Reception area of spa in Ho Chi Minh City where I went for my massage
Coming from Thailand, the land of Thai Massage
Finding excellent massage therapists is not an easy task anywhere in the world. This even applies to Chiang Mai, Thailand, which is something like the center of the universe for Thai Massage.
The city is overflowing with massage ‘shops’ as they are called there. That’s good for customers since the intense competition keeps the prices low – lower than anywhere else in Asia.
With all those Thai Massage shops you would think that it should be quite easy to find good massage therapists. Not so! The majority of therapists are neither highly skilled nor very intuitive. They do not have a lot of training, and what to speak of sophisticated training.
For many of them it is just a job which is easy to get into. It is not their passion but the easiest way to make some decent money, especially if they are offering additional services which cannot be classified as professional massage – you get the idea. As a result, you really have to hunt for a good therapist.
So now I am traveling in Vietnam to escape the heat and extreme pollution of northern Thailand. This is a yearly event during March and April mostly due to uncontrolled agricultural burning in the mountains.
As a massage therapist and teacher I am always curious about massage wherever I travel, plus I really enjoy getting a good massage. So how did my search for massage go in Vietnam?
My first massage experience in Vietnam
Let me tell you about my first massage experience in Vietnam when I first visited this country about 8 years ago. I was in Hanoi, the capital, and I had heard that most massage in Vietnam is of the “happy end” variety. I was determined to find a place where I could get a clean massage without any unwanted add-ons.
So I went to a tourist office and told them that I was looking for a good massage establishment with real massage and nothing sexy – only real massage. I made it real clear. They said they knew just such a place and gave me the address.
I jumped in a cab and arrived at the spa. It was a clean looking place with a professional reception, uniformed therapists, and a sauna in each massage room. The female therapist gave me quite a good massage in a professional manner.
I thought that I had hit the jackpot with my discovery. But I had jumped the gun. When the therapist was done with the massage, she put her hand on my genital and asked me if I wanted “massage” there. I declined and got dressed.
Next she put her hand on my arm and asked me where I was going now, obviously fishing for an invitation to come along. Maybe she thought that I would prefer to consume the happy end in a more suitable environment. When I declined again, she looked clearly disappointed. There went her chance for a big tip which she had hoped for.
Later I was told by a Vietnamese friend of mine that there just isn’t much demand for real clean professional massage in Vietnam. I guess I got the proof of that! Anyway, I gave up on massage for the rest of my stay in Vietnam.
My second massage in Vietnam was an improvement
Fast forward 8 years. Things have changed a little in Vietnam. Tourism is developing at a rapid pace, and there are many more Vietnamese who make quite a lot of money, especially in the big cities. Let’s face it, poor people can’t afford to go to spas.
I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City and embarked on my search for a real massage session. There is no shortage of shops. Actually in the main tourist district you will run into a girl about every 5 or 10 meters who will stick a flyer in your face with the massage menu of her shop.
This time I wanted to be really sure what I was signing up for. So I asked one of those girls if their shop provided real massage or sexy massage. Her response was: “What do you want?” Well, that was an honest answer. I did not bother explaining that I did not want a real massage in a place that provided the happy end version.
So I kept interviewing a number of those massage touts until I found one who insisted that in her shop there was definitely nothing sexy going on. She sounded like she really meant it, and I went for it. The shop was very nicely decorated and the therapists did not look seedy, and apparently they weren’t.
I actually got two massage sessions there. One was a back, neck and head massage which was quite okay. The second one was a foot massage. The main problem was that it was mostly a calf massage. The therapist hardly touched the soles of my feet.
Although it did not even come close to the quality of an excellent foot massage in Chiang Mai, Thailand, at least it convinced me that nowadays it is possible to get a real, non-sexy massage in Vietnam. You might have to track it down, but it exists.
How to find clean massage in Vietnam
My next experience was in Dalat, a pretty mountain town with a perfect spring-like climate year round. I made some Vietnamese friends and they told me that 70 or 80 percent of Vietnamese men are mostly interested in the “happy end” massage.
But – that leaves out women who are clearly not “happy end” candidates. So I figured if I saw a massage shop which was frequented by women, that would be a pretty good bet that I could get a real massage there.
Tips for finding the right massage shop
- One good sign is if there are older women working there, like 50 and older.
- A second indicator is if there are male and female therapists on staff.
- The third one is if there are female customers in sight.
- The fourth indicator is if the massage is done in a big room in public or if the rooms are private.
In Asia, unless you go to a high end spa, massage is often done in a big room with no or little separation between the mats or tables. If you have to undress for the massage, they just pull a curtain. In such an environment it is pretty difficult to provide “happy end” massages. They do require more privacy for obvious reasons.
Good Massage is not easy to find in Vietnam
I did find such a place in Dalat, run by a Chinese family. I talked to the manager, and it was obvious that she was providing the real thing in her establishment.
Her mom worked there who was in her 50s, there was a male therapist as well, and everything happened in a large room with no place to hide hanky-panky activities. So I felt safe there.
However the massage left a lot to be desired. I got the male therapist. I don’t know how he ended up in this job, but he just didn’t have the touch. The massage did not flow, and I could feel that he was muscling me instead of working with his body.
Telltale signs are slightly shaky hands from the muscle effort, and a lack of sensitivity as to how far pressure or a stretch can go with a particular client.
I was in observation mode the entire time since he was not able to put me into this trance-like, half awake-half asleep state which I enjoy so much when receiving a massage. But in order to be fair, there are plenty of therapists in Thailand who don’t have this touch either.
What is excellent massage all about?
Actually this magical touch is quite rare. Unfortunately most therapists, at least here in Asia, have this concept that in order to give a massage, you just have to know the techniques and then just somehow do it.
However this is only the first step for becoming a good massage therapist. If the therapist stops there, then the result will be what I refer to as a “massage mechanic”.
The elements which make massage feel heavenly have little to do with the techniques, and everything to do with the quality of your touch, your breath, your intuition, your sensitivity, your awareness of energy, and your love for what you are doing.
Such therapists are always hard to find, regardless if you are in Vietnam or in Thailand or anywhere else in the world.
So I managed to get myself some massage sessions in Vietnam which were of the clean and professional variety which is a big step up from my experience 8 years ago.
What helps is that I have quite a good radar for searching out the real massage sessions and skirting the more dubious ones. That ‘s still a challenge in Vietnam, but at least the good and clean ones do exist.
Vietnam does not have the traditional massage culture that exists in Thailand. After all, Thailand is the land of Thai Massage, and it is practiced not just professionally, but among friends, colleagues and within the family.
Now I am reminiscing about the wonderful massages which I am used to from my favorite therapists in Thailand. Maybe such therapists even exist in Vietnam, and I just have not found them yet. However they are definitely easier to find in Thailand which is still the best and cheapest place in Asia for getting a good massage.
The author, Shama Kern, has been living and traveling in southeast Asia for well over a decade. He is the founder and director of Thai Healing Massage Academy. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org