A Barber’s Shop and a Beauty Queen

By Daniel Rees Lewis

I live in a big modern building. It’s very nice. Modern fittings, cable, a fast internet connection, soft lighting options, cream sofas and big double beds, etc. There’s also a swimming pool on the roof of the building.

I live here in this well-appointed flat, in this nice building, in Saigon, because I’ve got a job as a teacher in one of the language schools in the centre of the city. The economy is booming, fueled by the cheap labour readily available in this populous country. It’s a good job. Not even the recent rise of the spoilt brat, has tempered the almost reverential respect that the Vietnamese have for teachers. Tien, a sixty year old wealthy business man and the father of the class, addresses me formally as “Teacher”, and despite my protestation steadfastly refuses to call me Dan, even when inviting me to lunch.

It is the teacher’s role I’ve been given, so it is the teacher’s role I shall play. One has to act and, more importantly, look the part. As the school manual states – stubble “designer or otherwise” is out. Ironed shirts and ties are in. My maid looks after the shirts.

With ideas of playing the teacher in my mind, I leave my apartment and walk down the shiny white tiled floor, past the Korean family’s permanently opened door and take the lift down seven floors, which provides me with the time to check out a spot that’s been brewing on my forehead. The air in Saigon certainly isn’t good for the skin and tends to leave one coated in a thin layer of grime by the end of the day, but hey, the economy’s booming. The lift doors open and I walk out into the marble lobby and onto the Saigon streets, butchering the Vietnamese for goodbye with the friendly receptionist as I leave.

Phumm! The streets.

Roar, whizz, whine, cough. I’m hit by a wall of sound. Hundreds of motorbikes rush down Dinh Bo Linh. The security guard who accompanied a recent take-away delivery girl up the seven flights to my door smiles at me. I’m immediately offered a ride by the one-eyed motorbike taxi-man whose patch is the pavement in front of my apartment building. I decline. I turn left and am forced onto the road by the motorbikes parked on the pavement. I’m careful to look behind me, because although Dinh Bo Linh is a one-way street and I’m facing the oncoming traffic, the Vietnamese traffic rules dictate that it’s kind of OK to go the wrong way down a one way street as long as you stick nice and close to, or occasionally on, the pavement.

One metre, two metres later and I’m reunited with the pavement. The traffic continues to speed past. Three metres, four metres. I turn left and enter the establishment right next to my well-appointed apartment block with its cable and internet. It’s a single-storey concrete building. There is no front wall so the barber’s looks out onto the road with all its traffic. There’s a small pile of rubbish on the pavement at the front. Inside there are four old barber’s chairs facing mirrors on the walls and a desk at the back of the room which has no till. There are five girls sitting inside the shop. They are all wearing tight-fitting clothing and showing a lot of flesh. Hair cuts and facials are not the only service on offer for money in this shop; this is a common Vietnamese business double up. As I enter one of the girls stands up and greets me. I realise on closer inspection that she’s a ladyboy. I point to my stubble and pointlessly mumble “I want a shave.” She laughs. One other girl laughs as well. They laugh when they’re happy, laugh when they’re embarrassed, laugh when they’re pissed off, laugh when they don’t know or don’t understand. I hope it’s not the latter. The other three girls just stare. The ladyboy gestures for me to sit down on one of the chairs. I sit.

The shop is pretty grubby, though one of the girls has just finished sweeping the white, tiled floor. There is padding coming out of the side of the chair next to mine. The green paint on the walls is chipped, revealing a red undercoat. There is dirt in the corners of the mirrors and mine has a small crack in it. The ladyboy points at the top of my head. Do I want a haircut? I decline. She calls over another girl and gently makes me lie down on the now reclined chair. I stare up at the ceiling listening to the sound of the traffic and the new girl comes over. She is beautiful—really, really beautiful. She has huge brown eyes, a small nose and perfect skin that has clearly been whitened, but surprisingly has little make-up on it. The other girls in the shop are chattering away, and still staring. The shaving girl prepares a new cut-throat. She has long, thin fingers, and is tall by Vietnamese standards, with an elegant giraffe-like frame. Had she been born elsewhere she might have graced the European catwalk. As it is, she is a barber’s shop whore in Saigon. One accident of birth nullified by another.

Shaving foam is dabbed on my face and then she points to my top lip. Yes, I do want that shaved, no moustache for me thanks. And then it starts at the neck. I sit in the angle-backed chair staring at the ceiling feeling a three-inch sliver of metal scraping just above my adam’s apple. I’ve always hated things touching my neck. I imagine the pressure slowly increasing and the razor digging into my throat more and more until it is swallowed into my windpipe, blood pouring out of my neck and the girl coldly staring at me. I suppress the urge to grab her hand. I try and put it out of my mind, but all I can think of is Gareth from The Office offering advice on how best to penetrate the wind pipe. I’m in my head now, I’ve got nothing but my imagination and the feeling of the razor against my neck, then off my neck, then back on my neck. I try and concentrate on the noises of the bikes going past. She’s still shaving my neck. I want it to stop, but I dare not move. My hand grips my t-shirt at the neck. The girl notices my unease, pats my hand, says something in Vietnamese to her friend and they both giggle. One of the girls approaches me and pulls on my arm hair, laughing. Yes, it is real thank you very much.

Eventually it’s over. The shave is rough, particularly around the neck. It comes to ten-thousand Dong, about 30 pence, which is twice as much as it should be. All the girls are very sweet and they say goodbye in English. I have a stab at thank you in Vietnamese. Apparently this is very funny. I leave and take the lift up the seven floors. I enter my apartment, which is very cool. I forgot to turn the air-conditioning off.