How Bad Hair Gave Me Best Friends


“If you’re going traveling, you’re going to have bad hair,” Alice told me. “You have to prepare yourself for that now.”

Alice is slender and elegant. She is so stylish she has a white leather jacket. Her hair is longer at the front than the back, swooping in and out and around in just the right way. Alice wears heels and dresses and jewellery.

In short – Alice is the opposite of me, who has never really graduated out of the weekend t-shirt and shorts style I developed during high school in a totally unstylish town on the edge of the Australian desert.

I can’t imagine Alice having bad hair. But she has travelled the world and so speaks with the voice of wisdom.

I shrug off her warning. As an adventurous 30-something heading for exotic Asian pastures, a crooked fringe or two wasn’t going to get to me.

But it did.

A month after arriving in Ho Chi Minh City I began to wonder what to do about my hair. I wandered around Saigon’s backpacker district looking for something hairdresser-y. I found a place that could have been suitable and within no time I was caped up and helpless as a Vietnamese hairdresser pranced around, snipping and foiling and talking loudly to the six non-busy staff members who were now the audience.

The result – not too bad. The cut was ok, the colour was a little yellowish but I could ignore that. The price – holy hell, the same as an Australian do – US$80! I needed to find a cheaper alternative. Preferably one who knew the difference between yellow and blonde.

A few weeks later I boarded a bus full of crazy people heading out into the Vietnamese countryside to run through the fields chasing mounds of shredded paper. The Hash House Harriers have chapters all over the world. I’m not a runner but I’d turned up because I’d read in a local expat magazine that walking was acceptable.

At first the venture seemed doomed. Most of the other bus passengers were older and male. Everyone on the bus knew each other and were busy insulting each other and swearing. It didn’t look like a bunch of potential friends to me. The few women I could spot were deep in conversation, out of reach at the front of the bus. I stared out the window, feeling out of place and lonely.

The bus arrived at its destination. Bossy organised types herded everyone together and yelled instructions. The older men hitched up their shorts and ran off, one carrying a bugle.

I followed the walkers, who set off down a dirt track beside a rice field. I unsuccessfully tried to start conversations, then gave up and trudged along, alone.

I caught up to a group of ladies and it seemed natural to overtake them. Then I noticed one of the women had some beautiful ash-blonde strands of hair escaping out of her cap. I pulled up beside them.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Can you tell me where you get your hair done?” I felt like a complete idiot asking this, but I felt like a complete idiot on this bust of a friend-finding mission anyway.

The blonde lady started telling me about a little hair salon close to her place with a hairdresser she’d “trained” to do blonde. She was friendly. I asked if I could walk with them.

And so I met Jennifer. And Linda. And Linda’s mum.

Linda and Jennifer were part of an informal group of teachers who met for Sunday lunch. They invited me along and soon that Sunday lunch was a regular part of my schedule.

At one of those Sunday lunches, I met Leigh and Sarah, a nurse and a massage therapist, who lived in the same building in Ho Chi Minh City’s expat “ghetto”.

Through Leigh and Sarah, I met Daria, a Canadian powerhouse, her hilariously funny compatriate Adrienne and Australians Julie and Sam.

I met Natalie, who worked with Jennifer.

I met Nadia, another Australian, who got addicted to salsa while in Vietnam.

Four years later these amazing women are still my friends. They are scattered all over the world and we keep in touch by email, Facebook and Skype. They continue to astound me with their adventurousness and their love and support.

We are all so different – different ages, from different countries with different likes and dislikes and beliefs. The only thing we really have in common is that we were all adventurous enough to go to Vietnam to work for a while. And I would never have met them if I hadn’t stopped on that dirt track in the Vietnamese countryside and asked someone to recommend a hairdresser.

Let me fill you in on what and where my friends – my own world of inspiration – are now.

Jennifer and Natalie are both back in Australia, finishing off their university degrees. Adrienne is in Canada doing her masters.

Sarah and the Austrian boyfriend she met in Ho Chi Minh City are back in Vietnam after six months in Argentina and another six months in Austria.

Daria is back in Canada, loving her new kick-arse challenging job.

Leigh is back in Australia, loving her new kick-arse challenging job.

Nadia met the man of her dreams halfway up a Malaysian mountain and went to live in Germany with him. They are now on their way to start a stint in Shanghai.

Linda surprised the hell out everyone by getting married at her 50th birthday party in Australia last month.

Julie, who just become a grandmother, is still in Vietnam loving her teaching job, posting annoying Facebook updates like “I love Mondays because I get to go back to work”.

And Sam is in the process of moving to Japan. Next week some of us are having a reunion of sorts. Those who can make it will be in Adelaide for Sam’s wedding to Jun, the most handsome man Japan has ever produced and great mates with Sarah’s Austrian boyfriend.

I’ll be there with Darling Man, the most handsome man Vietnam has ever produced, and our beautiful baby.

Unfortunately, at the moment my hair is slightly ginger and it’s too long on top and too short in the back. It’s not the worst hair I’ve had over the past four years but it’s definitely not the best. I’ll definitely be paying a fortune for an Australian hairdresser to fix it before the wedding.

