Thursday, Apr. 23, 2009

Talk Shop

Best Hair Wash

Tokyo has its public baths, Bangkok has its foot massages. But what few outsiders know is that when it's time to let your hair down in Hanoi, you go get it washed. Welcome to the Vietnamese capital's lam toc goi dau. Tucked in the labyrinth of narrow alleys, the city's ubiquitous hair-washing shops offer a front-row seat to neighborhood life that travelers might otherwise miss.

There was a time when the term goi dau was a code for prostitution, but hair-washing today is a clean affair. Though men are welcome, these cramped shops — where children play tag between swivel stools and soap operas hum in the background — are really the sanctuary of women. This is gossip central, a place to unwind after work, before going home to make dinner. Though you may not understand the banter, lying back in the chair as your hair is washed and your scalp massaged, there's no mistaking the sighs over stories of wayward husbands or the high price of vegetables.

Don't expect glamour (especially for less than a dollar, including massage). As in many homes, towels hang from nails and the family altar vies for space with the rice cooker. Hair dryers and buckets of water sit next to each other. Indeed, the smaller shops don't have hot running water. It is fetched from a coal stove on the sidewalk. Don't be put off by the possibility of electrocution or the fact that you're eavesdropping on a conversation you can't understand. If you lie back and listen, for a few moments you'll feel like you belong.