In this travel journal, former NAILS associate editor Jayna Rust goes to Asia. From China to South Korea, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, she finds nail services everywhere (and happily tries them all out in order to report back to you).
After a year and a half of working at NAILS, I’m heading out to see more of the world. I’ve been inspired by hearing all of you talk about how scared you’d been to quit another job/start your own business/go back to school but are so happy you did it. So, that’s what I’m doing now…trying something I’d dreamed about but been a bit too scared to do. It’s my last day at the office, but I barely have time for good-byes; the NAILS team is leaving the office early to get ready for the annual Maggie awards. (We win two Maggies, both on issues that I am quite proud of. What a perfect sendoff for my journey!)
Day 1–It’s 1:40 a.m., and I’m off. After a week spent with the family in Missouri and another week selling the rest of my belongings in Los Angeles, I’m headed to my first stop: Beijing, China.
Day 2–I finally see my first nail place. It’s part of a souvenir shop in one of the touristy areas of Beijing. I can’t really read the signs, but I think they specialize in nail art. The girl working in the shop tells me she isn’t the one who does the art; the woman who does will be back at 1 p.m. Although I plan on coming back, it doesn’t happen. I still haven’t recovered from my jet lag and fall asleep after lunch.
Day 3– I’ve just bought a ticket to a ballet on Friday, so I tell myself I need a manicure to look proper for it. I find a nice spa in a mall geared toward expats and China’s upper crust. For 180 yuan (about $24), I have what just may be the best manicure of my life. The manicurist is so thorough. Asking my input on shape throughout, she is meticulous in her filing, looking at each nail from every angle…top, bottom, down the barrel, making sure each is shaped to perfection. She is just as thorough on removing the cuticle, almost as if I were an enhancement client with the worst lifting record in history. She finishes the manicure with a base coat and two coats of the natural-color Orly polish I’d picked out. After sitting under the nail dryer until she completely satisfied with the dryness of my nails, I finally have top coat added.
NOTE: The spa has an innovative way for heating up towels. Towels are kept dry nearby, as is a plug-in water heater often used in Asia for serving hot tea. When the tech needs a hot towel, she just holds a dry one under the spigot and gives it about one and a half squirts. What a brilliant, cheap way to have hot towels handy without worrying about them getting too hot or moldy!
Day 4– Although I’ve got plenty of top coat with me (in fact I’ve got just about everything I need to do a manicure or pedicure on myself), I haven’t added any on my manicure. Still, it’s nine days later, and there isn’t a chip in sight. Amazing.
Day 5 – I stop into a mall in Qinhuangdao, a smaller city with few foreign tourists, to check things out. Judging by the number of nail booths, the local girls like to have their nails done. Because my Chinese is pretty much limited to “Hello,” “Thank you,” and “I’m vegetarian,” I can’t ask much (well anything, really) about the nail techs’ work, but from the number of UV lamps in use, I’d say gel nails are definitely popular.
Day 6– I’m now in Xi’an to see the Terracotta Warriors. On the way to the site, I meet a group of college art students. I notice that a lot of them have really long pinky nails. I’d seen this a few other times in China, but these men and women were the first I’d met who could explain why to me. When doing some forms of Chinese art, they need to use that pinky nail kind of like an anchor — it gives them the ability to move their hands like one of those compasses from geometry class. Aha! So it isn’t just some crazy fashion statement!
