Fans of ear picking talk about "ear-gasms."
HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — To most Westerners, the idea of paying someone to stick little scoops and tweezers into their ears is downright unnerving. To Vietnamese, it’s an art.
Though the procedure may sound like torture, men line up day in and day out to experience this unorthodox probing. It’s part of the country’s pampering culture and is offered in corner barbershops, the oases where Vietnamese while away hot afternoons with luxurious shampoos, relaxing shaves and facials. But it’s the picking that elicits moans of ecstasy.
Many returning Vietnamese-Americans head straight to these barbershops, or “hot tocs,” after disembarking from long United and EVA Air flights at Tan Son Nhat International Airport.
“It brings a lot of happiness,” said Silicon Valley, Calif., resident Nguyen Tuong Tam, who always heads to a hot toc upon arriving in this city, also known as Saigon. He likens a good ear picking to good sex. Indeed, fans of ear picking gleefully talk about “ear-gasms.”
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There is a spot near the ear drum that, when touched the right way, “tingles,” said 26-year-old ear picker Nguyen Thi Le Hang. “For one person, it may just be a tickle. For another person, it’s a mind-blowing experience.”
In fact, the ear has a G-spot, said Dr. Todd Dray, an ear, nose and throat surgeon at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center-Santa Clara. “The skin in your ear is super thin — it’s paper thin,” he said. “It’s very sensitive. And there are a lot of nerves that converge in the ear.”
That explains why some customers have been known to blurt out, “Will you marry me!” Ear pickers usually ignore such exclamations as they would words of endearment from a drunk.
Just as a shampoo in Vietnam is more than washing hair — it’s also head massage, shoulder massage and a refreshing facial — ear picking is more than cleaning the ear. It helps reduce the tensions of living in the bustling, horn-honking metropolis of 9 million people, fans say.
Though the practice is mostly popular among men, some Vietnamese women enjoy regular ear pickings, too.
“Everybody is afraid the first time — but after, it’s, ‘Oh my God!”‘ said Katie Dang, a twenty-something singer who spends time in the United States and Ho Chi Minh City. “The men do a very good job. But the women are better. They have the magic hands.”
Ear picking has long been practiced in Vietnam and other Asian countries. And a few Vietnamese barbershops in San Jose, Calif., have quietly offered the service. But in recent years, practitioners in Vietnam have elevated it beyond simply removing ear wax to an experience on par with massage, said Hien Nhan, a former Californian who owns Lido’s Spa in Ho Chi Minh City.
Those offering the service range from a guy with a chair along a busy street to air-conditioned barbershops with several ear picking specialists and shops where the staff wear alluring uniforms. A picking and a shave can cost as little as $2, plus tip.
It’s not uncommon for ear pickers to give a customer Vietnamese coffee or tea before he settles in. He then reclines in a barber chair, tilting his head to one side. The ear picker, frequently a young woman wearing a head lamp, begins to gently probe.
“Some people like it really soft, others like it to hurt,” ear picking proprietor Nhan said. “It’s like a massage.”
After scooping up some ear wax, she scrapes it onto the customer’s hand as a way to show off her handiwork. The tools include a tiny razor to shave hairs, a miniature shovel-like device to scoop up wax, tweezer-like objects to scrape the inner ear and little cotton balls on sticks that are twirled inside the ear to tickle the skin. The overall effect is so soothing it’s not uncommon for customers to doze off.
Ear specialist Dray cautions against unsafe ear picking. If implements are reused without being sterilized — which is common in many shops — customers can be exposed to a variety of viruses and even hepatitis B, though that’s relatively rare, he said. Too much ear picking can leave ears dry and itching. And if done improperly, ear picking can pack wax deeper into the ear, causing an infection called otitis externa, or swimmer’s ear.
“It’s like smoking or drinking beer,” said Truong Phung, a 44-year-old professional who visits a bare-bones barbershop every two or so weeks. “Some of my friends say it’s not safe, but I still come here. They do it without any license or insurance. If something bad happens to you, I don’t know what they could do.”
Dray, however, said the risks from ear picking can be greatly reduced by a few simple precautions.
“If you bring your own instruments, and you have found someone who is good at it,” he said, “go for it.”