Vietnam's booming hair hunting business
As global demand for hair extensions soars, villagers in one region are lifted from poverty by persuading women to cut their tresses
Hailed as a hero in his native Vietnamese village, Do Van Thu has become rich and transformed the lives of hundreds of families through the sale of a precious and unusual crop - hair.
"We were very poor because we had hardly any farmland. This work has saved our lives," said Thu, as women from Binh An village washed and sorted piles of tresses in a workshop at his opulent home.
The hair mogul, seen as something of a visionary among local people, said exports of Vietnamese locks sustain some 500 families - or 80 per cent of the local population. They have also made him one of the richest men in Bac Ninh province, about 40 kilometres northeast of the capital Hanoi.
Globally, hair has become big business. In addition to wigs and hair pieces, demand for hair extensions from fashion-conscious young women has exploded over the past decade.
"Each year, my family exports between 50 and 60 tonnes of hair to China. We buy it from all corners of the country, as well as from Laos and Cambodia," the 50-year-old entrepreneur said.
The price per kilogram varies between US$45 and US$250 depending on the quality of the hair - with long hair being the most prized for hair extensions.
Demand is rising more quickly than hair can grow back and the Binh An hair collectors are forced to search for uncut locks, and owners willing to part with them, in ever more remote areas.
Each year, hair collectors set off on pilgrimages, travelling around the country searching for women willing to part with their locks for cash. Thu, who has become a millionaire in the 13 years since starting his first workshop, says the brick houses which have sprung up in the rural areas are a sign of the prosperity that hair has brought to Binh An.
"Each employee at my business is earning three million dong a month (HK$1,100)," he said, three times what the average rural wage is in Vietnam.
Local people say their lives have been vastly improved by Thu's hair enterprise.
"Looking at the huge profits it earns, a large number of farmers have engaged in this work and their life has considerably improved," said Nguyen Van Kien, Binh An's village head.
Thu is eyeing expansion, citing major regional opportunities as demand for hair extensions and wigs rises in countries such as South Korea and Thailand.
Vietnam is well-positioned to cash in on this trend, said Thu. And while he has local competitors, business is still thriving.
"It is getting harder to buy good hair … but we can sell everything we get," Thu said. But as sources of luscious locks grow scarcer, the hair business has acquired a darker side.
Unscrupulous hair hunters reportedly attacked female students at a school in Lang Son province, near the Chinese border, and forcibly hacked off their flowing tresses, according to the state-run Tin Tuc Vietnam.
At the start of September, another official newspaper, Tuoi Tre, reported that a 15-year-old student Vo Nguyen Hoang Chi from central Danang province sold her hair for just US$24 to pay for her studies.
"As my family is very poor, I had no choice but to sacrifice my hair to pay my tuition fees - I want to do my best at school," she said.
"But after selling my hair I couldn't sleep. I cried when I put hands on my short hair."