From Nails to Nuggets





Vietnamese immigrants captured the small manicure business and transformed it into an extraordinary growth industry in the United States and internationally.  It is a main source of income for Vietnamese American families, according to Cyndy Drummey, publisher of VietSALON, a bi-monthly magazine.


When refugees arrived at the end of the Vietnam War, beginning in 1975, about 20 women were trained as manicurists through a chance encounter with Hollywood actress Tippi Hedren, documented by Jody Hammond in a 30 minute video, “A Hand Up” aired on San Diego KPBS TV in January 2004.    The rest is entrepreneurial history.


The job required very little capital and no English skills.  Willingness to work hard and to work together in family and community was a formula for an income and quick success, said Drummey.


“The Vietnamese have taken over the nail industry,” said Tam Nguyen, who operates the beauty school founded by his refugee parents.  “They began serving a niche that wasn’t served by Americans.  And boom!”  


Today about 45 percent of salons in the United States are Vietnamese owned or hire Vietnamese technicians, while in Orange County, California the figure is 80 percent, Drummey said in 2007.     


In the Czech Republic, where Vietnamese are a large minority, there are 200 nail salons in the capital of Prague, alone.


Manicures in the 1970’s cost up to $60 and were a luxury for the wealthy.   Now a manicure could cost as little as $15 plus a tip, and could be finished in thirty minutes using a power file.   Increased competition and demand have reduced costs, with the benefit going to busy, price conscious women.   


Brothers Robert and Vu Nguyen from San Diego followed their mother in the business and now lead an artistic upscale trend charging $65 for a French manicure requiring 90 minutes.  Customized designs start at $10 per nail.


Trang Nguyen started as a nail tech 22 years ago and is a star in international competition.  He is a licensed instructor for the California State Board of Cosmetology and travels to more than 32 countries promoting products from Odyssey Nail which he founded seven years ago.   Competitions promote artistry, innovation and upgraded  technology.  


Salons across the nation advertise in Vietnamese language papers for technicians, and cosmetology boards in California and Texas give licensing tests in Vietnamese. 


“Time is Money,” advised Tippi Hedren when she helped train the first group of Vietnamese women as licensed manicurists.  They took her advice well and the Vietnamese Americans have created a phenomenon.  



Hedren is a former Hollywood actress discovered by Alfred Hitchcock.  She is the mother of actress Melanie Griffith, and manages Shambala Preserve, a wild life animal rescue facility North East of Los Angeles.  Shambala is home to lion, tigers, leopards and other species including two Bengal Tigers formerly belonging to Michael Jackson.   


Comedian Dat Phan, whose sisters are manicurists, quipped, “The plan is to take over America from the toes up.”