Tag Archives: massage

Massage on Bui Vien Walking Street, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

 

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Bui Vien is the main backpacker tourist area in District 1 in ‘Ho Chi Minh City’ (Saigon). It’s sort of an equivalent to Kao San Road in Bangkok or Pub Street in Siem Reap. There are many inexpensive restaurants with cuisines from around the world, souvenir shops, lots of places to stay, and most importantly, plenty of cheap massage spas! Grab a streetside stool, have a cold beer for under a dollar, and watch the craziness unfold! At night, the street really fills up with locals and foreigners alike. It’s a fun place to hang out for a few days.

Even though it’s called a ‘walking street’, there is a constant stream of motorbikes and some larger vehicles weaving their way through the crowds so you need to keep your situational awareness up. I’ve read that there are occasional pickpockets as well so don’t carry anything too valuable. I make a point of carrying just enough money for a massage and a bite to eat and drink.

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There are massage spas and salons galore on the street offering anything from foot massages to full body massages. For a tourist area, prices are very reasonable and range from 5-10 dollars an hour for a basic massage. I had several during my stay and they were all quite good.

If you’re a single man on Bui Vien, however, you will quickly discover that getting a simple massage is not so simple. Any man ranging from his late teens to his 70s is a prime target for the masseuses that work this street. During a typical stroll down the street, you will be blocked, pawed, and grabbed by cute and aggressive young women in their twenties who will thrust a little flier into your hands, listing the different massages and prices. They will try to drag you into their salons to give you a massage. During the day, many of these ladies are dressed in normal street clothes but at night, their garments become more provocative. Some of these women are just handing out fliers and once they’ve steered you into a particular salon, you’ll be assigned a masseuse.

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As your fearless massage reporter, it was my job to throw myself into the fray, as it were, and see what goes on in those backrooms! I had several massages and although I often had to fight hard to reject the extras, I did manage to get in some really good massages. Unlike some other parts of the world where a massage salon is often a front for prostitution and the massages one gets there will be poor-to-non-existent, in Saigon, every lady worked hard to give me a good strong, thorough, and pleasant massage. Some of them were veritable artists with their hands.

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If you go for a foot massage, you’re in no trouble at all. You’ll get your treatment on the ground floor beside several other clients, in the open with a view of the street. There’s usually wifi available so that you can catch up on your communications while getting a good foot rub.

If you’re after a full body massage, you will be led upstairs into a private room (or larger room with several beds separated by curtains) and your session will begin. You can get an hour, 90 minutes, 2 hours, or even more, I suppose. You can ask for two girls and get a four hands massage. The most common massages run about an hour and can be done with or without oil. Without oil will be a massage with lots more pinching and kneading whereas oil massages are more gentle, Swedish-style sliding effleurage and pressing of hands into flesh and muscle.

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Here’s a description of one of my massages to give you an idea of what to expect. I found an attractive young lady named ‘Thuy.’ She was 25 and came from a small village near Da Nang. She showed me the rate card and I chose a one-hour full body oil massage for 200,000 dong (about $9 USD). I had to pay up front which is normal in Saigon (everywhere else in Asia you normally pay after the massage).

Thuy asks me to remove my clothing and provides a basket for me. I put the basket under the massage table where I can keep an eye on it.

There is usually some music in the background, sometimes from a house system or sometimes just the masseuse’s cellphone, but if you’re right on Bui Vien in the evening, chances are it will get drowned out by the pounding bar music outside!

I undress and lay face down on the table, throwing a towel over my buttocks. Thuy climbs on top of my back and begins some warmup kneading on the back of my legs and back with her fists, then undrapes the towel portion covering my back. She takes out the bottle of oil and begins a back massage. She works my upper arms and back for about ten minutes. Then a few minutes are spent massaging the buttocks. At this point, if you get some ‘accidental touches’ to the more private parts, it’s a good sign that the masseuse is teasing and testing to see if there is some ‘interest.’ If you are in a professional spa, these kind of accidents don’t usually happen and the hands stay well clear of the ‘danger’ areas.

