Gina Lawson

Vietnam's Hair Extension Industry, Untangled

“You can touch it,” I say to the three Vietnamese women and two men as I gesture to my humidity-affected hair, which in 90 degrees is fluffier than fairground cotton candy.

Their eyes widen in surprise as I unleash the frizz and let it tumble from the knot on my head.

I am standing in a small kitchen somewhere in the Vietnamese countryside to untangle the lucrative business of hair extensions.

Although women are their biggest customers, I am told they've never felt Afro-textured hair like mine before. They each meekly rub a couple of curls between their fingers and nod in uniform surprise.

I suddenly feel very far from home.

Am I in a hair salon? No, but I am surrounded by a ridiculous amount of hair – 400 kilograms of it, in fact.

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Freshly-cut ponytails swirl around my feet like black snakes, overflowing from the dozens of black bags on the floor. I wonder who has provided all this hair and where they are now.

“This is the hair of around 200 people,” I am told by Jack, who co-owns Vietnam's largest hair factory, MCSARA, with his brother, Tom.

Most of MCSARA's hair is exported to the United States, and the owners' names are, of course, westernized for use in the client-facing part of their business.

“Jack” is actually Nguyen and “Tom," Phan.

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But the hair extension industry in the US was estimated to be worth $224 million in 2015, and it only continues to grow, so the brothers don't take chances with business.

In this house, I watch as two local women (one of whom is 34 and has sold her hair four times already) lose their locks in front of me in different ways.

“If you don't want to cut all your hair, we do it like this," Jack says, gesturing at one of the workers to begin.

She shows me how they can take the longest hair from the bottom layer with scissors through a special thinning method, which still leaves outer layers intact.

The other woman chops off her hair from the nape. Hair extensions from the same head get matted less and stay smoother longer.

I first meet Jack and Tom at the end of the hair production process at their office in Hanoi.

I bring a reluctant friend from my hotel along for the trip, and we're both given free hair samples to match our textures before my companion decides to head back.

I hop in a car alone with the brothers, with no idea as to where I'll end up. When I arrive at the house, I learn it belongs to one of their main suppliers, their aunt, Tu.

I walk in to see four women sitting cross-legged on the linoleum kitchen floor, counting large bags of hair, plus two others sitting to the side and waiting to sell theirs.

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The air is heavy with a damp smell and I am told some of the hair has yet to be washed.

I sip on sweet lemon tea while photographing it all, and Tu agrees to be interviewed, with Jack translating.

First, she insists on brushing her own short bob and powdering her nose. I'm transfixed by the sight of all this hair everywhere — it's kind of creepy — but I try to concentrate.

Tu tells me she worked as a hairdresser from the age of 16 before moving into the family business as a key supplier, which she's been doing for 20 years. Despite her own short style, she's never sold her own hair.

What I really want to know is, why do these women sell their hair? And where do they come from?

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“Vietnam very hot,” Jack says in broken English. “Most hair comes from mountains where hair is fine and good quality. These women cannot keep it because weather hot and it take long time to wash. Most want to cut their hair ... young and old women, no problem, they don't care about money."

But, I ask, what do they care about, if not the cash?

“They don't like to wash their long hair,” he repeats. “And sometimes they want short hair. It's more in fashion now.”

Judging from the long, ebony locks I've seen in Hanoi and Hội An, I'm not sure if this is true, but with the company owner as my only source of translation, I'll never really know.

I ask if some women are ever sad to cut their hair, but Tu tells me no because attitudes surrounding Asian femininity have changed.

For hair between 28 and 32 inches long, a girl can receive $75; 16 to 29 inches is worth $50 to $60. In nearby Hanoi, the average monthly wage is around $150.

In a village, this will go far, I think ... until I remember this hair could sell for four times that price in the US, China or the UK – the top three global importers of hair, respectively.

Jack says Tu works with several other hair collectors in Vietnam who drive through remote mountain villages equipped with megaphones advertising their services. Most times, hair is chopped off there and then brought back to Tu, who later sells it to her nephews.

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As someone who used to wear weaves, I am reminded of a report I read recently that stated the black haircare industry is valued at an estimated $500 billion.

A lot of this hair will end up sewn into the head of a black woman, I think, many of whom know how deeply personal and political hair can be.

MCSARA has been in business for 21 years, and the brothers tell me their aim to take things global.

In a good month, the brothers process the hair of 10,000 people, each of whom provide approximately 100 grams of hair.

“Each month that's a ton," Tom grins.

I see just how large their business is when, after selfies and hair-touching with Tu, I go to their factory another hour away.

It's light, large and holds 80 workers, most of whom are sitting on the floor or on the same low, plastic stools I see in Vietnam's bars, working on a different stage of processing.

I speak to one of the 17-year-old workers, who is shy, but smiley. Women here earn the average $150 monthly wage for a 7 am to 5 pm shift with a 90-minute break.

This can rise to $250 after a month of good service.

The women are tasked with various jobs: One is picking out the lice from the fresh hair (infested hair costs less to buy), while another is gluing keratin bonds to the hair.

Others are matching hair from different heads into one bundle by texture, or plucking grey strands.

The youngest girls with the best eyesight are painstakingly making wigs by sewing strands of hair into a cap.

I also learn that a curly weave (like the one given to me) doesn't obtain its coiled form through chemical processing; the hair is simply wrapped around a steel rod and steamed.

I see the hair washing station too — but I'm not allowed to photograph the spot where the hair is dyed outside the factory.

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Interestingly, it's the one area with male workers. The two young guys in charge of this job sport matching masks and matching blonde streaks in their hair. The area smells strongly of chemicals, and I am ushered back into the main factory before I can ask too many questions.

I realize I've spent over 10 hours traveling with Jack and Tom, and they agree to drop me back in Hanoi — but only after I eat with them at Vietnam's swankiest restaurant, Quan An Ngon.

We order fried fish and steamed noodles and talk more about hair. I tell them there are no real stats on how much of the world's hair extensions originate from Vietnam, but that in the US and UK, most women want a Brazilian weave.

Culturally, though, Brazilian women don't really sell their hair, and it's likely by the time Jack's hair hits western shops, it will be mixed with a few different types of hair and labeled as something else.

Despite the stories of forced head-shaving and kidnapping in other parts of the world where hair is sold, Vietnam's hair industry wasn't as shady as I expected.

Whether this will change as the industry grows exponentially, however, remains to be seen.

Citations: IBIS World, Reuters, Huffington Post