Why are Vietnamese women trimming your toenails? Because they do it best.
Annie Le doesn’t know her real parents. Raised by an adoptive mother, she knows only that her dad fought in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War, when he conceived her with a South Vietnamese woman.
So Le was already an American citizen when she immigrated to the United States in 1989. Before gaining entry into the States, she stopped at a refugee camp in the Philippines, where she passed the time painting other women’s nails. That was a defining moment for Le, who enjoyed the work so much that she went on to make a career for herself in nail salons.
“I started doing it just for fun,” said Le, 36, who owns La Belle Nails in Antelope.
She’s not the only Vietnamese American who takes pleasure in primping and polishing nails. But unlike Le, most Vietnamese American women cite convenience as their main motivation for going into the nail business.
These days, you’d be hard-pressed to find a nail salon in Sacramento that doesn’t employ a Vietnamese American—if it’s not already owned by one.
Which begs the question: Why so many Vietnamese nail salons?
“A lot of people who come here don’t know English, so this is an easy job,” Ly Nguyen said in Vietnamese. The 30-year-old works at La Belle Nails, but she’ll also be taking classes to learn English at American River College.
Many newcomers, however, don’t have much time to take English classes while trying to make ends meet. But they do have time to take the classes necessary for a manicurist’s license. Averaging a mere three months’ commitment, the classes are another factor that makes the industry so attractive.
That and the potential to make decent wages, said Le. She added that it doesn’t cost too much to open up a shop, so she was able to set up in Antelope after closing her first salon in Sunnyvale.
Because of the profitability of starting up a new salon, Tiffany Tran, owner of Galleria Nails in the Galleria Mall, said she’s helped her share of entrepreneurs.
“When people start working for you, they build up their clientele, then open up their own salon and take their clients with them,” said Tran, also 30. That cycle explains why so many nail salons are Vietnamese-run. Tran estimated knowing 200 other manicurists, 99 percent of whom are Vietnamese.
Connections within the tight-knit Vietnamese community help spread the profession. Relationships and word-of-mouth make it easy for the Southeast Asians to get their foot in the salon door.
But why nail salons? Aren’t there plenty of other accessible professions that could have just as easily grown amongst the Vietnamese?
Tuyet Nguyen, 54, can think of a few answers.
“This doesn’t take as much skill as hair dressing,” she said in Vietnamese, adding that it’s not as physically demanding as cleaning houses or bussing tables, a big plus for the usually small-of-stature Vietnamese.
The nature of the work, Nguyen said, is also easygoing.
“Sitting here is cool and relaxing,” she said inside Pleasant Nails in Roseville. “And if I mess up someone’s nails, it’s easy to fix.”
If the work is so appealing, it would make sense that others immigrants would want to get in on the action, too. So why are Vietnamese Americans more inclined to work in and own nail shops than others?
That one stumped most manicurists interviewed for this story. But Le offered one possibility.
“[Others] don’t have as much patience,” Le said. “Vietnamese people, where we come from, we’re raised with patience and respect.”
Plus, she said, now that the Vietnamese are so established in the industry, “They know they can’t compete with us.”