Linh Huynh used to drive a taxi through the streets of Ho Chi Mihn City in southern Vietnam. Then, 13 years ago, his relatives, who worked in a nail salon in Miami, beckoned with the promise of a better life.
Since arriving here, Huynh has worked 10 hours a day, six days a week, manicuring and pedicuring nails. After saving his money, he bought his own salon, Lovely Nails, in Kendall, last year with his wife and a friend.
“Here in the United States, I think the gap between rich and poor people is not so much. Rich men have cars; I also have a car,” said Huynh, 44. “The most important thing is that I can work hard to prepare for the future of my daughter. She has equal opportunity in education.”
Huynh and other Vietnamese are following a path well known to South Florida’s Latin American and Caribbean immigrant populations, carving out an entrepreneurial niche as they seek prosperity for their families. In South Florida — and across the nation — many Vietnamese have landed jobs in the nail salon industry.
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Though many don’t know it, they can thank a 1975 training effort spearheaded by one-time Hitchcock starlet Tippi Hedren after she visited a camp of Vietnamese War refugees.
“Thanks to my nail job, my family life is stable now,” said Dieu Nguyen, who has worked for three years at International Nails in Doral. Her husband also works in a West Miami nail salon, and today they own their own home. “Compared with my previous job in Vietnam, despite working harder, my income was very low,” Nguyen said. “When I work at the nail salon, every month my husband and I can save $2,000 to $3,000.”
The United States has the largest number of immigrants in the world — 14 million. While the U.S. population only represents 5 percent of the global population, 20 percent of all global migrants live in the United States, said Jeanne Batalova, a senior policy analyst and demographer with Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy.
Waves of immigrants from different regions flock to the United States, primarily “to create a better life for themselves and their families, a safer life and to find work and have a piece of the American dream,” she said. Often they follow their countrymen, seeking jobs and then buying businesses in the same business sectors, she said. That includes Dominican-owned bodegas in New York, Korean dry cleaners in Los Angeles, and Ethiopian-driven taxis in Washington, D.C., she said.
Similarly, Vietnamese have formed a (pedicured) foothold in the nail salon industry. In the United States, 374,345 people born in Vietnam are certified as nail technicians, representing more than 40 percent of the nail workers in the country, according to statistics from Nail Magazine. Miami, alone, had 279 — and Florida 1,152 — Vietnamese-owned and registered nail salons in 2010, the magazine said.
Such Vietnamese-owned nail salons were elevated to the South Florida spotlight in November, when armed robbers burst into Hong Kong Nail Salon in Northwest Miami-Dade. Gunmen fatally shot the owners’ son, 10-year-old Aaron Vu. His father, Hai Nam Vu, was also wounded in the gunfire, and is still recovering. The salon has yet to reopen.
After the shooting, fear and anxiety spread throughout the local Vietnamese nail community. Some salons started closing earlier in the evening. Other salon owners eye the front door to make sure it is locked.
“Close the door please,” Huynh said in Vietnamese to his business partner Phuc To at Lovely Nails, after a customer walked out. “Robbers can kill us.”
South Florida’s salon owners are among 54,597 Vietnamese-born residents who live in Florida, U.S. Census figures show. The group represents just 1.5 percent of the total 3,747,136 foreign-born residents in the state, the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey showed.
“They started off working on hands and feet, then got enough clientele to open their own businesses,’’ explained Alfred Osborne, senior associate dean at the University of California, Los Angeles, Anderson School of Business. “Before you know it, they were able to do higher value services and use this as a basis to expand a network.
“They have been able to come to the United States, work hard, climb the ladder and live the American dream. The fact they have been able to deal with all of the odds immigrants face and women face, and corner a market, is really quite an inspiration.”
The Vietnamese entry to the nail business began in 1975 when Hollywood actress Hedren — mother of Melanie Griffith and a frequent star in Alfred Hitchcock films — visited a camp of 20 Vietnamese women who had come to the United States after the fall of Saigon.
As Hedren met with the women inside the camp, called Hope Village, near Sacramento, Calif., they began admiring her nails. It gave Hedren, who was working as an international relief coordinator and interested in the plight of the Vietnamese, an idea.
