Reflections and stories on six months of life, culture, food and friendship in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Intrigue at the Hair Salon (Or How I Learned to Quit Worrying and Love My Cell Phone)

Once my parents recovered from the initial shock of the traffic and general sensory overload, they began to notice something about me that had changed. Not the fact that I have perpetually bad skin here from all the motobike exhaust, or the fact that I've probably lost a bit of muscle mass due to changes in my diet and the difficulty of getting a real workout here; they first noticed that I seemed to be constantly glued to the screen of my cell phone, all the while tapping away on the dial pad.

Gradually I think they started to realize that it was not really a cell phone but some kind of universal information transponding device. All my tapping away was producing translations, restaurant recommendations, addresses, plane bookings, free company cars, and fair price estimates, etc. In the West we still use our cell phones as if they are substitutes for the old technology, namely telephones. Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that cell phones are used differently here considering that land lines have a more recent history in this country (15 years ago they were a rarity). It's like they have leapfrogged over the telephone line here and into this world of hypernetworked pocket mini-computers.

People use many more multimedia options than we do. It's not uncommon for people in cafes to turn on their phone speakers and play their MP3s like a jukebox song after song (very annoying). Then there is text messaging (or "Tex Mex" as my Mom calls it). It seems like phones are only used a fraction of the time for making calls - the rest is all text. Last week in Apo, I noticed an entire line of guys texting up against the bar. Despite their poker faces I knew they were in fact gossiping about each other, finding out the scoop on other guys across the bar who are probably also texting. There have been a few times, I've asked an innocent question about someone. A few text messages later someone gives me the answer. It's almost creepy. On the other hand, I will admit to participating in the same e-grapevine.

On the more positive side, my phone is my lifeline. Today's visit to the hair salon was a perfect example. I usually go get my haircut with a friend who can translate so I don't end up having to sport the result of a misunderstanding for a month. Viet bailed on me today but I went anyway. First though I had asked Binh for his help. After confirming that in fact there was no English spoken at this place, I called Binh on my cell, told him what I wanted and then passed the phone to the woman running the place. After hanging up I realized I'd forgotten to work out the price. Hair salons are not the kind of place you normally bargain, but you are vulnerable anywhere you get a service without first clarifying the price. So just as the woman was starting to wet my hair, I asked. She pauses, looks a bit uneasy as she calculates what she thinks she can get away with, and answers VND60,000 (about CN$4-5). I nod. Well her hesitation is just a bit too obvious for me. Also she is talking to some colleague and I keep hearing numbers and prices as they look back and forth at me, so I figure they are debating the appropriate whitey mark-up. My rejoinder is to get out my cell and start messaging as she is massaging my scalp. I fire off a note to another friend Cuong who is a regular here. It takes a couple messages back and forth for him to determine it is only a VND40,000 job. When I'm done I approach the counter and give them the fair price. They readily agree. I imagine they know exactly what I was doing with my phone, and the jig is up.

I have heard the very act of texting has even saved some friends an exorbitant "fine" for a petty traffic infraction. The policeman changed his mind when he saw the flurry of texting. Who knows who has what connections, and which networks are being activated? In fact that time it was all a bluff.

No hard feelings in the case of the hair cut sting. It's all part of the game and keeps things interesting. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose. Besides hair cuts here usually include a long hair wash, scalp massage and face wash. Not bad for a couple bucks. Never mind that the comb looks like it was made out of a chunk of scrap metal. It does the job.

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Blogger Khoi Gallub-Ho said...

I admit that I like this entry! I read both of these blogs and I decided to reply to this one. "Tex Mex" I like is very cool how text messaging is an effective way to communicate.

8:10 AM


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