Before coming to South East Asia, I had visions of the whole place as a semi-paradise of cheap living and even cheaper muscle-melting massages. A fabled land where such luxuries could be had for less than the cost of yoga class at home, my muscles were tensed in anticipation. What I rather slowly came to realise after repeated attempts, is that Vietnam is not Thailand. In Thailand, I'm led to believe, everyone from the age of 10 and up knows how to subdue seized back muscles and reset a displaced hip joint. In Vietnam, they would like you to think that having someone softly pat, squeeze or karate chop you for an extended period of time is more or less the same thing. And at a bargain rate it often comes as something of a cheap and oily feel-up.
My first real massage parlour foray was in Sapa, across the street from the Sapa O'Chau cafe, which, by its proximity and having been mentioned by the staff, I assumed to be of a certain caliber. I came to realise it might be a different story for a foot massage out in the lounge chairs in the open than the full body experience. Before realising this, I had decided to go the whole hog and get a one hour workdown. I was led to a small little room in the back to a bed without a hole to allow lying face down, instead with a pillow to lie on with my head twisted towards the wall, in a not-properly aligned kind of way. Part way through the gentle squeezing and feeling for a pulse, I noticed an assortment of dark hairs (not my own) on the mattress sheet below me, and that's when my sense of relaxation came to an end. Not only had they obviously not changed the sheets, I started to wonder what else was going on in this closed off private room in the back. This couldn't be one of those places could it? Catering to those looking for more than just the release of stiff neck muscles? And what if these were the same sheets?! I debated leaving but I was already oiled, mostly in the buff, and still had the second side to go. With muscles partially tensed, I concentrated on maintaining my distance from the hairs and felt grimy.
On my next attempt I decided to play it safe and stick to a foot and calf massage, at a place on the main strip in Sapa. This turned into a more intimate experience than I anticipated, as I sat upright directly facing my male masseuse, who was determined to stare intently into my eyes for the full 20 minutes. It was only afterward that I realised I should have faked sleep – instead I tried looking away, and wondered if I was not following massage protocol and being rude trying to ignore the person who was obviously kneading my lower calf muscle. When I decided to attempt a casual, 'hey, just saying hello' look in his direction he chastised me with a knowing remark of “ah, you can see”. It appeared he was on to my avoidance strategies, and was pushing for more of a response. Moving on to my feet, he began squeezing the tips of my toes as if they were champagne corks he was trying to pop. I watched them turn red and as he braced himself and pulled, I flinched as my toe knuckles went the way of the corks and popped in succession. This at least had the effect of releasing some of the tension of our staring stand-off, as he recognized I wasn't so experienced in such techniques of foot seduction. We managed a little casual chatting after that, while I wondered to myself why 20 minutes was taking so long. When I finally made to the finish and was heading for the door, his manager asked if I didn't have a tip for him. Still feeling uncomfortable, I didn't have any comments on appropriate eye contact at the ready – instead I handed over some small change and directed my oily feet in a hasty retreat homeward.
This didn't put an end to my massage attempts – instead I decided to be more selective in my choice of establishment, which included looking for ones with 'spa' in the title, and coughing up a few more dollars. I tried an energizing type of massage and a hot stone one in Sapa with some rocks that were a little on the burning side, but there was no awkward interpersonal exchange, which upped the comfort factor considerably.
In Hoi An, known for catering to Westerners, I decided to find out if the quality of the massages was on par with the food. In a trip advisor-recommended lavender spa, had a slightly more muscular Thai massage, closer to the real thing than anywhere else I tried (Sapa) – on a bed with a proper hole to lie face down on, though no cushiony pillow to make it more comfortable. And as with everywhere else I've been, they only smoothed out the sheets and refolded the towels to place them back on the bed as I got up to leave. But I was able to relax without anyone staring at me, and in knowing, thanks to the presence of rows of beds on the other side of the curtains around me, that any happy endings would be of the decent and massage-appropriate variety. And that in Vietnam, may be as good a cheap massage as you can get.