“I noticed that these women were very good with their hands,” Hedren told The Los Angeles Times in a 2008 interview. “I thought, ‘Why couldn't they learn how to do nails?’ ”
Hedren flew up her manicurist to the camp once a week to teach the women, insisting that they also learn how to do silk wraps, a technique that creates long, natural-looking artificial nails. Hedren also persuaded a nearby beauty school to help the women find jobs.
“Before you know it, she had gotten herself helping women build a presence in this business and it became popular,” Osborne said. “One thing led to another. This was making glamorous nails and fine-looking toes to the mass market.”
From the training of those 20 women, an industry developed, and today, the Vietnamese community has “a nail and pedicure salon in every strip mall, and on every corner like Starbucks or McDonald’s,” Osborne said. “These are folks who have a monopoly in the marketplace in certain communities [nationwide] and own all of these storefronts and are able to bring people in.”
For many, salons offer an entry point that requires minimal education and investment, allowing employees to live with relatives or close friends as they earn their licenses. Once they save money, some are able to open their own salons.
“I chose to work in the nail industry because this job does not need higher education, does not need so much financial capital, and I can help other Vietnamese who need the jobs when they live in America,” said Thanh Huynh, owner of Expo Nails in Southwest Miami-Dade. “My plan is to be the owner of a big salon in a good location. I will save money to build up my dream.”
Compared to fancy spas and hair salons, Vietnamese-owned nail salons in South Florida tend to cluster in lower-cost locations and offer more discounted prices, such as $10 for a manicure, $20 for a pedicure and $30 for gel nails.
In a strip mallon a busy stretch of Biscayne Boulevard in Miami Shores, USA Nails offers a wide range of acrylic and gel services and nail art, manicures and pedicures. Owner Huy Van left Vietnam in 1988, moving from Hong Kong to the Philippines, Honolulu, Chicago and Detroit before settling in Miami in 1998. He had family here, and the weather was appealing.
“It looks like my country, it is warm and no snow,” said Van, 44, who worked 60 hours a week at a salon in Naranja and at his brother’s salon on 79th Street in Miami before buying it from his brother in 2010. He later moved it to Miami Shores, and now his sister and niece work there, too. They live with Van, who has two children.
Entering the shop, visitors are greeted with a Buddhist altar in front of the counter. Inside are six tables and four high pedicure chairs, where customers soak their feet in a bath. Van said he still works 60 hours a week, and though he declined to disclose earnings, said salon services are divided up with the technician earning 60 percent and the store 40 percent.
“They do a good job,” said Toni Hunter, 30, of Miami, who had a pedicure and treated her daughter, Regina Scott, 10, to a manicure. Hunter said she especially enjoys the hot towel treatment and likes that the technician doesn’t seem rushed. “I wish I could do it more often,” she said.
Further north on Biscayne Boulevard, in another strip center alongside a Payless Shoes store, Nail Capital offers a wide range of services, from acrylic and gel polish to waxing. Owners Loc Nguyen, 43, and Hang Phan, 41, a couple with two children, operate the shop with three unrelated employees. The green-walled salon, also featuring a Buddhist shrine, serves customers from various countries and ethnicities — some speaking Spanish, German or other languages. Nguyen bought the shop from his uncle, who taught him to do nails after he moved to Miami with his parents, sister and brother, in 1998.
Like other Vietnamese, Hieu Truong opened T-Nails in Kendall in 2006, after working in many nail salons in Minnesota and California. Now, he and his wife have seven employees.
At his salon, Truong estimates that each of his technicians handles six to eight visitors a day, and can earn $3,000 or more each month. With his own earnings, he has bought a small house.
“The nail industry will help stabilize the lives of so many Vietnamese from Vietnam to America,” Truong said. “But with the second generation — for example, my children and my staff’s children — they are not going to choose a career in a nail salon, because they will have a diploma and will be good in English, so they can find another good job.”
That, too, is part of America’s dream narrative, says Batalova, from the Migration Policy Institute.
“If you look at their children, they often build on the success of their parents, and then the second generation moves to more professional white collar jobs. That process has been repeated from one wave of immigrant to another, one ethnic group to another — Italians, Northern Europeans, Jews, and others who came in turn of the century — and now their children became part of the middle class of America.”