Then it’s on to the upper legs, thighs, calves, and finally to the feet. She kneads the feet and toes a little bit but not very much compared to what you would get in a dedicated foot massage. She might pound the soles of the feet with her fist.

Now she dries any excess oil off with the towel and gives a good pounding and pummeling of the back and legs with her fists. Often she will walk on your back and the back of your legs. These girls usually weigh less than 50 kilograms so I always let them do their thing but if you have a fragile back and don’t trust them, tell them not to do it! Real back injury can occur!

Now it’s time to turn over. She will normally hold the towel up so that you can turn without her seeing your private parts. The towel then covers you up and the front part of the body is massaged, starting with the legs, on to the arms and hands, and sometimes there will be a belly rub. The latter isn’t as commonly done as in neighboring countries but I’ll almost always get a belly rub if I ask for it.

It’s sometime during the front massage, that the masseuse may ask you if you want your private parts massaged. This may involve just a straight question and pointing or she may be a little bolder and actually touch you ‘there’ (or even make a bold grab) so that’s there no possibility of any misunderstanding. If the customer gives the go-ahead, there will be a brief discussion as to the cost and then the business proceeds! Cost for this extra service is usually a tip in the order of $10-$30 US. Vietnamese sometimes this act a ‘baby massage’ but it’s more commonly known as a ‘happy ending.’

If you are not interested in the extras, then you’ll have to come up with an excuse as these ladies can be very persistent. Even if you’re not interested mentally or morally, your body may betray your alleged lack of interest!

One of my most used excuses is that I have a girlfriend who says I can go for a massage but no happy endings are allowed. Most masseuses understand the logic of this but they will try to get you to ‘cheat’ anyway assuming that most men have one thing only on their minds! My strategy, if I decide I need a massage on Bui Vien, knowing full well what they would like to do, is to tell them upfront: I just want a normal massage with no happy ending. I tell them I’ll still give them a generous tip ($5-10). “Do you still want to give me a massage?” Usually, they’ll say yes, especially if business is slow. But sometimes, they’ll frown and steer you towards another lady. They’re holding out for the big fish! Naturally, the latter are not too crazy about doing foot massages as the tips will be paltry in comparison.

I talked to several masseuses about their economic conditions. The basic arrangement is that a lady works for a massage salon and gets a basic monthly salary (say, $75-150 per month) and she may or may not get a ‘per massage’  commission of around a dollar. They may get two to four days off per month and if they take more days off, they are penalized substantially. A lot of women said they get nothing from the salon if the customer is a male, and maybe 20% if massaging a lady (although occasionally female clients like to get a little extra attention, too!). A masseuse here makes very little from the massage itself and depends almost entirely on making a living from the tip. And those single men and that special service is what brings in the best money so these ladies make it a priority.

Foot massages are safe as they are done in full view of the street on the ground floor with lots of other patrons getting the same treatment. I have been propositioned during a foot massage on occasion, with suggestions that I could get another massage later upstairs! You will find a few spas away from Bui Vien (such as nearby De Tham and Phạm Ngũ Lão streets) where the masseuses are dressed in uniforms and are more professional. You shouldn’t be harassed in these places.

Here is the situation from their point of view: they have to work at a job they don’t particularly like (at least most of them). Many are single mothers (recently abandoned or divorced by their husbands) driven to the big city in search of work. For the untrained woman, massage is often one of the easiest ways to make good money with a minimal amount of training. They have to be in the room with their customer for an hour. For no extra effort, they can get a huge increase in their income. They only have to divert their hands from one area to another, one piece of flesh instead of another. It’s the same amount of effort with exponentially greater income. Out of the 10 dollars the client pays for the massage, only a dollar (or less) goes to the masseuse. That’s not enough to live on. Days are long, usually 12 hours and sometimes 16 hours and even then, they may only get one or two massages, some days more, sometimes none at all. If it’s a normal massage with no extras, they might get a dollar or two tip, perhaps more, sometimes nothing! But happy endings can be 10-20 dollars extra. It’s definitely worth their time. Does the act disgust them? Possibly for some, but they all get used to it very quickly. To the male customer, of course, it’s a pretty big deal. To a bored and tired masseuse, it’s just another bit of skin and muscle to rub for a while.

