Trying to hammer out the details about nails in Vietnam

nail outletHo Chi Minh City, Vietnam; May 2014

“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. lotus flower 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. Continue reading

Doing Nails: An Ancient Southeast Asian Art?

The Buddha and creepy hand at VN nails.

The Buddha and creepy hand at VN nails.

When VN Nails opened in Salida, Colorado, (population 5,500) I decided that doting on digits must be an ancient tradition in Vietnam. That would explain the prevalence of Vietnamese American owned nail salons in the United States  — even in remote Rocky Mountain towns with good ole boy ranchers and agro outdoor enthusiasts

The Numbers

According to the 2012-2013 Industry Statistics published by Nails Magazine, 48 percent of nail professionals in the $7.47 billion US nail industry are Vietnamese Americans. The number skyrockets in California where Vietnamese Americans represent 80 percent of the state’s nail technicians. Having lived in Southern California and also wanting to visit Vietnam, I’ve been fascinated with this phenomenon for years.

Back In The Remote Mountain Town

The somewhat sad looking complex where VN Nails is located.

The somewhat sad looking complex where VN Nails is located.

I arrive for a pedicure at the new Salida salon, which is located next to a Subway and a storage unit rental place. Nearby, Methodist Mountain’s changing aspens decorate the landscape like drops of O.P.I.’s Glitzerland Yellow Shimmer Nail Lacquer. Inside VN Nails, you find the standard salon accouterments, including vibrating massage recliners, ferns, stacks of People magazines, heated nail dryers, and shelves of O.P.I. polish.

The elevator version of “Hey Jude” plays on the sound system, and a gleaming gold Buddha near the register catches my attention. Chinese script decorates the statue’s base, and a somewhat creepy plastic hand, displaying various nail colors, reaches up toward the happy, paunchy Buddha.

Perhaps this practice of pampering goes back to Buddha’s times. I wonder if villagers massaged the hands and feet of traveling monks. The Vietnamese probably embrace this tradition in the same way the Chinese revere acupuncture. Finger and toe tending in Vietnam must be another old school Asian art like grooming bonsai trees in Japan.

Continue reading