haircut
page 1, page 2

The barber gave me a bright, scolding laugh, his dark eyes narrowing above wrinkles that suggested he had at least 60 fallen yellow leaves himself.
     “I, young friend, am a sculptor. Under my hands, rough stone is turned into a beautiful, delicate statue.”
     “So it’s an art form, hair-cutting?” I asked.
     He responded sharply, leaving me temporarily confused. “No, it is not an art form. Few people can really cut hair. It is a high art form.”
     At this he lapsed into ebullient laughter again — and so did I, my suspicions gradually receding.
     He began cutting my hair without once asking what I wanted, a common occurrence in my travels in the developing world. Nor did I try to direct him except to ask that he not cut it too short.
     “Why do you cut hair outdoors?” I asked. “Is it too expensive to rent a shop?”
     He feigned huge offense. “Not at all,” he said, now working the scissors across my bangs. “I have many, many clients. I have plenty of money for a shop. But why be a prisoner of walls? I prefer to be outdoors. I feel the wind and sun every day when I work. I smell the flowers of this tree.” He then quoted a line from Ho Chi Minh: “There’s nothing as good as freedom and independence. Nothing.”
     Branches swayed overhead as I glanced at the mirror on the mimosa trunk. My hair was taking shape, reminding me again that, when it comes to barbering, the world is not yet one village. I’d found in most of Latin America that timid cutting tends to leave your hair longer than desired. (The Che influence?) In Central Asia, you’re lucky if you have any hair left when it’s over. And in Vietnam, you tend to get both: really short hair on the sides and foppishly long hair on top. Staring uncertainly at the mirror, I reasoned that at least while I stayed in Vietnam I would be a work of art.
     Since his adolescence, the barber told me, all he’d wanted to do was cut hair. It was his one true passion. Even during the war he cut hair for his platoon. “I was working on someone’s hair once when your country sent rockets into our camp. Rockets everywhere. I jumped into a foxhole still holding my scissors and comb.”
     Now that the war was over, the barber wanted nothing more to do with it. “It was a bad time. I fought to make my country free. Now I just want to do good, to make people beautiful.”
     As a matter of principle, he said, he never bought any of the tools in Vietnam still widely recycled from old war material. “When I need new scissors, I ask: Was this made from a tank? From a cannon? If so, I don’t buy.”
     My haircut was nearly over now, and the barber suddenly made an announcement. The snipping stopped. “You’re the first American whose hair I’ve cut," he said, swinging around till our eyes met. “I shot at many Americans, but never this. You’re my first.”
     Before I could tell him the honor was mine, he asked a favor. “When you go home, will you thank your president for lifting the economic embargo on my country?”
     I said I would, glad of the chance to redeem a little of my initial personal brusqueness toward him.
     “Then,” he added, a scold returning to his voice, “tell your president to lift the embargo on Cuba.”
     My haircut was complete. But the barber wasn’t finished. It is, I’ve found, the rare faraway haircut that does not serve up at least one new experience, whether it’s the eyelid massage or the finishing spray of lime juice a barber in Mexico once put in my hair. From a leather pouch, the Vietnamese barber pulled out six long, narrow metal tools. They looked like surgical equipment. One tool had a pointed tip. Another had a strange tiny spoon at the end. A pair of tweezers was so long they looked like chopsticks joined at the fat end. “I want to clean your ears,” he said.
     “Not everyone needs this,” he said. “But looking at your ears, I can see you need help. Can you hear okay?”
     “I think so,” I said.
     He assured me he wouldn’t hurt me. This was an ancient Vietnamese tradition, but, he added dolefully, one that was dying out. “I tell young people, just like the floors of your house or cups for tea, you have to clean your ears. But no one understands anymore. With skillfully cleaned ears, a man is a new man.”
     He went to work, guided by a penlight fastened awkwardly to the side of his head. I braced myself. In went the pointed thing. Then the spoon thing. Then the tweezers. After some initial apprehension, the experience became oddly tranquilizing and even enjoyable. It felt like I was getting a massage inside my head.
     As he worked, the barber told me he cut 15 to 20 heads a day, every day, and he never missed work due to illness. Quite a record for a man his age, I thought. What was the secret?
     “Never sleep late,” he said. “Eat when you’re hungry. And always help people. Always love people.” Then he added, “I pray, too. I go to the pagoda twice a month and light incense and pray for the peace and happiness of all the people in the world. I never leave anyone out. I’ve prayed for you all your life.”
     Shortly thereafter, he pulled his barber’s sheet off of me as if from a masterpiece. Shave, haircut, ear cleaning. If not a totally new man, I certainly felt like I was refurbished.
     “What do I pay you if I’m very, very happy?” I asked, now quite won over by the original gentleman’s arrangement.
      “Nothing,” he said with unbreachable finality.  “That you are happy is big enough payment for me.”
     I protested effusively, of course, even tried leaving the money in the crotch of the tree. But it was no good.  “You owe me nothing,” he said.
     We parted company with a handshake. As I walked away, it struck me that cutting a traveler’s hair must be nearly as interesting for the barber as for the traveler. Perhaps I had given him a minor amusement, a new, small way of thinking about himself. He, meanwhile, had given me something much more than a haircut. Thanks to him, I could hear just a little bit better.
     Or is the word listen?
    “Hanoi Haircut” is exerpted from Mike Tidwell’s new collection of travel essays, In The Mountains of Heaven: Unlikely Journeys on Six Continents. Lyons Press will publish the book in August.
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