“Aren’t the Vietnamese supposed to be completely repulsed by feet?” I asked more myself than my friend Debbie as we wandered down what seemed to be an alley exclusively designated for foot and leg massage outlets in Saigon.
If there was any revulsion, these shopkeepers hid it well with neon signs promoting “foot care,” charts of podiatry pressure points, photos of glistening legs getting the royal oiled treatment and pretty Vietnamese girls in flirty cocktail dresses and stiletto heels handing out discount flyers.
“Well, since they’re not grossed out, do you want to get a foot massage?” Deb asked, shrugging her shoulders.
She clearly wasn’t as upset by the reality that was displayed in front of us on a sign showing a woman’s hand loofahing a customer’s foot, soaking in a golden bowl with lotus flowers floating and swirling around the pampered appendage. This bit of news that the Vietnamese not only handle feet, but also that they apparently use their sacred lotus flower petals to caress bunions, corns and fungal colonies was troubling.
I had come, partially, to Vietnam as a travel journalist, exploring stories like American Vietnam War vets who return to Vietnam, propaganda art from the war and the burgeoning nail salon industry.
The nail business angle was a follow up to a story I had done that covered the Vietnamese American domination of the US nail salons. Almost half of all nail technicians in the $7.5 billion dollar American nail salon industry are of Vietnamese heritage. In California, the number is 80 percent. This fascinated me. I thought perhaps tending to toes and fingers was an ancient tradition in Vietnam much like acupuncture in China. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The story came straight out of Hollywood or at least it had a Hollywood connection.
In the late 1970s, actress Tippi Hedren, who starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 classic The Birds, was a volunteer with a humanitarian group that worked with Vietnamese refugees in Sacramento. Having escaped war-torn Vietnam and the fall of Saigon, the refugees lived in a tent city, which Hedren often visited.
She connected, specifically, with a group of 20 Vietnamese women. Hedren told CNN in a 2011 interview that the Vietnamese women admired her nails. “They loved my fingernails,” she said. “So I thought, ‘I’m going to bring my manicurist.’ She came up once a week and gave them a lesson. They’d all practice on each other; they’d practice on me.”
Going a step further, the actress persuaded Citrus Heights Beauty School near Sacramento to enroll the Vietnamese women as students. While a Hollywood humanitarian got the ball rolling, ultimately, the Vietnamese immigrants and their families created a nail empire.
Now I wanted to pursue the prospect that the empire was coming full circle with émigrés who initially left Vietnam during the fall of Saigon and their children, returning to open businesses in their homeland.
I especially respected the irony of the Vietnamese going into a business that deals with a body part not particularly revered in their culture. This tidbit I discovered while interviewing Tam Nguyen, co-owner of Advance Beauty College in Orange County California, which has the largest manicuring program in the United States.
Tam told me many Vietnamese don’t like feet. “A lot of Vietnamese here, who are in America now, they’re reluctant to work on hands and feet. I’ve met immigrants who were professionals in Vietnam who worked in offices and worked as teachers or professors or engineers. They get into doing nails and they are completely not okay with doing pedicures,” Tam maintained. “Feet are considered…you walk on them they are dirty and whatnot,” he added.
So essentially, it was safe to conclude, doing pedicures must be the equivalent of having a client flip you off with the middle finger all day long. I thought, perhaps, in Vietnam Deb and I would find nail salons primarily offering manicures. However, from the look of it, the Vietnamese in Vietnam had no problem with feet.
“I just don’t get it,” I told Debbie as we scanned the menu of services that Daisy Feet offered. “Tam told me that feet are considered to be dirty and that many Vietnamese don’t want anything to do with them.”
“Does Tam live here?” Deb asked as she looked through her bag and retrieved a tissue to wipe sweat droplets from her neck.
“No, actually. He and his parents left during the fall of Saigon when he was one year old,” I said rubbing sweat from my own brow and cooling myself with a souvenir silk fan that I had purchased from a man who had no legs at Binh Tay Market. When encountering any limbless person or burn victim in Vietnam, it’s immediately assumed the cause of their disability was Napalm or some sort of American firepower. I did not bargain for the fan.
