I was in the southernmost part of Vietnam; the Ca Mau peninsula, a remote area surrounded by the South China Sea and Gulf of Thailand. The tropical landscape was rich with tamarind and mango trees and mangroves, rice paddies and fish and shrimp farming canals formed every bend. The air was heavy and hot. And, I was hysterical.
We were in a very challenging situation – the adoption of my son was stuck. And I had to do the unthinkable, something a mother should ever have to do, I had to leave my two-year old son in his orphanage, and I didn’t know when I’d be back to bring him home.
Some other moms, whose children were in the same situation, and I decided to do what we could for our babies. We trekked to their remote village to bring fruit, yogurt, milk, and vitamins and embrace them with love and attention for a week.
The day before we left Vietnam, one of the moms and I saw that the hotel that we were staying at offered massages and nail treatments. Although it was a far cry from a spa resort (mold in all creases of the room, lizards crawling on the draperies, sketchy stains on bed linens, and undrinkable water from the faucet – only use bottled H20, lest you get a serious stomach bug), we had hoped that indulging ourselves in some self-care after leaving our kids might ease the sting just a bit or for just a moment.
Faces red and puffy, eyes swollen, we scheduled our services – a massage, manicure and pedicure. Only one treatment could be done at a time because they only had one person who could do each, so my friend chose to get her nails done while I went for the massage. I took the stairs up to the third floor. No lights were on, and it looked more like a deserted men’s locker room from the 1970’s. But, there was light coming in through the windows, so I ventured to the room I was directed to anyway.
The room was Spartan – light gray with some chips of paint peeling off because of the constant high humidity, I guessed. There was only a table with padding, not a true massage table with the nice little padded headrest. It smelled more like mildew and cheap floor cleaner than citrus and lemongrass and there were no soothing ocean waves playing in the background, just the harsh sounds of the Vietnamese handymen outside building a brick wall.
I wouldn’t say that I was a massage connoisseur, but I had tested a few in foreign lands. The best one I ever had was in Quebec from a strapping, athletic masseuse. He practiced sports and deep tissue massage. Firm, but oh-so-relaxing, my body melted into the table. It was eleven years ago, but I still remember it and swoon at the thought of those magic hands.
In Thailand, a tiny, but super strong woman did a combination of a more traditional deep tissue massage meanwhile bending my body in ways that I didn’t think it would go (and was pretty sure that I would end up paralyzed or with a shoulder out of socket a few times), but once she was finished, I felt great.
In China, I had experienced good, tough, but soothing massages over a pair of pajamas. Foot massages were a different story. Tears streamed down my face in pain from the knuckles digging into my soles, but the afterglow was palpable.
In Venezuela, women trolled the beaches offering $5 massages while you laid in the sun. It wasn’t bad for such a small price, but because of all the oil they used, I had to sit under an umbrella the rest of the day in fear that I would scorch my skin.
Eventually, a slight girl greeted me in Vietnamese and because of our limited knowledge of each other’s language, we pantomimed for communication. She put a couple of towels on the table and left.
I got undressed (all the way…I am I not modest) and hopped on the table. I grabbed the towels to cover myself and noticed that they weren’t so much as towels as they were washcloths — and they sure weren’t going to cover much. Plus the sunshine shone through the milky-filmed windows. Without a dimly lit room, I felt even more exposed. Surely she was bringing in a larger towel or sheet. So I laid face-down on the table and put one “towel” on each cheek of my backside, but they would’ve more easily covered the cheeks on my face!
Except that the massage therapist didn’t bring in another towel. I sighed and thought, “when in Vietnam…” Besides, I didn’t have much energy after all the tears to protest or do anything about it. She started at my head and worked her way down to my toes. It wasn’t much of a massage, more of a harsh rubbing of my skin. I though perhaps scrubbing skin like a dirty pot with no oil or lotion and randomly standing on your back was the Vietnamese method.
Wondering if I was going to have any epidermis left or just a body full of skin-on-skin burns, at this point, I was simply tolerating it. I lost any ability to care because I was so distraught and the thought of trying to explain and use hand gestures didn’t seem worth it.
And if you thought laying face-down with two washcloths covering my bum was embarrassing, it was nothing compared to having to flip over. Three washcloths wouldn’t have covered what I needed it to, but I only had two, so I strategically placed them over my nether region and left the “girls” sunnyside up and fending for themselves. Plus, the “therapist” (at this point, I feel safe putting therapist in quotes as nothing she did was therapeutic) stood right next to the table watching!
And, yet, for whatever reason, laziness, apathy, temporary insanity, I didn’t stop or get up.
I’m not sure if she sensed my discomfort and unease, but the front side went by more quickly (perhaps I had briefly blacked out from embarrassment). I could tell she was pretty much finished because she had rubbed every body part that needed it.
Or so I thought. I was just starting to breathe a little easier again thinking the discomfort was over when she pinched both of my nipples hard, giggled, and left.
Was this the normal way that Vietnamese massages ended – or just mine? As I probably outweighed her almost two to one, I wondered if perhaps she had never seen such big boobs and couldn’t resist copping a feel. Or, maybe she had never seen pink nipples before and wanted to see if they felt the same as hers – is that a pencil eraser or a nipple?
Dumbfounded and still wondering if I had just been a participant in unintentional foreplay, I grabbed my clothes and headed for the shower, shaking my head, aghast at what had just happened. Given the gravity of what the rest of my body and mind had gone through from having to leave my son, my horror changed pretty quickly to humor, and I decided to laugh about it instead.
Luckily, I was able to race downstairs to warn my friend about my not-so-happy-ending before she went up and told her that she might want to keep some clothes on for her massage.
“At least I can enjoy a nice manicure and pedicure,” I thought as I sat down in the chair, my breathing calmer, my nipples less sore, my embarrassment waning. However, my pedicure was also a failure, but at least the technician didn’t pinch my toes. It’s so humid in southern Vietnam that the toenail polish never really dried. The sketchy-stained sheet stuck to them while I slept and fuzz from my socks adhered to my toenails.
We flew to Ho Chi Minh City the next day and had a 12-hour layover before traveling home. A friend of a friend lived there, so I stayed at her apartment during the day. She generously and graciously had already booked me a massage at her favorite spa (a legitimate one that not only looked like a spa you might frequent in the States, but it smelled like lavender, had candles burning and even sold beauty products)
I asked her if there was any difference in Vietnamese massages and the ones we’d get in the U.S., and she said that sometimes they walked on your back, but that was about it.
“No nipple pinching?”
“Oh, OK, just checking. Let’s just say that my massage in Ca Mau ended with a twist.”
On that note, I am happy to report that my second massage in Vietnam was much more like I had expected – relaxing and no boob touching, but I also kept my bra and underwear on just in case.
Your lesson: always make sure there is a sheet on the table before you get undressed for a massage, and hopefully it is stain-free.