February 27, 2019"Made in Japan"—labeled barber's shears, specked with hair trimmings, lie inside and outside a segmented box on the shelf before me. The mirror on the wall behind it reflects my wide-eyed gaze. Elsewhere on the wall, fake roses hang in cascades of very un-rose-like vines for decoration.
There are men in plastic chairs in the open doorway as the evening grows heavier. They sit placidly with their eyes silently glued to their phones, waiting. The lone barber here tonight is busy working on a head. There is only one barber, I assume, because the lingering festivities of the Vietnamese new year have claimed the rest. He's young and has a rather feminine appearance with his pixie-ish haircut and dangling earring.
I wait patiently for a shave and an ear cleaning following my time in Thailand, during which I went without either. My brain is crackling from an afternoon coffee that was offered to me earlier, and the world buzzes around my head. Bristly fibers of black hair lie scattered on the floor in clumps below my feet.
A girl sits at the desk with a lackadaisical look on her face, doing nothing. One pot-bellied man strolls around the shop with a lit cigarette in his hand; it's unclear if he actually works here or if he's waiting for a haircut as well. The shop has that classic warm evening feel of fluorescent light that contrasts with the darkness outside.
Suddenly, the girl stands up from the desk and takes one of the waiting customers to the hair-washing station. She scrubs his scalp in preparation for the barber to do his work, and then she gives him a shave. Soon she gives another bloke the same treatment.
I used to hate haircuts as a kid, but then I started appreciating them as 1) a chance to be pampered, in a way, and 2) an occasion to just lay back and feel the least amount of guilt about doing absolutely nothing. It's strange how relaxing it is to be powerless about your situation for a half hour or so. The same can also be felt during dental visits and commercial flights.
Done with her customer, the girl initially assumes that I want a haircut just like everyone else, but no, just my face and ears will do for today. She motions for me to change seats and recline so that I'm lying horizontal on the leathery chair. She gets the shaving cream and commences to apply it across my jowls.
The girl is dolled up with bright red lipstick and wears black-framed specs. Her hair is teased. I noticed before switching seats that she's sporting a fresh white pair of sneakers, perhaps a Tet gift. New clothes are traditionally given during the new year.
Her face has a stony lack of expression as she proceeds to delicately take the razor to my jaw, and I begin to wonder what it must be like as a woman to constantly stroke the hairy faces of strange men. The caffeine in my system causes my mind to focus on her blasé attitude toward this seemingly intimate task, and it begins to come up with stories to explain it…
Perhaps she once had a boyfriend whose bristled cheeks she constantly took joy in caressing, in those quietest hours of the night, but then he was somehow removed from her life in an unspeakable tragedy, and now she performs this job of touching beards every day in a mere hollow attempt at nostalgia for those sweet, blissful times of the past. Perhaps.
The one flaw in this theory is that, unlike in the West, facial hair is not trendy at all with the Vietnamese youth.
The girl works from different angles to bring the blade across my flesh until nothing else stands in its way. Time for the ear job.
Professional ear cleaning is something that hasn't really made it to the West. In Vietnam it complements a haircut, and the process looks like surgery with all of the different elongated instruments that the specialist uses to scrape and buff the wax out of your ears. They dab the extracted substance onto the top of your hand for some reason, instead of a tissue or whatever. It can sometimes be astounding what all they extricate.
With her headlamp turned on, the stony-faced girl arranges her tools and begins the procedure.
It's difficult to describe the almost primal sensory pleasure of having one's ear canal cleansed, a strange type of internal massage that comes with a hint of trepidation that, maybe this time, they will pierce your ear drum. Of course, they never do. They go right up against it and then twirl their swabbing device so that its fibers brush across the drum, creating an unnerving—yet oddly satisfying—aural sensation.
It seems like this time the girl needs to soak the cotton swab in a type of cleansing agent to loosen whatever's inside. It feels like a wet willie. Slowly the wax accumulates on my resting hand.
Finally, it's done. I bring my hand up to gaze at what's all there (so much!) and then casually brush the wax flecks off. I rise from the chair, pay the barber and glance at the clock.
Time to go meet a friend.
Email Andrew at email@example.com.