Day 7– After a few more stops in China, I’m back in Beijing. On my bus ride into the city, I ask the woman sitting next to me if she knows any good places to get my nails done (the manicure I had gotten the last time I was in Beijing finally started chipping about five days ago). She tells me about a place where there will be lots of nail techs. I ask her how much it will be for the services. She says for acrylic pink-and whites, “They’ll probably tell you 100 yuan, but ask for 50.” Ah, yes, bargaining…so expected in Chinese culture, but something I still haven’t gotten used to. I’m not only horrible at it, but I just can’t imagine myself telling a tech, “Thirteen dollars for acrylic nails? No, no, too expensive. Six-fifty!” When I arrive, though, that’s just what’s going on. The mall area is basically a basement packed with every beauty service imaginable: hair removal, facials, nail enhancements. As I wander through, many young nail techs try to tempt me with their 10 yuan ($1.30) nail art. They call me over to look through their extensive portfolios, and, sure enough, offer me acrylic pink-and-whites for 100 yuan. I decide not to have my nails done here…at all the booths I stop by, I don’t see any cleaning or sterilizing of the implements, and the last thing I want on this trip is a nail fungus. (Hmmm…I wonder if travel insurance covers that?)
Day 8 – I return to the same mall where I had my nails done last time. This time, though, I stop into a cute nails-only salon that was having a training the last time I was here. This tech is just as meticulous as the first one. I’m convinced my nails could have a full set put on without any lifting. As I wait for my OPI-painted nails to dry under the electric dryer, I glance around the salon and see that nearly all the products are familiar. There’s a Depileve paraffin warmer, CND lotions, and LCN gel products.
With my nails completely dry, I pull out the cash for my reasonably priced manicure (86 yuan or about $11) and glance at the prices for full sets of pink-and-whites —acrylic nails are about $76 and gel nails are about $87 (cheaper than the spa across the hall) — and am impressed that even though the United States’ GDP is nearly six times that of China’s, some techs here can still charge higher prices than those in the States.
Day 9– I make country-landing number two: Korea!
Day 10– I keep coming back to the Coex Mall here in Seoul. I’m amazed at how much like an American mall it is. I’m halfway tempted to get a manicure at one of the cute nail shops here. But I know I’ll get one when my sister visits next week.
Day 11– My sister Trina (that’s her in the picture top left, second from the right) and I meet Mi Won Kim outside of a department store in Seoul. Mi Won was NAILS’ January 2005 Cover Tech Contest Winner. Today, Mi Won and her daughter Myung Hee, who came along as a translator, take Trina and me to one of her NailXpert salons to get some nail art done.
After way too much deliberation, I decide on a kitty-cat set. My sister goes for a more sophisticated polish with acrylic flowers. As we leave the salon, I can’t stop staring at my nails. They are so adorable!
Day 12– We arrive at the International NailXpert Academy, a school completely different from the ones I’ve visited in the U.S. Students here are doing nails all the time. And their teacher? Sang Mi Seo. If you don’t recall the name, you probably recall her nail art or competition skills.
In 2006, she was the Level 3 Winner of Winners for both the Las Vegas and London Nailympics. The school is very hands-on. One student is perfecting her nail art strokes by painting them repeatedly on black paper; another is building a liquid-and-powder enhancement on a fake hand. And during all this, their award-winning teacher is patiently giving them all individual attention, the same attention they’ll receive for the length of their course, which ranges from three months to a year.
NOTE: The entrance to the school was set up to look just like a real salon station. It’s there for students to use to help them get over the nervousness of their first few in-salon services.
Day 13– My sister is on her way back to the States. Much to her dismay, I’ve loaded her up with nearly an extra suitcase of things for her to take back. Two of those things are ginormous books from Mi Won Kim and the NailXperts. They have gorgeous photography and the best collection of nail art step-by-steps I’ve seen.
Day 14– I am a bit frazzled as I fly into Thailand. I thought I left on July 9. Last night I looked at my itinerary and realized it’s actually July 6. Sigh! My forgetfulness is just one of many reasons why I must travel alone.
Day 15– While trying to find a well-known temple in Chiang Mai, I’m lost. On my way, I come across the very cute Coquette Beauty Nail Salon & Spa. Although I could probably use another manicure, my body is exhausted from all the walking and searching. I opt instead for a full-body Thai massage. I’m a big fan of the yoga-like massages, and I think it’s just what I need now. During the massage, the masseuse starts sneezing a bit and quickly puts on a surgical mask. How very thoughtful! Seeing the mask, I’m reminded of how some consumer nail salon safety stories in the U.S. tell readers to avoid salons where techs wear masks…but in Asia, I’ve seen masks everywhere. It’s such a part of the culture. I have to admit, with all the smog in some of these cities, I’m halfway tempted to wear one all the time now, too!
