Monday, January 14, 2008

In Vietnam, be bold and think outside the spa

By Judith Fein, Globe Correspondent | January 13, 2008

SA PA, Vietnam - On a recent trip to Vietnam, I noticed that our guide slipped away from the hotel every night. When he came back, he always looked alert and rested. Finally I cranked up the courage to ask him about it.

"Where did you go last night?" I inquired over a bowl of noodle soup at breakfast.

"I had a massage," he said, grinning.

"And the night before?"

"Another massage," he said. "And I had a great one the night before that, too."

The spa offerings at the hotels were often pricey, and it was hard to imagine that our proudly frugal guide was blowing his salary this way.

"Do you get a guide's discount?" I said. He laughed. "Why? A full body massage is less than $10."

What the Vietnamese know, and tourists do not, is that there are a host of local massage experiences that are unusual and inexpensive. I set out to try a few.

In Sa Pa, in the mountainous area in the north, I had a full-body treatment. A young masseuse named Thanh, a tiny woman who spoke no English and wore skin-tight white clothes, took me by the hand and led me into a small dressing room. I waited for her to leave, so I could get undressed. She didn't budge. I figured I would start undressing and she would get the hint. She just stood there, watching. Then she reached into a locker, grabbed a large towel, wrapped me in it, and led me into a room with an ovoid wooden tub.

I slipped below foaming bubbles and scattered rose petals into the warm water. Thanh handed me a plastic bucket that exuded a heavy menthol scent, and told me to inhale. Then she left me alone. When she was gone, I wanted to scream. I looked into the water and saw that it was deep, bloody red. I later found out that I had been submerged in 30 different herbs, all related to healing, soothing, and well-being. They had been purchased from an herbalist from the ethnic Red Dzao tribe. The herbs are boiled for 35-40 minutes before patrons sink into their crimson caress.

After a soothing half hour, Thanh beckoned me to follow her into a small, unadorned room with a massage table. I hopped onto it and realized I had entered into an unspoken pact with her. She would massage every inch of my body - including nostrils, hair follicles, cheeks, underarms, and eyebrows. I recognized some of the kneading as Thai massage. But the pressure point work, scratching up and down my back, twisting my hair and fingers, and rolling the hair of my eyebrows seemed uniquely Vietnamese.

After about an hour of massage I was given a delicate cup filled with ginger tea. As I sipped, I had to admit that I had just experienced the most complete massage and soak of my life. Total cost: $10.

In Hanoi, my guide said he was going for a foot massage with some buddies. When he saw my curiosity, he invited me along. We all rode motorbikes to the foot massage parlor.

We were shown into a private room, where huge brown leather chairs with hassocks were lined up. Red lanterns hung from the ceiling. There was a beige screen behind which we changed our clothes, and we were all given black, white, and gray shorts; I was handed a brown striped shirt.

"For a foot massage?" I thought, as I changed.

Our young male and female massage therapists entered. First, our feet were soaked in an electric foot bath with brownish-red, herbal-infused liquid. Then, they were thoroughly dried and rubbed with oil mixed with lemon grass and cinnamon to soften them. Ice-cold towels were placed on our faces and we were served ginger tea.

Next, each of our toes was kneaded and massaged separately. Then the bottoms of our feet were rubbed. This was followed by a thorough soaping and washing of our entire legs with hot washcloths. Soon my therapist started to massage my thighs.

"In America, a foot is the thing at the end of your leg," I commented, but the young gentleman, who was now slipping hot stones under my back, didn't understand English. He gestured for me to turn over, and walked back and forth across my buttocks. Then he massaged my scalp and shoulders. Next, he lifted me up, arched my back, and placed me across his knees. All of this was done without my ever leaving the chair. The cost? Ten dollars for an hour and three-quarters of startled bliss.

In Hoi An, where most tourists come to have clothes made, I opted for a face massage in a nameless hair salon. I figured it would be above the neck. I was right. But that was the only part of the treatment that was not completely unexpected.

My hair was shampooed, my scalp was massaged while the shampooing was taking place, then my hair was rinsed and I had a scalp and face massage. There was only cold water, but the weather was hot so I didn't mind the cool dousing. A hair conditioner was applied, and a further scalp and face massage accompanied it. Then there was another face massage thrown in, and it extended to my neck, chin, sinuses, forehead, and shoulders. Just as I gave up counting how many ministrations I had received, a gauze mask was spread over my face. I did deep breathing while it dried.

When the mask was removed, I was offered an ear cleaning with a thin, pointed metal object, but I declined. The strangest part of the treatment occurred as I sat in the chair with my eyes closed. I felt an odd sensation and before I could say "Are you kidding?" I was shaved with a straight-edged razor - on my face, forehead, and chin. And I have no facial hair.

The total cost for the 75-minute treatment was $3.

If you want to have safe, predictable, thorough massages in Vietnam, your hotel will most assuredly offer them in a spa. If you have a streak of the adventurer in you, ask your guide or hotel concierge where he goes. You won't wind up disappointed - or broke.

Judith Fein, a freelance writer in Santa Fe, can be reached at