When asked about her accomplishments in America, Kim Nguyen said she owed her success to God, luck and nail salons.
Nguyen moved to New Orleans in 1991, where she worked in a dress alterations shop. Nguyen said the job didn’t pay enough and the working conditions were brutal. But after meeting her husband, Tan Vo, the couple decided to run a grocery store together but switched to cosmetology. In 1999, the couple opened a 400-square-foot nail salon on Baronne Street.
“Working in the grocery store was challenging and difficult, and you don’t get to spend a lot of time with your family because you have to work seven days a week,” Nguyen said, adding that despite earning a good income, part of the move was due to shootings targeting nearby shops. “Being a nail technician is just much safer and easier — it doesn’t require much physical labor, you make way much more and get to work indoors.”
For Nguyen and many other Vietnamese Americans, nail salons have long served as a gateway to American culture. They have been a stepping stone to a more prosperous life, offering flexible working hours, a sense of community and an easier way to make money.
Vietnamese Americans make up a significant portion of the multibillion-dollar nail industry’s workforce. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, around one-fifth of Vietnamese workers hold personal care and service jobs due to their high employment in nail salons. Analyzing the Census Bureau American Community Survey estimates, demographic data and policy research on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders publisher AAPI Data also found that about 12 percent of Vietnamese Americans work as manicurists and pedicurists, while 2 percent of them work as other beauty industry workers.
In Louisiana, about one in five Vietnamese women worked as manicurists and pedicurists in 2018, according to Tulane University Professor Carl L. Bankston III in a 2020 article published in 64 Parishes magazine. Bankston, a sociologist who studies immigration, also noted that the figure was approximately one in ten for Vietnamese men.
Lang Le, executive director of VIET, short for Vietnamese Initiatives in Economic Training, said this was no surprise. Established in 2001, the New Orleans-based nonprofit organization provides services including after-school tutoring, citizenship application assistance and tax preparation, among many other services.
“It’s easier to find jobs, and it’s high paying,” Le said about working in nail salons. She also explained that nail technician jobs usually don’t require a college degree or English proficiency. According to a 2021 analysis of census data on the Vietnamese population by the Pew Research Center, 54% of Vietnamese residents, including those born in the U.S., are fluent in English. Among foreign-born residents, only 35% speak English.
Le also helps community members with their taxes. When asked how much a nail technician makes a year on average, Le estimated the figure to be around $60,000, well above the city’s median household income of about $46,000.
Nguyen said the community that nail salons foster is why many Vietnamese choose this career path, especially the newcomers in recent years.
“Those with expertise can help with those who just start the job, not just with technique but also language and social norms, and even down to the simplest things like where to shop or how to pay your bills,” said Nguyen, who did not speak much English when she first started working as a nail technician in the U.S. “For those who just moved to this country, having this kind of community is extremely helpful, as it has helped me in so many ways.”
Since opening their first store more than 20 years ago, Nguyen and her husband, Vo, have hired many nail technicians of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Now, their latest store, in Terrytown, has seven permanent manicurists, all Vietnamese.
Vo explained that there are so many Vietnamese nail salons because they are usually generational, passed down to relatives or other workers.
“First, we want to hire people who we can easily communicate and connect to — people of our own culture,” Vo said, adding most Vietnamese nail salons are run by the older generations who lack English abilities. “We don’t discriminate, but if we can’t communicate with our staff well, it’s just harder to train them. And if they do something wrong two or three times, we may not only lose a customer but their family and friends won’t come here either.”
After losing their first nail business on Baronne Street due to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Vo and Nguyen said they had to work hard to provide for their children, two of them now college graduates. To earn income, Nguyen worked for a nail salon in the mornings and as a casino dealer at night.
Today, their youngest is 12 and helps out as a cashier at the family’s salon during his free time to earn allowances. The couple said this is their way of teaching him the value of money and that they are saving to help pay for his college degree.
“This job has helped raise so many generations of Vietnamese doctors and lawyers,” Vo said. “We can now afford houses and cars for our family to enjoy… and to even send money back to our family in Vietnam.”
Like Vo, many Vietnamese men are now working in nail salons. As a former manager of My-Le’s Beauty College in Terrytown, Vania Do said this is because the job allows them to make quick short-term financial gains to pursue other goals.
“The job is based on commissions, meaning the more you do, the more you earn,” Do said. She said customers also tip well. “Customers also get massages when they go get their nails done so they feel pampered, beautiful and relaxed. So they are willing to tip extra for the services.”
She also said having men in stores has made workers feel much safer, especially after multiple shootings targeted nail salons and other Asian-owned businesses in the past few years. A former nail technician, Do said the job allowed her to follow her dream of working in insurance.
Do moved to the U.S. when she was 19. She enrolled in a vocational school in Sacramento, California, where she earned her cosmetology license. In 2018, she moved to New Orleans with her two sons to work at her aunt’s nail salon while saving up money to afford insurance classes following her divorce.
“I could have taken child support from him, but I didn’t — I had nothing when I moved here,” said Do, who rented a small bedroom in her aunt’s home when she first got to the city. “So I’m just grateful for that chance to rebuild my life and provide my children the future they deserve.”
Do now works at her “dream job” as a full-time insurance agent specializing in commercial, auto and renters insurance. Since moving to New Orleans, she has sponsored her parents and younger sister to live in the country.
“It’s like Korean dry cleaners or Chinese restaurants; when people think of nail salons, they think of Vietnamese,” Do said. “As a Vietnamese, I am so proud of us. Despite the war, we manage to thrive and succeed in this new land and even establish ourselves as a prominent presence in the industry.”
According to Do, Louisiana now offers exams in Vietnamese due to the influx of Vietnamese students enrolling in cosmetology classes. One of them is Vi Tran, 22, who moved to the U.S. a month ago.
Tran dropped out of college in Vietnam when she received a visa to live with her father in Atlanta. Shortly after landing in the country, she moved to New Orleans to work in her aunt’s nail salon in Terrytown. Tran now shadows four other Vietnamese manicurists.
“No one works as a nail technician forever,” Tran said. “You either save up to open your own nail salon or save up to pursue a different career.”
Tran said she planned to work as a nail technician for a few years to save up enough money to finish her degree in business administration. While acknowledging all the benefits it provides, Tran said working in a nail salon has its own set of challenges.
“Normally, you would want to work for as long as you possibly can to maximize your profits, and that means hunching for long hours,” Tran said, sharing that her back and neck hurt from working more than 10 hours every day, five days per week. “You also inhale toxic chemicals, and sometimes you have to deal with rude, abusive or even racist customers. If you don’t have the language, you can’t protect or speak up for yourself, which is the case for many Vietnamese workers in this field.”
Having worked in the industry for 24 years, Vo said he had had his fair share of bad customers and even received negative comments about his profession. Last year, the couple opened a new nail salon called Nail Edit in Terrytown.
“No job is an easy job. That’s not how life works,” Vo said. “Some people say it’s disgusting and shameful to have to work someone else’s feet, but it’s legal and lawful, and everything we earn is a product of our hard and honest work.”
Note: Kim Nguyen, Tan Vo, Vania Do and Vi Tran spoke to Verite in Vietnamese. Reporter Minh Ha translated their interviews for publication.
more from verite
Help inform our coverage as we build a newsroom for and by the people of New Orleans:
Please take a few minutes to share your thoughts with us by answering each question.