So Alice was right, after all. Traveling does mean bad hair. But travelling also means amazing experiences and wonderful new friends. (Most days I don’t care about the bad hair but sometimes I do.)

And Alice? Alice is in Switzerland semi-enjoying her kickarse job. We hope to visit her next year and I’m sure her hair will be perfect.

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This article was written for the Most Important Word in the World series, a collaborative project to inspire people to step outside their comfort zones and find adventure and friendship. Other contributors to the series are: Wandering Earl, 1 Year Sabbatical, Nomadtopia, Disrupting the Rabblement, Beyond Norms and Do Something Cool.

8 years ago

By: Barbara

A career girl who dropped out, traveled, found love, and never got around to going home again. Currently on a year-long World School adventure with my two kids, seeing what this wonderful world can teach us.

41 Comments

  1. This was a really cool post. 🙂 I agree that traveling almost always means bad hair – I wish I could shave my head like my bf, but I tried that and it looked strange! Now ponytails are my best friend, lol.

    But most importantly, this was a great narrative about making connections while traveling. Sometimes I get so intimidated by the prospect of “infiltrating” a group of ppl that seem as though they’re already friends, but that shouldn’t be the case. It’s cool how such a simple question can break the ice and open the door to so many awesome friendships. 🙂
    Christy @ Technosyncratic recently posted..Photo Essay- Arches National Park

  2. Kelly says:

    LOVE THIS! The best part of traveling is meeting random friends in random places. The worst? The hair. Icky ick.
    Then again, Thailand is not known for producing conditions that make my hair attractive. Meh!

  3. Jillian says:

    I love this post, what a great way to make friends! I have always found that you just need one thing in common to start a friendship, something to break down that initial barrier and voila! My best friend and I met because we were the only “non fashionista” women in line checking into our hotel the first night of a study abroad program. She found me in line as to avoid one of the “IT” girls. We’ve been inseparable since!

    Once again beautifully written and thanks for sharing your story!
    Jillian recently posted..Photo- A Snapshot in Time

  4. Grace says:

    Your baby is SO beautiful. It is true a hair maketh a woman but friends makes us complete =)

    Oh and: Nadia met the man of her dreams halfway up a Malaysian mountain and went to live in Germany with him. That calls for another post. Sounds like a nice travel fairytale!
    Grace recently posted..Travel Photo Thursday- Sunrise in Siargao

    • The Dropout says:

      I’ll see Nadia next week. And meet the Malaysian mountain man. I’ll ask her if she’d like to share her story. (And thanks for the baby compliment. I think she’s a cutie.)

  5. Great Post! Thanks for contributing to the series and being the first one ! What a great bunch of people you ran into while in search of “great hair”.
    Matthew Bailey recently posted..New Series – The Most Important Word in the World

  6. Just a great heartwarming story! So you were all adventurous enough to work in Vietnam, but were you all adventurous enough to drive around in Vietnam? This country might have the craziest drivers in the world! 🙂
    Scott – Ordinary Traveler recently posted..Photo of the Week- Smiling Red Panda 7

    • The Dropout says:

      Yes, Scott, I had a motorbike in Vietnam. I got sick of dealing with the xe om drivers, so I decided to cut them out of my transport equation. In fact, I think all my Vietnam friends ended up riding motorbikes. The traffic there is crazy.

  7. Jeremy B says:

    Who knew bad hair could lead to so many friendships?! What a great story to tell and a way to connect. On the flip side, I know how bad my hair looks in the morning and I shudder at this.

  8. Really cool post. At first I was hoping that you were going to provide some tips on how to deal with gross unruly hair, but I’m very pleased with what I found instead.

    And…SUPER CUTE BABY! 🙂
    Dalene – Hecktic Travels recently posted..Housesitting 201

  9. robin says:

    My hair is always immaculate so I found this hard to relate to. Also I almost never make friends, so double whammy.

    Cool post though

    😉
    robin recently posted..Espacio

  10. Lisa Overman says:

    Great post, you’re right getting your hair done in another country is mostly challenging as is keeping it looking good while traveling. It looks like you made some outstanding friends. Have fun getting together!
    Lisa Overman recently posted..The Baltic Sea A Leisure Destination

  11. Andrea says:

    Hair is always a great conversation starter for women – great post! So nice that you’ve made so many great friends. It is difficult to keep good hair when you’re travelling. I’m struggling with mine at the moment a bit because so few hostels have hair dryers! Gorgeous baby =)
    Andrea recently posted..Visiting a Dinosaur Excavation in Neuquén

    • The Dropout says:

      I don’t know if I’ve ever had “good hair” but I strive for a short-and-messy look. The trick is finding the right product that won’t melt in the Asian heat!

  12. Matt says:

    I was going to combat bad travel hair by getting a buzz cut until I read this. Now I realize I might be passing up good opportunities to connect with people by having horrible hair.

    I really enjoyed this. I like that something as simple as asking where she got her hair done led to so many great friendships.
    Matt recently posted..The Box

  13. Great post. It’s amazing how such little leaps of faith, like asking someone about their hair, can lead to such amazing experiences and relationships.

