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

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On an Ao Dai High: Part II

Loan's stall

This story is a continuation of “On an Ao Dai High in Saigon,” and some of the information is repeated for clarity in the new version. 

Hoi An, Vietnam, May 2014 

In a frilly, white top, tight jeans and slip-on kitten heels, Loan hoisted her tiny self up on to a worn wooden shelving unit in her tailoring stall, No. 7 “Cloth Shop.” Like a librarian on a sliding ladder, searching a dusty floor-to-ceiling bookcase, her hands moved from shelf to shelf pulling various reams of silk and cotton fabrics. After lowering herself down like a gymnast, she showed me the selections for closer inspection. Easily a few feet taller than Loan, I felt oafish — like a 1980s burly and brutish East German swimmer named Helga. I doubted whether her Vietnamese measuring tape would even have enough units to assess my broad shoulders.

Loan measruing my biceps

I am Helga. Hear me roar!

Loan whipped out her measuring tape and, surely, released more of the white tailoring strip than was usually necessary. While lifting my arms straight out, I scanned the interior of the Hoi An marketplace, which was crammed with tailoring stalls like Loan’s, a food court and several souvenir stands with lanterns, fans, conical hats, trinkets and inflatable toys. Bored shopkeepers sat on plastic stools, playing cards. Their laughing children instigated a game of tag in the tight confines. A grungy backpacker couple in the tailoring stall next to Loan’s spoke to each other in German while holding a rather shapeless linen dress. The German man, in a grimy, ripped tank top, haggled in English with the Vietnamese tailor over the price of the linen garment.

Meanwhile, Loan gently wrapped the measuring tape around my damp neck, which glistened with a permanent necklace of perspiration. The day had been heinously humid, and I wondered how Vietnamese women could even bear to wear an ao dai, the beautiful traditional high collared, fitted tunic dress with side slits that is sported over silk trousers. The heat, however, would not deter me. I had come to Loan specifically for an ao dai.

But, somehow, I thought a fitting for the elegant dress that symbolized Vietnam and was emblazoned on everything from keychains and magnets to lovely embroidered wall hangings would be more…glamorous. I don’t know what exactly I was expecting.

Continue reading

The Travel Ahh….The Phenomenal Conical

I think this woman felt bad that I was such a sucker, so she gladly posed for photos and gave me a lighter for the incense.

At Marble Mountain, near Danang, this woman sold me two packets of incense for five dollars. I didn’t even bargain with her.  Feeling sorry for me that I was such a sucker, she gladly posed for photos and gave me a lighter for the incense.

On my recent trip to Vietnam, it was a thrill every time I spotted someone wearing a Nón Lá, the traditional conical hat made out of palm leaves and a prevalent symbol of Vietnam. And, after sporting one in both heinous heat and pouring rain, I soon discovered it is the ultimate all-weather hat. Not much has changed with its design over the centuries. Nothing is more effective than combatting the blistering Southeast Asian sun and tropical monsoons. Here are some photos I took of the phenomenal conical.

Women run the show at the Hoi An market.

Women run the show at the Hoi An market.

Hoi An

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A “crazy dog” and roasting marshmallows with chopsticks in Sapa, Vietnam

 

Li takes a rare break from our trek and checks her cell phone.

Li takes a rare break from our trek and checks her cell phone.

Outside of Sapa, Vietnam, May 2014

Along the 15 kilometer trek to a hilly homestay in Northern Vietnam, our 4’8″ Hmong guide, Li, insisted that 11 other tourists and I did not need to stop for water and that we would slow the whole group down by taking too many photos of the rice terraces.

One view of the stunning rice terraces around Sapa, Vietnam

How could we not take photos? One view of the stunning rice terraces around Sapa, Vietnam

Li was a tad hardcore. After all, she and other Hmong guides probably cruised that route at least twice a day while wearing what amounted to shower slip ons. So when Li told us she had news, and we better gather around to listen, the twelve of us did. Right away.

“There is a crazy dog in the village. It has killed four people,” she announced as she sat cross legged in the traditional Hmong black leg warmers on the cement patio floor of the homestay abode we had finally reached.

“Is she talking about a rabid dog?” I asked my friend Debbie in a hushed tone so I wouldn’t get reprimanded. Seriously? And I had been worried about the mamma water buffalo that seemed irritated when I inadvertently cut off her baby on the rice terrace trail.

“Do not go into the village. If you walk in the village and the dog bites you, it is your fault not mine. I tell you now,” Li said.

Continue reading

Being Followed by a CaoDai Deputy

Slapping a closed silk fan into his outstretched palm, a slight, elderly CaoDai devotee wearing a white tunic, white trousers and sporting a low, jaunty black turban, fires off loud Vietnamese to Binh, our interpreter and tour guide. The devotee follows us as we pad barefooted through the sanctuary of the largest CaoDai temple in the world, located in Vietnam’s Tây Ninh Province.

According to Binh, who occasionally glances up from reading the CaoDai reference book I brought from the US, the old man is with temple security. He wears a yellow, blue and red striped armband (oddly resembling the Colombian flag), which indicates his position. The CaoDai bouncer continues his lecture as he walks with us, making a whapping sound every time he bangs the fan into his hand.

I’m fairly certain my friend, Debbie, and I have upset him. It could have been the photos we took earlier of worshippers kneeling and holding their bent arms in a triangular formation with their hands clasped together at their foreheads.

The trippy temple.

It’s tempting to document everything in the “Holy See,” the headquarters of CaoDai, a blended religion that incorporates primary tenets of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Judaism. According to University of Southern California anthropologist and CaoDai scholar, Janet Hoskins, the syncretistic sect attracts more than six million followers worldwide.

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