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I did find one spa (Sala Salon) in the midst of all the mayhem, where the owner assured me that there was no hanky-panky allowed. I tried a couple of massages to test it out and got very good service with no funny business at all. In fact, I stuck around for a haircut, pedicure, and manicure here as well. Lisa, the owner, pays her workers a much higher commission than the other salons. The address is 84/5 Bui Vien Street, District 1. It can be found about 30 m down the first little alley to the right as you’re heading down Bui Vien with Crazy Buffalo behind you..

I should mention that there are lots of masseurs (males!) working as well but I don’t have any experience with them. Lots of people choose men for massages thinking that they are stronger but from my experience, Southeast Asian ladies are plenty strong enough and can cause lots of pain if it’s called for!

Be warned that if you’re looking to get a quiet night’s sleep, get a hotel that’s not on this street as some of the bars play head-pounding music until the wee hours of the morning. Find a place a block or two away.

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I hope I’m not striking unnecessary fear into my readers! You will get a good massage here but I just wanted you to be prepared for all of the possibilities!

Massage Report: Mui Ne, Vietnam

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Mui Ne is a traditional fishing village and popular beach and resort destination. It’s much like Nha Trang used to be and still maintains its village atmosphere. The long beach is quiet and good for swimming and nearby are giant red sand dunes. Because of the beach’s east-west orientation you can catch sunrises and sunsets from your beachfront abode.

It’s only a four-hour train ride away from Saigon so it’s a popular destination for Vietnamese as well as westerners (especially Russians) and Chinese. Most of the tourist accommodations and eateries are stretched along a few kilometres of road that parallels the sea. A motorbike is a great way to get around but take your time and be vigilant every second.

I counted well over a dozen massage spas along the main street that parallels the sea but there could be several more. They are found in clusters.

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I had a half dozen massages in my weekend stay in Mui Ne, all at different spas. Not once was I offered a happy ending; everything was very professional and above board.  It’s very much a family atmosphere here. There was little chatter from the masseuses making for a nice quiet massage. From what i could see, towels and massage sheets were actually changed for each customer. In one place, I got not only a forehead towel over the facial opening but also a chin towel which is pretty rare! Every massage was satisfactory and strong and my only criticism is that the oil used here tends to be rather sticky. As no masseuses scrubbed me down after the massage with a moist wet towel, I emerged in a rather glistening state! I would have to head back to the hotel for a quick shower. You can always bring your own oil if you have something that works well. You can also opt for a massage without oil.

I tried one-hour ‘Full Body Oil Massages’ as well as Vietnamese massage. They were exactly the same!

Here is the usual routine (with some variations). Remove clothing (some places require you to keep your underwear on) and lay face down on the table with towel draped over midsection. The masseuse begins by applying palms and hands in rhythmic presses from heels up the legs and back to the neck. She may also walk on your back and legs at this point or after the back section is done. If you don’t have a strong back, you might want to wave her off. Then the towel is partially undraped to halfway down the buttocks and she begins to apply oil and massage the neck, upper arms, back, lower back and buttocks for about 15 minutes. The style varies but it’s lots of sliding of palms back and forth, up and down, often using elbows and forearms as well. Then the same is done to the back of the legs and inner thighs. Sometimes a bit of a foot massage is added in as well but a more thorough treatment is had by getting an hour long dedicated foot massage.

Then it’s time to turn over. She places a rolled up towel over your eyes, then massages the front of the legs and arms. A belly massage is not usually part of the routine but everytime I asked for it, I got it.

