BINH AN, Vietnam — Hailed as a hero in his native Vietnamese village, Do Van Thu has become rich and transformed the lives of hundreds of families through the sale of a precious and unorthodox crop — hair.
“We were very poor because we had hardly any farmland. This work has saved our lives,” said Thu, as women from Binh An village washed and sorted piles of tresses in a workshop at his opulent home.
The hair mogul, seen as something of a visionary among local people, said exports of Vietnamese locks sustain some 500 families — or 80 percent of the population in his area.
They have also made him one of the richest men in Bac Ninh province, around 40 kilometers (25 miles) northeast of the capital Hanoi.
Globally, hair has become big business. In addition to wigs and hair pieces, demand for hair extensions from fashion-conscious young women has exploded over the last decade.
“Each year, my family exports between 50 and 60 tons of hair to China. We buy it from all corners of the country, as well as from Laos and Cambodia,” the 50-year-old entrepreneur told AFP, surrounded by sacks of carefully sorted hair.
The price per kilo varies between $45 and $250 depending on the quality of the hair — with long, natural hair being the most prized for hair extensions, according to Nguyen Van Tam, a 60-year-old villager.
“Our hair is 100 percent natural… hair that is 70 or 80 centimeters long is more expensive than hair that is 50 to 60 centimeters in length,” Tam told AFP, while sorting long hair into neat bunches secured by elastic bands.
“This is from an elderly woman so we have to buy a product to dye the grey hair black,” he said, waving a silvery thatch.
Demand is rising more quickly than hair can grow back and the Binh An hair collectors are forced to search for uncut locks — and owners willing to part with them — in ever more remote areas, he said.
“Sometimes, my children travel 200 to 300 kilometers every day to collect just a few kilograms of hair… We Vietnamese are very hard working — if it brings in money,” he said.
Hair collectors set off on annual pilgrimages, travelling around the country searching for women willing to part with their locks for cash — they must often spend substantial chunks of time outside the village.
Thu, who has become a millionaire in the 13 years since starting his first workshop, indicates the brick houses which have sprung up in the rural area as a sign of the prosperity that hair has brought to Binh An.
“Each employee at my business is earning three million dong a month ($140),” he said, three times what the average rural wage is in Vietnam.
Local people say their lives have been vastly improved by Thu’s hair enterprise.
“Looking at the huge profits it earns, a large number of farmers have engaged in this work and their life has considerably improved in recent years,” Nguyen Van Kien, Binh An’s village head told AFP.
Thu is eyeing expansion, citing major regional opportunities as demand for hair extensions and wigs rises in countries such as South Korea and Thailand.
Vietnam is well-positioned to cash in on this trend, said Thu, who has a number of local competitors in the region.
Business is thriving — “it is getting harder to buy good hair but we can sell everything we get,” he said.
But the hair business has a darker side as sources of luscious locks grow ever scarcer.
Unscrupulous hair hunters reportedly attacked female students at a school in Lang Son province, near the Chinese border and forcibly hacked off their flowing tresses, according to the state-run Tin Tuc Vietnam.
At the start of September, another official newspaper, Tuoi Tre, reported that a 15-year-old student Vo Nguyen Hoang Chi from central Danang province sold her hair for just 24 dollars to pay for her studies.
“As my family is very poor, I had no choice but to sacrifice my hair to pay my tuition fees — I want to do my best at school,” she said.
“But after selling my hair I couldn’t sleep. I cried when I put hands on my short hair.”