    As an aside, I believe the travel hair thing is much harder for women than men. Lately I’ve been experimenting with not using shampoo, been almost three months now, and it seems water is enough to keep my hair looking and feeling healthy. Though it is quite short. If I had long, flowing locks, it might be a different story!
    Niall Doherty recently posted..Overcoming the fear of public urination aka Me doing stand-up comedy

  14. I guess it worked out well for you. You meet three new people and now you have a place to get your hair done.

  15. Rob says:

    haha. I want through such a similar situation when I was in Saigon. Only, I’m a guy. But I had long hair. It was too hot, so I wanted out. I looked around for a male hairdressers for about an hour, then found one charging just $1!! I got chatting to the lady who was cutting my hair, and when she was mid-cut she sat down next to me and got me to read out of her English Phrase Book while she was cutting so she could practice her accent.

    I enthusiastically obliged, and when the cut was finished, she insisted I didn’t pay as I’d helped her with her English so much. I refused this gesture of hers and said my hair was beautiful, so gave her $2 for doing such a good job.

    The stories we’re left with having merely wanted our hair cutting, haha 🙂

  16. Raymond says:

    I agree with Matt. I have a shaved head (cuz I’m losing the hair!) but now I feel I’m missing out on meeting folks. I do travel with my hair clippers though, so meet other travelers who want buzz cuts. Six of one, half a dozen of the other I guess… 🙂
    Raymond recently posted..Semana Santa — Holy Easter Week in Antigua- Guatemala

  17. Sailor says:

    Seems like you finally found the place to have a good hair treatment. It is often same with us who travel in the sea, the salt and the heat makes our hair go nasty.
    Sailor recently posted..Cabin Crew Norwegian Cruise Line

  18. awesome! love it! so crazy that we should have hair-related posts in such a short span of time. part of the reason i didn’t cut mine shorter, was to save myself from bad hair with a pony tail when i hit the road in a couple of months- ha ha. and there’s a linda in your story! wow.
    i love how you’ve illustrated how by just stepping out and talking to one stranger- asking one question- can lead to a whole group of long term friends. that’s all it takes some times and that is something i’m SO looking forward to when traveling again. great post 🙂 p.s. your baby is off the charts cute!
    Lorna – the roamantics recently posted..Donating My Hair in Honor of a Friend on Earth Day

    • The Dropout says:

      Thanks for the baby compliment!
      You’re going to make a whole lot of new friends when you set out. Perhaps hair won’t be your friend-finder. Perhaps it will be your cute little motorhome.

  19. Theodora says:

    What a lovely story. I’ve never braved the Hash House Harriers, because I’ve never believed you can walk. But how great to meet these women — you realise I’m waiting for the story of how you met Darling Man?
    Theodora recently posted..A Tough Question

  20. Lisa Wood says:

    So love this post about bad hair and how it gave you best friends. I have not thought about how my hair will be affected by traveling but can see the issues of hairdressers as already I miss my wonderful hairdresser from the Sunshine Coast. I ended up cutting my own hair a few weeks ago and now wear it up all the time so I dont have to see how badly it looks!!!

    We are about to travel Australia with out five boys and are so looking forward to meeting many wonderful people along the way. Making best friends while traveling – ones that you still keep in touch with — most be amazing 🙂

    Cheers
    Lisa
    Lisa Wood recently posted..Road Trip Home

  21. love this!! and it’s so true – sometimes the most basic conversations bring the best girlfriends!
    wandering educators recently posted..Travel Bags with a Vintage Look

  22. Torre says:

    I discovered new realms of bad hair days while sailing for 2 years. Wind, salt and few showers made for dry, frizzy, tangled locks. Not pretty. But I honestly didn’t pay much attention to it — there were too many other things going on to waste time staring at myself in the mirror 🙂 Having said that, I did cry once when my bottle of smoothing hair serum spilled. My one luxury item!

    Love your way with words.

  23. Nancie says:

    I have had so many bad haircuts and dye jobs in Asia that I have lost count…….:)

    The little one is gorgeous. Enjoy the wedding.

  24. I love the title of your post, and this is such an awesome story. I had a terrible haircut at a mall in Bangkok that sounds a lot like your experience – what I would have given for a recommendation to a great hairstylist there! It’s definitely easier to strike up a conversation when you’re desperate for information, isn’t it? I love that you’re still friends with a lot of these people.
    Amy @ Nomadtopia recently posted..How Strangers Become Friends

  25. Cool 🙂 I always complain about having bad hair when I travel, thank God I am not the only one 🙂 Still hate it tho!
    crazy sexy fun traveler recently posted..PUERTO ESCONDIDO – PARADISE FOR SURFERS

  26. ayngelina says:

    Great story! Oh man I have had my fair share of bad hair on the road!
    ayngelina recently posted..San Telmo Steakhouse Smackdown

  27. Denise says:

    sooo wonderful! Then I’m going to make plenty of friends while travelling in Vietnam because gosh does my hair not like humidity. If I could I would shave it!!!!
    Denise recently posted..To commercial websites which ask for free content, rot in hell

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