Finally, she’ll go off to wash her hands, and finish off with a scalp and face massage. One girl applied some tiger balm or other mentholated substance on her palms, rubbed them together, then held her hot mentholated palms in front of my nose and repeated this a couple of times. Then she rubbed the menthol into my neck and shoulders. Nice.

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The final act is to sit up so she can work your neck and shoulders. Then you get dressed and pay! I was paying 180,000-240,000 dong for an hour (about $8-12 USD). Don’t forget to give a decent tip as the usually don’t make much from the actual massage itself. I give 100,000 dong tip and sometimes more for a really good massage.

I went to the Mango Spa, Pink Spa, Cheap Cheap Spa, and some others and had good massages at all. I especially liked the Bali Fusion music in the background at Mango Spa.

All in all, Mui Ne is a chill place to hang out by the beach with abundant cheap seafood and massage options are plentiful. Just don’t like that sticky oil!

Tok Sen Massage

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‘Tok Sen’ is a style of ‘wooden hammer and chisel’ massage that has been around for thousands of years but I wasn’t even aware of it until a week ago. It’s not something you see on most massage service menus. A friend told me about it and I was intrigued: a style of massage I hadn’t tried yet! Chiang Mai and other parts of northern Thailand are the places to look for ‘Tok Sen.’ An on-line search led me to the Fah Lanna Spa where an hour of treatment went for the rather steep price of 1500 baht! A bit too rich for my blood! Soon after, I stumbled upon an inconspicuous massage establishment called Arokaya Massage, located right inside the temple grounds of Wat Mahawan on Taphae Road beside Soi 4, not far from the Taphae Gate. Their sign advertised ‘Tok Sen’ for only 200 baht (about $6 US). I walked right in!

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The waiting area was an open leafy zone with a fake waterfalls gently tumbling water through sprays of orchids and other greenery with some traditional music piped in on a tinny speaker. Monks were milling about doing their daily chores. Was it a monk that would be giving me a massage? There was a guy giving a gentleman a foot massage. When he looked around at me, I said ‘Tok sen?’ He called out and soon after, a 30-ish woman emerged from the shadows and led me into a side building of the temple. I was given some cotton pants to change into as well as a bag to put my clothes in, then directed upstairs into a large open room with about a dozen mattresses on the floor.

There were already a couple of people getting ‘tokked’ with a steady, rhythmic tapping of wood on wood. My masseuse took out a couple of simple tools: a small, wooden mallet and a thick, wedge-shaped stick like a pestle. She had me lay down on my stomach, then began by applying the pointy end of the stick to my upper back and gave the other end a good rap with the mallet. The sound was a rather pleasant, steady rhythmic ‘tok tok tok.’ She hammered in synch with the other masseuses so smoothly that you couldn’t tell how many hammers were going.

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The hammering force is fairly hard and the body gets a good jolt. A shock wave of energy radiates out from the point of the wedge. It was lightly painful but in a good way and I soon got used to it. In fact, after a while, I rose above whatever pain there was and started to actually drift off. She followed some meridians (‘sen’) longitudinally up and down my back, continuing down a line along my buttocks and on to the back of my legs. The tapping line ended on the soles of my feet. I did find the hammering along the backs of my legs to be a bit more painful. That might have been because she thought I, being a big tall fellow with sturdy legs, needed more pressure, or maybe my skin and muscle is more sensitive there.