“But he comes back here to consult nearly every year.”
“Why don’t you interview someone at one of these shops?” Deb asked, opening up her identical souvenir silk fan. “Maybe there is air conditioning in one of these places.”
I gravitated toward Tri Siam Hair and Beauty Salon because of a sign that stated: “We speak English,” but a painting of a woman with long flowing black hair, heavily plucked eyebrows, dramatic black eyeliner and bright red lipstick who looked remarkably similar to the art deco woman depicted on the cover of “Rio” my favorite Duran Duran album drew me in, too.
Deb and I opened the door and walked in to a waiting area with a vinyl padded loveseat and a staircase leading to what appeared to be the level with the salon stations and accouterments. “I’ll wait here,” Deb suggested and got out her Vietnam travel guide to read. I walked upstairs.
A pretty young woman with an asymmetrical haircut and beautifully manicured nails greeted me. “Hello,” she said smiling.
“Do you speak English?” I asked, wishing I knew how to say the phrase in Vietnamese, but I still hadn’t even mastered saying “cảm ơn” (thank you) accurately, and my “xin chào” (hello) was caveman Vietnamese at best. She smiled, held up a finger and hurried to the other side of the salon. In the meantime, I nodded at the other female employees who did not have any customers. One of the technicians filed her own nails.
The greeter woman came back with a good-looking, tall man who wore hipster wide-framed glasses, sported a surfer style tank top and clearly dabbled in hair color and gravity defying adhesive products. His hair looked a bit like porcupine quills dipped in gold glitter.
“Hello,” he said in a surprisingly soft-spoken voice. “Can I help you? I am Mr. Thor.”
I explained to Mr. Thor my mission of covering the nail salon industry in Vietnam. He invited me to have a seat.
“Is it okay if I record our conversation,” I asked, holding out my iPhone. I hadn’t yet figured out if people were jittery with recording devices in a Communist country.
“Yes,” he said again in his soft, soothing voice. Listening to Mr. Thor, I could easily see how a customer might agree to any style he suggested. “Why, yes, Mr. Thor, please give me a Sex Pistols era Mohawk; it sounds so…nice.”
In the meantime, the greeter woman appeared with a glass of water. “Cảm ơn,” I said. And she looked at me blankly. I repeated “cAM On; cam ON;” CAM on” and then just abandoned the Vietnamese altogether. “Thank you,” I smiled and she nodded, finally realizing what I had been trying to say.
“So, Mr. Thor,” I began. “What is the nail industry like in Vietnam right now?”
“It’s getting bigger than before,” he answered in such a quiet tone I wondered if my iPhone would even pick up his voice. On the salon’s sound system, a sultry songstress sang in Vietnamese to a jazz accompaniment. Even the incessant motorbike beeps infiltrating through the windows from the streets below sounded louder than Mr. Thor.
Originally from Thailand, he opened his Saigon salon in 2000. In the early days, he mostly styled and cut hair. However, Mr. Thor said that nails seemed to pick up about five years ago. His customers were mainly foreigners, but he did have Vietnamese businesswomen and some businessmen as regulars.
The mention of housewives came up, but I couldn’t tell if Mr. Thor meant that housewives like to have their nails done or they don’t because they use their hands so much at home. I didn’t know whether Vietnamese housewives liked to show their nails off or they didn’t want their nails to be ruined.
“So how is it for people to work with feet?”
“Yes, yes,” he nodded but then asked, “You mean to do nails?”
“How is that for the staff?”
“This is their job,” Mr. Thor said looking somewhat surprised I asked the question in the first place.
“Did it go well?” Deb asked as we slid into the tundralike air-conditioned backseat of a taxi.
“Well, Mr. Thor is from Thailand, so he won’t really work for a testimonial,” I said. “But on a positive note, apparently, both the Vietnamese and Thais are definitely offended by feet.”
