Haircuts in Hanoi require a few more words of Vietnamese

"OK, today's the day. We're getting haircuts for you boys." I was tired of seeing my sons, Chase and Quinn, with wild hair creeping over their eyes. We were living in Hanoi for five months. I wanted to practice my Vietnamese language skills and also test the skill of local barbers on my two adopted sons' Asian heads. So, we would go in search of "on-the-street" haircuts.

I'd figured about $2 per child would be reasonable, knowing that foreigners always pay more than locals. But our house cook, Ngoc, said, "I pay 3,000 Vietnamese dong for my son; you'll pay much more - at least 5,000 per head." That's less than 50 cents per kid. I pretended shock and promised to bargain hard to keep it no more than that.

So we strolled down the street where eight barbers lined up along the neighborhood park fence. They hung small mirrors and shelves on the fence - the shelves holding scissors, big brushes, and soap for shaving - and placed their chairs in front of the mirrors. They shaved with straight-edge razors, the old-fashioned way.

The barbers were in various stages of cutting or lounging, waiting for customers. They ranged in age from mid-20s to early 40s.

We picked a serious-looking barber. His square face was symmetrical, his eyes were rounder than typical Vietnamese, and his hair was, as one would hope, well groomed, parted on the side, and long on the top. He had just finished with a customer as we arrived and was sweeping the metal chair clear of clippings with a small towel. He smiled and nodded his head toward Chase.

"Shall I cut?" he seemed to say.

"Sure." Chase shrugged his shoulders and sat down as the barber pulled out his scissors and wiped his four inch razor on his trousers. He tilted his head at Chase, like an artist trying to judge a model.

As he cut, a quartet of other barbers and "advisers" closed in around us. They looked back and forth from the boys - who have black hair and olive skin - to me, with my brown-and-silver hair with fair skin. They stared, they smirked. They talked among themselves.

At last, they asked, in Vietnamese, if I was French.

"No, American." I responded.

"Chinese?" asked the onlookers, faces four inches from Quinn, who stepped into the barber chair.

"No, Korean and Thai. Adopted children. Americans." I'd learned to say that the boys were adopted and that they were from Korea and Thailand, but now they are Americans.

I did it with great clarity - or so I thought. Instead, confusion reigned.

"Were you pregnant," they asked using hand motions, since that was not among the 25 words I'd memorized so far.

"No, they are adopted, adopted...." I tried again. "They are adopted from Korea and Thailand, but they are Americans."

The four looked at each other.

"Did you steal the babies?"

"No, adopted babies, from Korea, from Thailand."

"Ahhhh," they nodded to each other. "How old are you? How old are they?"

These were questions we could all handle, since they're typical in Vietnam and I had expected them. No problem there.

We made good progress: One boy was sheared, and the other was nearly finished, as I showed off my Vietnamese prowess. Then, a final question came, "Husband, Japanese?"

I can imagine them recounting the story. They would say to friends, "You'll never believe the crazy foreigners we met today. A French lady, who said she was American, with no husband. She stole some babies who are not babies, but she called them babies. The boys were obviously from China and Vietnam, but she kept saying they were from Korea and Thailand. Is she 'dien?' "

When they say "dien," they mean crazy. When I say it, in one of its other five tones, I'd say something like "isn't she full of electricity?" That would probably be about right.

Nancy Napier lives with her husband and two sons in Boise, Idaho.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.