The tapping seemed to strike in ‘triplets,’ sometimes staying in one spot for three strokes, and sometimes sliding along a bit for three strokes. I believe she ran up and down four meridians along the length of my body. After the first ten minutes or so, she put down the hammer and pestle, and started more of a Thai massage routine, pressing along various spots of my back and legs with her elbows and palms of her hands. This part was more painful but probably didn’t need to be. She seemed to revel in causing me as much pain as possible because she was laughing as she did so. She would jab me hard and ask ‘jep mai?’ Any pain? I’d reply ‘jakajee’: you’re tickling me! Which was the wrong thing to say because now she redoubled her efforts to inflict some pain, but in a fun way. Being a stubborn, proud sort, I wasn’t going to give in so it’s my own fault it hurt so much. If you find yourself getting too much pressure, just say ‘baw baw’ (softer) or let out a plain ‘ouch’. The other two ladies didn’t seem to be undergoing any pain stresses so I’m going to conclude that I had a sadistic woman! (I think a lot of times, masseuses assume that if you’re a large person you want harsher pressure).

Soon it was time to turn over. She returned to tapping along meridans of my upper legs, arms, hands, followed by more direct hand kneading and the usual bending of legs in impossible angles and stretches with some more pain.

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It finished off with sitting upright and getting a bit of tapping on the upper shoulders followed by standard hand kneading of shoulders, neck stretches, and a head massage. Like they say with painful events, it feels good when it stops!

The rate of hammering was about 2 beats per second. The rhythm is hypnotic and it’s not hard to follow along and get in synch in a kind of meditation. That makes it more relaxing. Waves of energy follow the meridians with each strike. The name of this massage, by the way, means ‘strike meridian.’

Promised benefits advertised are pain relief, improved blood circulation, removed energy blockages, and relief from sore tendons, pinched nerves, and numbness.

I gave my masseuse a 100-baht tip and she was pleased. I thought I’d be covered with bruises from all the hammering but later when I checked, there were no marks. I would imagine that if one bruised easily, one could expect to get a few marks, but nothing lasting, I’m sure. All in all, I can highly recommend one try the ‘tok sen’ massage at least once. Just don’t be stubborn like me: if it gets painful, don’t be a martyr and say something! Massage is supposed to be an enjoyable event. It was an interesting massage and I will try it again someday.

The practise dates back many hundreds, perhaps thousands of years and originated in the Lan Na region of northern Thailand. The tradition is taught orally. It was supposed to have been originally prescribed as a way for wives to give their tired and aching husbands some relief after working all day in the fields. The tools for this practise are made from the wood of a tamarind tree after it has been struck by lightning. The wood is then blessed by a monk. All of this special treatment makes the tools better for removing negative energy from our bodies. I’m not sure if those things get done anymore but it sounds like it can’t hurt! Wedges and hammers vary in size and even come with buffered ends to make them quieter for night-time use.

If you want to learn the art yourself, try getting some training at: http://www.thaitoksen.com/

Here’s a set of tools I found for sale on Amazon:

 

Ex-prisoner Massage in Chiang Mai, Thailand

prison3 I must admit I was a bit apprehensive at first at the idea of an ex-convict massaging me but the reviews online were good so I decided to give it a try.

There are several places where you can try ex-prisoner or ex-inmate massages in Chiang Mai. I was originally going to try one of the ‘Lila Massage’ treatments but there was a long lineup at the shop I tried, so I moved down the road to one on Phapokklao Road just south of the Chang Puak gate on the north ‘wall’ of the old city. It was called ‘Women’s Massage Center by Ex-prisoners.’

It was about 10 a.m., a time I like because the masseuses will be fresh, strong, and not yet worn down by a long day of massages. It’s also not busy and it’s usually easy to get an immediate walk-in appointment. A half dozen women in their 30’s and 40’s were sitting in front at a table nibbling on a variety of bagged treats and fruits.

‘I’d like a Thai massage, please.’ A woman produced a rate card. A ‘Thai’ massage was 200 baht, an oil massage 380 baht (quite a bit more than elsewhere). My feet were washed in a bowl with some mildly abrasive soap, then dried off and I was led inside

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About a dozen raised beds, all covered with clean sheets and Thai fabrics, stretched out in front of me. The place was plain but pleasantly decorated with a large golden Buddha overlooking all. There were no dividers between the beds for privacy but I was the only one there so that wasn’t an issue. There was a small loft where I presume more private oil massages could take place.