When we arrived at our hotel, I checked with the front desk clerk to see if one of my prospective sources had called and left a message. “No, Miss Kelly Pang did not call,” the clerk informed me.
Dang. The news did not actually surprise me, however. I had sent Kelly two Facebook messages from the US and an e-mail to which she never responded. The front desk clerk had helped me make a phone call and leave her a message after Deb and I had arrived in Saigon.
Kelly Pang, or actually, Linh Pang, started a nail salon school in Saigon. I had scoured her Facebook page and any biographical information I could find on the Internet before my trip. Apparently, she was from a big Chinese Vietnamese family that struggled to make ends meet. However, with help from an aunt who had opened a nail salon in the US, Linh pursued the nail, hair and make-up trade.
She had also created some hard-core nail art. Photos on the Internet of her nail designs depicted everything from air brushed gothic art patterns to sculptures of cherubs, butterflies and marine-like botanical bonanzas that resembled something that Ariel, the Little Mermaid, might wear in her hair.
Having entered and won various nail art competitions in Asia, eventually, Linh founded the Kelly Pang Nail Academy to train nail artists and technicians. While I couldn’t figure out whether or not she actually spent time in the US, Ms. Pang was exactly who I needed for my story. Her motto was “a useful trade is a mine of gold.”
I was hoping to strike gold, but my time in Saigon was limited. It looked like an ambush was the only remaining strategy. Fortunately, I had printed off directions to her academy using Map Quest back in the US.
After taking two different cabs, we discovered that Mapquest’s English version directions with Vietnamese street names were not the same as real Vietnamese directions with Vietnamese street names. Although he didn’t understand the map, our second taxi driver drove us around, pulled up onto a curb, got out of the cab and kindly pointed us to a building that looked strikingly similar to a car dealership. Hmm.
When Deb and I entered, we found a perplexed looking office staff that appeared to be in the middle of a meeting. One of the workers in a crisp white shirt and navy dress pants spoke English, so we explained to him what we were trying to do. Apologizing that we found the wrong place, as if he was responsible, the worker showed us the discrepancy with our map.
After our ambush failure, we hailed yet another taxi and asked the driver to drop us off near Binh Tay Market. We ended up on Pham Ngu Lao street, which was clearly a backpacker haven. Feeling old, tired from heat and unsuccessful as we passed by groups of tattooed, tanned, grimy yet attractive young travelers, Deb and I thought perhaps we needed pedicures to do more research. We entered a salon adjacent to a hostel. The cool air along with paintings of a large Buddha and lotus flowers in the foyer exuded a calming effect immediately.
“Hello. May I help you?” the salon manager asked in English. He introduced himself as Thai Le, and I told him about my quest. Thai was Vietnamese- Norwegian, and in addition to being a computer programmer, he managed the salon for his girlfriend who owned the shop. His parents moved to Norway from Vietnam when he was a child.
For a brief second, I considered the fact that Thai was Norwegian and Mr. Thor, with his Norse god name, was Thai. Vietnam seemed to provide and endless array of surprises and ironies. While I had my well-traveled toes buffed by one of the five female employees, Thai answered some basic questions about the business. I kept looking at my feet and the technician who had moved on to clipping my toenails.
“Will you tell her I’m sorry my toe is gross?” I asked Thai to inform my technician when she clipped the gnarled toenail that had never grown back properly after an unfortunate and long ago encounter with the wooden leg of a couch. “And I’m sorry if my feet are icky, too.”
“Why do you want me to tell her that?” Thai looked at me in the same way Mr. Thor did when I asked him how the technicians deal with feet. Even Deb looked at me like: “Seriously, Steph, are you going to do this every place we go?”
“Because my feet are dirty from walking around the city in flip flops.” The fluorescent lights revealed bulging veins and unbecoming patches of stubble near my ankles to top it off. “Please tell her that.”
