I sat outside a cafe in Hoi An’s picturesque old town, stirring my Diet Coke and wondering what to do with my afternoon. The midday sun was beating down; it was one of those languid days in Vietnam, and I was reluctant to relinquish the comfort of the shade. I’d just ordered a second cold drink when a clanging and clicking signified that someone was bumping along the dirt road on a bicycle. Little did I know the person I was about to meet would change the direction of my day in a rather bizarre way.
A couple of seconds later, a woman clad in one of the blue velour ‘Apple’ tracksuits so popular in that part of the world appeared, and upon seeing me, dismounted and dragged her rusty bike over to rest on a nearby lamp post.
With a nod, she pulled out a chair at my table in the near-empty cafe, and sat herself down. The waiter served my drink without a word, and we sat in silence for a good five minutes. I slurped my drink down, keen to extriculate myself from this awkward situation, and quickly asked for the bill.
It was then that she spoke.
“Eyebrows”, she said, “eyebrows”. I looked at her, puzzled. “EYEBROWS!,” she exclaimed, jabbing her finger at my face, “I help!”.
Now I got it. At this point I’d been travelling for close to five months with no access to eyebrow threading. As much as I enjoy a strong brow, I had to admit the current situation was a little out of control.
I asked the woman if she was able to perform threading – my eyebrow treatment of choice – and was very surprised when she assured me that she absolutely could do that. To that point I’d struggled to find a threader in Southeast Asia, where waxing is a much more popular option.
“Brilliant,” I said. “Let’s go”. She beamed at me and positioned me on the back of her old bike, above the wheel. I was absolutely convinced this tiny woman was not going to be able to get me anywhere, but she pedalled along as if I wasn’t there, while I struggled to balance on the pannier with no foot holds to speak of. After around five minutes of this unnerving exercise, she slammed into a curb, at which point I inevitably tumbled off the bike. “We’re here”, she announced, very matter-of-fact, as I lay on the ground with a grazed elbow.
My new friend led me into a strange building, which from the outside looked like some sort of industrial garage, with large sliding doors and motorbikes abandoned on the pavement. Inside, however, it was decorated like an elderly woman’s house. An immaculately-made bed lay to the right, covered with a pink and white floral duvet; there was a burgundy velour couch, and odd vases of dead flowers stood on randomly placed side tables. Pretty pictures in pastel tones hung on bare stone walls and the floor was painted a racing green.
“Now you lay down”, my eyebrow-saviour commanded, pointing to the bed as she slammed the doors shut. This was weird: at salons they tend to have pleather chairs for this very purpose. After a moment’s hesitation, however, I decided to just lie down – I’d come this far, and from what I could see, I didn’t have much of a choice.
“Close your eyes.”
Eyes shut, I winced, waiting for the excruciating pain that accompanies threading sessions, but it didn’t come. Instead, I felt a sort of soft patting sensation all over my face and body. After two minutes of this I opened my eyes to see four older ladies stood above me patting me down with powder puffs that were emitting white clouds of chalk with every dab. They had appeared out of nowhere.
Then the ‘threading’ started, and I discovered I was right to be skeptical about this woman’s ability. She began to pluck out single eyebrow hairs using cotton. Threading this was not. Essentially I was having my eyebrows plucked by a stranger, who was inefficiently using cotton, with four older women watching on, one of them stroking my arm. This lasted an age.
When she was finally finished, she insisted that I also should also get my arms and legs ‘threaded’. The four ladies supported this suggestion, all of them now stroking my arms and legs and performing theatrical winces. I quickly gathered my things and rushed to the door to make it clear this would not be happening.
As I was leaving, slightly baffled by the whole experience, my host demanded 750,000 Vietnamese Dong (around £25). Money hadn’t been spoken about up until this point (obviously, my mistake), but I’d had a feeling this delightful experience wouldn’t be free.
Getting my eyebrows professionally threaded in a decent salon in the UK costs £10-£15, while a large bottle of beer in Vietnam costs around 50p, and you can stay in a very nice hotel for £20 per night. Knowing the above, I was certain I was getting hugely ripped off, but I wasn’t about to argue with these five aggressive women who were determined to tear every hair off my body in a painful fashion. So I paid in full and quickly left, a little shaken and in some pain, with slightly better groomed eyebrows than I’d had on entering.