Mai Thi Tam has beautiful fingers and toes, particularly for a woman of 75.
Flashing frosty pink nails in a quiet alley off Tran Hung Dao Street, she recalled learning to wield a nail brush during the Vietnam War.
Fierce fighting drove her from the rice paddies of suburban Binh Chanh District to the tawny streets of downtown Saigon, where she learned to appreciate a good manicure.
“My nails have been painted since I moved to District 1 in 1964,” said the retired shoe seller.
The twenty-something Tam marveled at the short-skirts, curled hair and of course, manicured nails she found swirling around her.
“Red and pink were popular colors at the time; I think they picked it up from the Americans and their magazines,” she recalled.
While globally renowned for their skills as estheticians, few understand how Vietnamese women came to democratize and eventually dominate a service that once sat well beyond their reach. VnExpress International spoke to estheticians about how the industry evolved here at home.
Madam Nhu, a fashion icon of the early 1960s era seen with long, beautifully polished nails.
Who ever heard of Tippi Hedren?
The global rise of Vietnamese-run nail salons has become a well-worn yarn.
An oft-cited BBC piece credited Hollywood actress Tippi Hedren with bringing the trade to Vietnamese women stuck in a refugee camp in California in the mid-1970s.
“Hedren flew in her personal manicurist to teach a group of 20 refugees the art of manicures,” wrote journalist Regan Morris. “Those 20 women - mainly the wives of high-ranking military officers and at least one woman who worked in military intelligence - went on to transform the industry, which is now worth about $8bn (£5.2bn) and is dominated by Vietnamese Americans.”
Back in Ho Chi Minh City, no one VnExpress interviewed had ever heard of Hedren.
“There were nails services in Vietnam around 1960s,” Chloe Anh Tran, managing editor of VietSALON wrote in an email to VnExpress International. “Women who wore them mostly had a high-end life, such as partners of American and French soldiers, or of local officials and businessmen, who could afford the service.”
A small cupboard full of colorful nail polish is enough to open a street side nail salon in any corner or alley of Saigon. The clients are mostly housewives and working-class women.
Sitting pretty on Tran Hung Dao, Tam, the septuagenarian, agreed.
“They had to go to beauty salons for manicures. And right at the intersection of Tran Hung Dao and Cong Hoa (now Tran Hung Dao – Nguyen Van Cu) sat the biggest salon in town, called My Nu (“Beautiful Ladies”),” she said.
My Nu saw its heyday at the height of the war, when neighbors said hundreds of women left the building done up in the style of the minute.
Today, My Nu is known as the modest Van salon, which shares the building with a dental clinic.
Those who remain say the owner sold the business and moved to the U.S. in 1992 when customers slowed to a trickle.
“My grandmother worked for My Nu as a hairdresser,” recalled a Van employee while rinsing a customer's hair in a sink. “She was busy all the time; lady after lady would come and go from morning to night.”
While Vietnamese expatriates got rich opening nail salons, most women back home relied on hair stylists to do their nails as an added service. Others flagged down manicurists who walked the street carrying baskets full of polish and clippers offering basic services for cheap.
Manicures for the masses!
Nail salons behind Ben Thanh Market.
Le Thi Be, 61, spends her days idly keeping an eye on her daughter’s gym in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 7.
Friends always called her “Be” (baby), a jibe at her diminutive frame. Be’s eyebrows are tattooed and her skin remains tanned from her years of working in the sun.
Be could recall days when her father, a hotel handyman in District 1, would bring an odd bottle of nail polish home for her mother.
The items were all gifts from the many bà đầm (French ladies) who stayed in the colonial hotel.
“They knew him and often gave him perfume and nail polish as small gifts for my mother and my aunts, who worshipped their Western fashion style.”
One unintended consequence of the Communist victory in Vietnam was bringing beauty to the people - sort of.
Two years after Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, Be quit her job as a government accountant to work as a sidewalk manicurist in District 7.
At the time, the job just paid better.
“Manicures were no longer a rich person's privilege,” said the 61-year old retired beautician. “Starting in the 1980's, even young factory workers began to believe that manicured fingers were fashionable.
Be says she worked late near the city's port, painting the nails of female stevedores until 2 a.m.
Hem 136 Le Thanh Ton, or Alley No. 136 behind Ben Thanh Market, is famously known as a must-visit destination for visitors, It gathers small manicure salons. The closed store (center) was once Mr. Nam the Nipper sharpener's shop, which has been turned into a wholesale store supplying polish and nail care products ran by his daughter in-law.
The manicure boom created a whole new industry: cuticle nippers.
Itinerant manicurists purchased the indispensible American-made tools on Ho Chi Minh City's black market; re-sharpening a pair proved much cheaper than replacing them.
“The most famous sharpener in town was Mr. Nam whose shop sat in a narrow alley behind Ben Thanh Market,” Be recalled. “People from as far away as the Mekong Delta came here to have their nippers sharpened.”
Manicurists would leave their tools with Nam, who sometimes took a week to complete each job. After demand became too great, he recruited a dozen apprentices and moved to a bigger store on Le Thanh Ton Street. One of those apprentices, Le Minh Tuan, opened a small nipper factory in 1992, which has since become the Kem Nghia Corporation - one of the biggest manufacturers in Vietnam.
One of Kem Nghia stores on Le Thanh Ton Street. Kem Nghia Corp., the biggest nipper manufacturer in Vietnam, belongs to Le Minh Tuan, one of Mr. Nam's apprentices. According to the elders in the neighborhood, the store on Le Thanh Ton sits exactly at the same spot where Mr. Nam expanded his business. Mr. Nam passed away five years ago.
Taking the world (one toe at a time)
As Vietnam’s economy boomed, tending to one’s nails became a more costly and specialized enterprise.
Last year, research firm Q&Me reported that a third of Vietnamese women spent time in nail salon - a rate that doubled among ladies who earned an average of VND15 million ($659) per month.
“I was lucky to start my business right at the time women gained certain independence and social respect,” said Pang My Linh, founder of Kelly Pang Nail, a high-end nail academy in Saigon that Nails Magazine described as “the largest nail school in Vietnam”.
Her story has become something of a legend in the industry.
As Linh tells it, her family’s plastic company in District 5 went bankrupt in 1996.
She was just 16 and had to put aside her dream of becoming a journalist to go to work. She chose to study cosmetology because it was cheaper than going to college and an aunt and uncle visiting from the U.S. offered a crash course in the business.
They also sent her enough money to open a nail salon in an alley off Tran Huy Lieu Street.
“At that time, the idea of being a manicurist was under-appreciated by society,” Linh said. “Most people pictured a street vendor who received very little money for an hour or so of simple nail care service; the kit they worked with was very basic and hardly got cleaned.”
Linh ultimately helped change that idea by opening one of the largest training schools in the country. She and her four younger sisters expanded the business to three academies under the same name in Saigon alone.
The family buttressed their reputation by bringing home certificates and medals from international nail arts competitions.
In 2004, Linh won first prize in a citywide nail painting competition and used the money to study advanced techniques in Japan. Students now seek her out as a teacher and women’s magazines look to her for the latest designs and fashions.
Today, a two-year training course at Kelly Pang Nail costs VND18 million ($790), just under half the nation's average annual income. Each year, hundreds of students fill a conference hall to take Linh’s hour-long final exam. If the results are deemed sufficiently beautiful, they leave with a bilingual English – Vietnamese certificate.
Linh, meanwhile, is plotting the global expansion of her school.
She’s considering sending hundreds of Kelly Pang graduates to work in European franchises under her name.
“More people with money are willing to invest in this business,” Linh said. “What they need the most now are workers.”