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In Vietnamese Salons, Nails, Polish and Unvarnished Opinions

The woman rubbed the cracked skin of a man's foot, smoothing on almond cream. She massaged his leg, cradling his rough ankle as she muttered in Vietnamese.

"Choi dat oi!" she said, turning to a co-worker. "Oh my God! This guy is so dirty. I thought he looked clean. But he takes off the shoe and he is different."

The manicurists kept their heads bowed and whispered, although there is no way the customer could understand their chatter. One polished his toes, the other did his fingers.

Inside the Derma Spa & Nails salon in Newport Beach, manicures started at $16, and the women worked away as afternoon grew into evening.

The customer wore a sleeveless tank top and jeans. He had a sparkling stud in his left ear and held a phone to his right, oblivious to the talk.

I sat two chairs away, tapping the keys of my BlackBerry, taking it all down. I didn't let on that I understood their conversations; everyone working here was from Vietnam, as am I.

The murmuring of manicurists in Vietnamese is as much a part of the mani-pedi world as the scent of acetone and fingernail polish. I've been asked over and over by those who don't speak the language: What do they talk about at nail salons?

In reality, it's not so different from other places where people toil at tedious work. Gossip breaks the routine.

They chat about children and romance, about spending their tips and saving for college, about ladies with calloused hands holding expensive purses. They compare the best airfare for a visit to Vietnam. They share their longing for tropical fruits found only in their homeland. They size up their clients.

"She drives a Mercedes, but she's so cheap," one technician said about a grandmother who tried to get the salon to lower its price for a French mani-pedi.

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Stuff We Talked About