“But this is her job,” Thai said. Then he turned to the technician and spoke to her in Vietnamese. Thai laughed and she smiled. I changed the subject and asked about the salon training in Vietnam. Thai spoke to my technician and to Deb’s, but two of the girls who stood nearby answered instead. Apparently they had both studied at the Kelly Pang Academy.
“What was it like?” I interrupted since we were leaving Saigon the next day for Hoi An and it was highly unlikely I would ever find the Kelly Pang compound.
Thai asked the girls. Each one paused and then gave her brief assessment. “Expensive,” he said. “But this is a good job and many girls come in from small villages to learn and make a good living.”
Thai then revealed his own thoughts about the salon business and that the nail industry actually had been thriving for many decades. He said women set up sidewalk stalls with baskets of nail polish years ago. I suggested this was perhaps more recently after the Tippi Hedren days and Vietnamese with nail knowledge returning to their homeland. Thai completely disagreed with the information and the idea that the current industry had a connection to the Vietnamese American scene.
Geez, how would you know, Thai? I thought, irritated. You grew up in a country where people soak fish in lye and consume it like a national treasure. And I’m not talking about Vietnam. At that point, with the conflicting input, I decided to put the nail story on hold. It was not coming together as I thought it would. *****************************************
“So you got your start with nails in the United States?” I shouted as Lee checked on the ancient looking motorized electrical device near the open glass door entrance. The humidity slowly crept in and mingled with the smells of jasmine incense and acetone polish remover.
Sitting with my fingers spread out with wet polish, unable to write in my notebook and hoping my IPhone voice memo was picking up something besides the roar of the temporary power source, I was not exactly the example of a competent journalist.
“Yes,” said Lee who had fled his home near Hoi An in 1975 (“I had to leave after the war.”) Not long after arriving, Lee worked in a jewelry store in the US and his wife started doing nails. In 1980, they opened a nail business, and Hollywood soon took notice. Paramount studios regularly called Lee and his wife to do nails for the stars. Interestingly, Hollywood was providing more of a reliable story angle than feet for me.
Basically, this was the gold — the jackpot. My Vietnamese friend Silk, had connected Deb and me with Lee. Silk, who lived in Hoi An and had made the arrangements for our entire trip, was the kind of person who could hook up anything. If I had asked her to find me a former Vietnamese resistance soldier who had fought the French with Ho Chi Minh or a Vietnamese hill tribe fighter recruited by the CIA to fight in the late 1960s, I have no doubt Silk would have brought that person directly to me for an interview.
In the meantime, I had Lee and a chugging generator. It turned out that Lee was back in Vietnam to help his nephew and his wife run their salon, which was quite Western, but it had definite Asian aesthetics. Vietnamese orange and yellow lanterns descended from a high ceiling, an alcove featured a trickling fountain, and near the check-in desk, a shrine hosting various offerings, incense and a shiny porcelain Buddha stood out. Lee mentioned that tourists comprised almost all the clientele. Most Vietnamese, according to Lee, did their own nails. In a few months, his wife would join him in Hoi An to offer more training for the technicians.
“You can help people,” he said. “This is my way of helping them. I can help them with a job to do.”
To my relief, Lee had stopped scurrying around for a moment. His wide forehead glistened a bit in the heat, but he still looked composed in a light blue striped polo and brown knit pants. On his left wrist, he wore an Asian beaded good luck bracelet.
“If you have money, you give to them and they spend already. But if you give them a job to do, they keep it longer. They can take care of their family.”
This time I didn’t ask if feet offended his culture. It wasn’t the focus anymore. Essentially, I was discovering that the Vietnamese were very pragmatic and they did whatever they had to do to survive and take care of their families — whether it was during the aftermath of a war or an economic boon driven by tourism. And if that meant working with feet, so be it.
Even Tam had mentioned that when looking at economic factor and providing for families, ultimately, feet become a minor issue. In fact, I looked down at my already polished toes and wondered if I should pay to have them redone and whether there was a golden bowl of lotus flowers I could soak them in.