The awkward haircut abroad

To my mind there are few things more excruciating than needing to get a haircut when you’re in a non-English speaking country.

How do I communicate how short I want it? Are hairdressing standards the same all over the world? Will I still have my ears afterwards?

These types of questions play tiddlywinks with my grey matter as haircut time draws ever nearer when I’m travelling.

A boat ride on the Mekong River in Vietnam
Some days it’s just better to wear a hat…

I’m sure it must be even worse for women and men who are much vainer than I. You see, I only ever want it as short as possible, without making me look stupid. Short and cheap are my only two requirements.

It must be a real nightmare for those with complicated hair dos. Then again, in Southeast Asia in particular, it’s a lot cheaper for women to have their hair done than it is in London, say, or even New Zealand.

My fiancé Nicola put some colour in her hair in Bali because it was so cheap. She’s going to whack me around the head when she reads this, but it turned out her definition of “blond” was slightly different from the Indonesian hairdresser’s.

It ended up a shade or orange used primarily for the high-visibility vests worn by road workers. Fortunately for her, it came after I asked her to marry me (I am definitely a dead man).

"Your hair looks great. No, I don't think its too bright."
“Your hair looks great. No, I don’t think it’s too bright.”

I’ve never had any major trouble getting a haircut abroad. In fact, despite my worries, it’s usually been a pretty hilarious experience. Make that awkward but memorable in a funny kind of way.

I remember one time in Luang Prabang, Laos, I felt like a supermodel when I went to have my haircut at a little shack where the locals go to get theirs. Women were posing for photographs with me and kept touching my hair.

What should have been a 10-20 minute job soon became an hour-long odyssey, as each individual strand was seemingly shorn from my scalp. Next, they dragged me towards the sink and started washing my hair – at least that’s what I think they were doing. It felt an awful lot like they were trying to drown me.

Bad hair day in Brussels, Belgium
I really needed a haircut in Brussels

Another time I had my haircut in Brussels in Belgium. That guy, too, didn’t speak a word of English – or at least he didn’t speak any of it to me. Instead, started cutting before I had time to mime how short I wanted it. You know what, though? I think it was the best haircut I’ve probably ever had.

Still, I’m waiting for the day when a hairdresser carves their initials into my hair or, worse, dyes my hair bright orange.

Have you had any trouble getting a haircut when you’ve been overseas?

About Simon Petersen 504 Articles
Travel blogger, journalist, sports and movie fiend. Chronicling the life and times of a Kiwi at home and abroad.


  1. Hi! Interesting post…
    Btw! I’m current in Brussels and I’m looking for a hardresser here. Short and cheap are my only requirements as well!!
    Do you remember the name or the address of the place where you had your haircut?
    Thank you!

    • In my experience any place Belgium will almost always give an exceptional haircut. I think it has to do with the centuries old artistic culture and a culture that prides it’s self on exacting detail and good work. I generally choose by the look of the place (some are just so very nice) and by using the internet I like to find the places where the haircutter is noted in their field. These haircutters are not easily found but when you do find one you can almost guarantee the best cut of your life.

  2. I got stabbed in the ear with a Q-tip during the head massage/shampoo portion of a haircut in China–actually damaged my hearing for a few days. Also had a slightly awkward time in Seoul, but the haircut turned out alright. The woman cutting my hair asked if I had a perm–I laughed and told her it was natural; she was a bit surprised.

  3. I can’t say I know how your girlfriend feels, but at least hairdye is readily available in shops… I had super long hair before a Thai ladyboy hacked off 6 inches more than I asked for. But she had such beautiful hair… how was I supposed to know the only haircut she knew was a schoolgirls?!?!
    Pretty much never going to get a haircut if I can’t explain what I want and agree on it beforehand again…

    • Haha, I can’t believe someone with a good haircut could give you such a bad one! Thanks for stopping by and good luck with your next haircut 😉

  4. Thanks for sharing your experience! We often forget about the struggles of communicating the “basics”, like haircuts, that we need to get done when travelling. My husband needed a haircut when we lived in Brussels, and despite that he spoke Flemmish to the hairdresser, he ignored him and said he only spoke French and just started cutting without asking him anything. It was, also, probably the best hair cut my husband had in a long time – thank goodness the Belgians are often very fashion forward! (Oh, but he didn’t understand a word of English but fluently sang along with all the songs on the playlist booming through the speaker system!). Those Frenchies…

    • Haha, there must just be something about Belgian hairdressers! Either that or we got our haircuts done at the same place 😉

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