Day 16–My nails are the longest they’ve ever been. In fact, they’re too long. I’m having trouble typing. I go to one of the local “spas” (Thailand has a ton of store-front spas aimed at tourists that advertise everything from $6 foot massages to $4 manicures). As I’m waiting for the manicure, there is a young western guy finishing up a foot massage. Guys love those massages! (Actually, I do, too.)
Day 17– Many of Asia’s cities are known for their markets. The Sunday Night Market in Chiang Mai takes place near my guesthouse, and while wandering through the food and wares, I come across a brightly lit corner. There’s a line of locals waiting to get nail art. The outdoor artist is charging 40 baht (about $1.25). If only the line weren’t so long and I weren’t so hungry…
Days 18 & 19– They say a boat ride down the Mekong River is one of the prettiest here is. Journeying on a slow boat from Thailand to Laos, I get to take it all in.
Luang Prabang is a small, charming city. Like Chiang Mai, there are many massage shops that also have nail services, but these too, are really only for the tourists. It seems the locals get their nails done by a mobile tech who visits them at their market stalls.
I’ve been lucky on this trip so far, but today my luck is over. I’ve got the first stomachache so far, and of course, it has to be on the day I fly from Laos to Vietnam. Ugh.
Day 20 –I’m finally feeling better, so it’s time for another manicure! I’m in a pretty small city again, so the number of places is a bit limited. On my way into Hoi An last night, I passed a cute little nail place that I want to try out. In daylight, the cute little place doesn’t look so cute anymore. I decide I’d rather not get my nails done here. The only other place where I’ve seen a sign for nail services is a hotel spa.
I head into the spa and request a regular manicure, but I’ll have to pay extra for the polish, which is a bit annoying considering the manicure is $3, and to have the off-brand polish put on is $3 more. As the tech puts on the polish without base coat or top coat, I definitely think it wasn’t worth doubling the cost of my service.
Day 21– I’m now in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, and I’d read in a travel guide that on Dong Khoi Street there are many women wearing traditional dresses and handing out flyers for spas and nail services. Of course, I am off to see if this is true. Before I even get to Dong Khoi, I’m handed a brochure, so I’m pretty sure I’m heading in the right direction. Once there, I am approached by many nail service hawkers. I head back home to look over the brochures and find a place to go before I leave the city.
Day 22– Riding a bus into Cambodia, I’m a bit sad that my last few days in Vietnam were so rushed, I didn’t even get to have the other manicure. Sniff. Sniff.
Day 23– Cambodia’s Phnom Penh is a growing metropolitan city but currently has only one American-type mall.
Stopping to check out the prices at one of the mall’s nail shops, I’m surprised at the relatively high costs. Although the average annual income is only $272, a set of nail art can set someone back as much as $34.50! It’s a sure sign that nail art isn’t for everyone here.
Day 24– Throughout the city are many, many salons and spas, and they’re often designed for both locals and tourists. I head into one last salon for a $5 manicure (expensive compared to the $3 and $4 ones marketed all over).
The tech here takes her time shaping my nails. After she carefully paints my nails, she uses one of the salon’s hairdryers to speed up the drying. Ah, beautiful!
NOTE: While my tech filed away, a bored staff member came over to give me a shoulder massage. Instead of just sitting around chatting with the other not-busy worker, she made an unnecessary (but welcome) effort to make my great service even better. So thoughtful! ■
Jayna Rust, a former NAILS associate editor, is a freelance writer traveling through the eastern hemisphere. She can be reached via her travel blog at www.ususbaby.com.