I was pointed to a change room and given a loose-fitting cotton top and bottom to change into. My street clothes went into a small wicker basket which was placed under my bed. I noticed some lockers at the back where you could leave your clothes as well.

The masseuse, whose name sounded like ‘Mui’, had me lay down on my front. She began by applying pressure to my legs, moving up from my heels to my thighs with her fists, pressing them into my muscles for a few seconds, then releasing, then moving up a bit and repeating. As she got up to my lower back, she ‘walked’ up my legs with her knees, incrementally as she continued. She was giving me compression with fists and knees simultaneously.

Fists and palms continued on my back, working into my upper arms and neck periodically. There was more kneading, twisting, and pressing on the backs of my legs as well as some bending, sometimes mildly painful but in a good way. The stretches that are part of Thai massage are. to me, something like an assisted yoga. To finish off the back side, she had me grip her wrists tightly while she pulled me backwards so that my back arched as much as my aging body would allow. This was a bit tricky for her as I’m a pretty tall guy at 6’4″ and she was half my weight but she did a good job.

Next, it was time to turn over and work up the front of my legs. A couple of strong presses into both sides of my groin really got the blood flowing. Some interesting stretches happened here, the kind where it feels like you’re getting bent like a pretzel. Again, this got amusing at times, due to our vast size differences, but Mui got the job done. A leg gets bent and pushed sideways, massaged, then pushed across the other leg with some mildly painful muscle stretching and kneading of newly exposed areas. She used her heals as well to push into my inner legs. Finally, the arms and hands got massaged. My arms got stretched behind my head in yet another pretzel-like yoga move.

Next, I was asked to sit-up and she worked on my upper back. She leaned into my shoulders with her forearms, rocking and really getting her weight into it. There was some neck kneading and stretching, and finally a head massage, laying my head back into her lap. This included some facial massage (mouth, cheeks, eyebrows, forehead) and some scalp and ear massage.

She was quiet and professional throughout the massage. There was no light chitchat you commonly get in other massage shops. It was obvious that she’d had some sort of training as you might expect in a prison rehabilitation program. I’d expect that all of the women here will have had some training from a reputable massage trainer (unlike some of the other shops where girls are often trained ‘on-the-job’ by their ‘sisters’).

After getting dressed, I went out front where a cup of tea was waiting for me and I was invited to sit at the table with the others and relax. I was curious about what these women had done to get into prison in the first place but I didn’t ask.

It appears that there are other establishments running this kind of massage. The most famous in Chiang Mai is the ‘Lily Massage’ chain. It was established by Naowarat Thanasrisutharat, former Director Chiang Mai Women’s Prison to reintegrate newly released inmates into society. Prior to their release, these carefully screened inmates go through an extensive training program which allows them to make a living and contribute to society. The Prison and the Institute of Skill Development developed a 180-hour massage training course for these inmates.

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Unfortunately, these detainees often encounter discrimination from employers who refuse to hire them, despite their advanced skills. Sadly, du to lack of employment opportunities some return to a cycle of crime and find themselves back in prison. The Lila Thai Massage was established to help eliminate this pattern of crime and lack of opportunity. For more information, check out:http://www.chiangmaithaimassage.com.

Apparently, you can go right inside the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution as well and get massaged by a ‘soon-to-be-released’ inmate (carefully guarded!). It’s located roughly in the middle of the old city. It’s very popular and you have to book early to get in. I don’t think you get any special luxuries such as lotions, etc., just a basic massage. I would go to one of the other places previously desribed, the ‘post-release’ places, and get there early in the day if you can. Mid-afternoon is typically the busiest time of day.

I can heartily recommend a massage from any of the ‘ex-inmate/ex-prisoner’ establishments. On top of getting a good massage for a reasonable price, you’re supporting a very worthy cause. These women have little chance of getting meaningful employment otherwise.