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MIAMI — Linh Huynh used to drive a taxi through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam. Then, 13 years ago, his relatives, who worked in a nail salon in Miami, beckoned with the promise of a better life.

Since arriving here, Huynh has worked 10 hours a day, six days a week, manicuring and pedicuring fingers and toes. After saving his money, he bought his own salon, Lovely Nails, in Kendall, Fla., last year with his wife and a friend.

“Here in the United States, I think the gap between rich and poor people is not so much. Rich men have cars; I also have a car,” said Huynh, 44. “The most important thing is that I can work hard to prepare for the future of my daughter. She has equal opportunity in education.”

Huynh and other Vietnamese are following a path well known to South Florida’s Latin American and Caribbean immigrant populations, carving out an entrepreneurial niche as they seek prosperity for their families. In South Florida — and across the nation — many Vietnamese have landed jobs in the nail-salon industry.

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Though many don’t know it, they can thank a 1975 training effort spearheaded by actress Tippi Hedren after she visited a camp of Vietnamese War refugees.

“Thanks to my nail job, my family life is stable now,” said Dieu Nguyen, who has worked for three years at International Nails in Doral, Fla. Her husband also works in a West Miami nail salon, and today they own their own home. “Compared with my previous job in Vietnam, despite working harder, my income was very low,” Nguyen said. “When I work at the nail salon, every month my husband and I can save $2,000 to $3,000.”

Immigrant mecca

The United States has the largest number of immigrants in the world — 14 million. While the U.S. population only represents 5 percent of the global population, 20 percent of all global migrants live in the United States, said Jeanne Batalova, a senior policy analyst and demographer with Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy.

Waves of immigrants from different regions flock to the United States, primarily “to create a better life for themselves and their families, a safer life and to find work and have a piece of the American dream,” she said.

Often they follow their countrymen, seeking jobs and then buying businesses in the same business sectors, she said. That includes Dominican-owned bodegas in New York, Korean dry cleaners in Los Angeles and Ethiopian-driven taxis in Washington, D.C., she said.

Similarly, Vietnamese have formed a (pedicured) foothold in the nail-salon industry. In the United States, 374,345 people born in Vietnam are certified as nail technicians, representing more than 40 percent of the nail workers in the country, according to statistics from Nail Magazine. Miami, alone, had 279 — and Florida 1,152 — Vietnamese-owned and registered nail salons in 2010, the magazine said.

South Florida’s salon owners are among 54,597 Vietnamese-born residents who live in Florida, U.S. Census figures show.

“They started off working on hands and feet, then got enough clientele to open their own businesses,” explained Alfred Osborne, senior associate dean at the University of California, Los Angeles, Anderson School of Business.

“They have been able to come to the United States, work hard, climb the ladder and live the American dream,” he said. “The fact they have been able to deal with all of the odds immigrants face and women face, and corner a market, is really quite an inspiration.”

Tippi Hedren’s role

The Vietnamese entry to the nail business began in 1975 when Hollywood actress Hedren — mother of Melanie Griffith and a frequent star in Alfred Hitchcock films — visited a camp of 20 Vietnamese women who had come to the United States after the fall of Saigon.

As Hedren met with the women inside the camp, called Hope Village, near Sacramento, Calif., they began admiring her nails. It gave Hedren, who was working as an international-relief coordinator and interested in the plight of the Vietnamese, an idea.

“I noticed that these women were very good with their hands,” Hedren told the Los Angeles Times in a 2008 interview. “I thought, ‘Why couldn’t they learn how to do nails?’ ”

Hedren flew up her manicurist to the camp once a week to teach the women, insisting that they also learn how to do silk wraps, a technique that creates long, natural-looking artificial nails. Hedren also persuaded a nearby beauty school to help the women find jobs.

“Before you know it, she had gotten herself helping women build a presence in this business and it became popular,” Osborne said. ”

From the training of those 20 women, an industry developed, and today, the Vietnamese community has “a nail and pedicure salon in every strip mall, and on every corner like Starbucks or McDonald’s,” Osborne said. “These are folks who have a monopoly in the marketplace in certain communities (nationwide) and own all of these storefronts and are able to bring people in.”

For many, salons offer an entry point that requires minimal education and investment, allowing employees to live with relatives or close friends as they earn their licenses. Once they save money, some are able to open their own salons.

“I chose to work in the nail industry because this job does not need higher education, does not need so much financial capital, and I can help other Vietnamese who need the jobs when they live in America,” said Thanh Huynh, owner of Expo Nails in Southwest Miami-Dade. “My plan is to be the owner of a big salon in a good location. I will save money to build up my dream.”

Huy Van, 44, worked 60 hours a week at his brother’s salon in Miami before buying it from him in 2010. He later moved it to Miami Shores, and now his sister and niece work there, too. They live with Van.

Hieu Truong opened T-Nails in Kendall, Fla., in 2006, after working in many nail salons in Minnesota and California. Now, he and his wife have seven employees.

“The nail industry will help stabilize the lives of so many Vietnamese from Vietnam to America,” said Hieu Truong, owner of T-Nails in Kendall. “But with the second generation — for example, my children and my staff’s children — they are not going to choose a career in a nail salon, because they will have a diploma and will be good in English, so they can find another good job.”

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