Before our group arrived, Joanie and I decided to check out one of Judy’s tips to us, sent in an email before we left the U.S. “One of my favorite streets in Hanoi is Au Trieu street. Go there. You’ll see why.”
So the same rainy day we toured the Hanoi Hilton, we headed in that direction. The neighborhood Judy recommended was very westernized, full of tourists: bakeries with lattes and earl grey tea, stores full of beautiful clothing and silks, storefronts advertising clothes sewn to order, tour company after tour company offering adventures to nearby natural wonders; wifi cafes serving western food and looking very much like home, lots of restaurants, an Apple store, and one particular restaurant that totally intrigued us. It was packed with young very well-dressed Vietnamese sitting packed in elbow to elbow, thigh to thigh, at long tables, animatedly engaging with each other and with their cell phones. It was clearly THE place to eat if you were young and hip; it was quite the happening scene. We decided to go in for lunch to check it out; we would have been the only tourists in the place. But the moment we walked up to the door, the open sign got flipped to closed. We’d missed the window. Lunch only. When we looked up to try to figure out what the place was serving, we saw it was a pizza joint. Who knew?
Needing an hour to chill out somewhere, we stumbled into a wifi cafe half a block away, lured in by a poster advertising fresh pumpkin pie. We ordered soup (cream of tomato for me, cream of potato with garlic for Joanie). I had a piece of pumpkin pie and Joanie, a croissant. The food was delicious and it was nice to have a moment in a restaurant when we didn’t have to decide if we wanted quail eggs or little cooked partridges in our green mango salad. The best part of this place was sitting in a remote back room with comfortable chairs, water that was safe for us to drink, wifi and complete quiet. It was a great time out from the rain, the constant din of the street, and the beautiful chaos of Hanoi. We checked email, ate, and read. But my favorite activity was eavesdropping on the conversation of the two women sitting at the next table: a young American who looked very much like my daughter in dress, hairstyle and carriage. She was holding forth to her companion about her MANY travels around the world: how she’d been to Edinburgh, but really wanted to go the Scottish Highlands, how she hadn’t been to Ireland yet, but was planning on it; about the three men she’d fallen in love with during the course of her travels and what happened with each romance, and how now she was spending a month in Vietnam, north to south and NOTHING was going to get in her way. She was 22 and very full of herself. Eavesdropping on her was very entertaining–listening to her talk to her youth hostel acquaintance in a way young people never talk to their parents (at least not mine). I loved the window into this girl’s world: the world of youth, confidence, fearlessness and open-ended possibility that comes with being young and traveling the world on the cheap. I was reminded me our daughter’s sense of freedom, passionate love of travel, sophistication, and youthful confidence. The girl’s companion, 31, German I think she said, barely got a word in edgewise.
They were there because we were right around the corner from the Hanoi Youth Hostel and I stepped into it, just to get a feel for the scene. Six bucks a night for a dorm room bed, free breakfast, free wifi, a bank of computers to use, free unlimited bottled water, free walking tour, free pub crawl, 24-hour security, movie room, and nightly events including free beer (“Come back at 6,” the sign said…”help us drain the bucket”), and free companionship with great young vagabonds from all over the world. This is how our daughter traveled last summer through Russia and the Ukraine and Spain and a few other countries, and I wanted to get a feel for it. The music was pumping and young people were sharing travel tips and conversation and I’m sure a lot of other things. And I wished I was young enough to travel that way. I missed that window in my own life. I was just emerging from living in an ashram; during my teens and young adulthood I was way too busy being lost and doing drugs to consider world travel. I missed out. Hostel life looks like a lot of fun; a great way to travel alone and cheaply.
The whole expat neighborhood Judy had directed us to was full of foot massage joints, and after our fantastic massage experience the day before, Joanie and I got a little greedy and decided to buy ourselves a second cheap Vietnamese massage. This time, however, we didn’t have a recommendation from Trip Advisor to guide us. We checked out a few massage parlors on the same block. We rejected one because they also did hair, nails, facials, aromatherapy and massage. Spread a little too thin, perhaps? Another woman was actively hawking on the street, soliciting us, and came on too strong. We rejected that place but spent a long time laughing over the menu of offerings. A “Foot Massage” included head, neck, shoulder, hand, foot, back and belly. And a “Body Massage” included back, head, neck, shoulder, hand, leg and belly. We couldn’t tell for the life of us what the difference was between a foot massage and a body massage. Huh?
In any case, we didn’t like the hard sell or the price 340,000 dong, including tip. $15.00. We thought we could do better.
We turned down the next corner and walked down a small street where there were three massage joints right next to each other. We picked one we’d passed earlier, opened the front door, and we were suddenly IN the massage room–no anteroom, no desk, no receptionist, no brochures, no one greeting us–just four broken down looking day-bed things in dingy surroundings. There were two French children getting massages in two of the spots and a woman getting her back thunked in a third. With no welcome or discussion, we were told to take off our shoes and go upstairs. Upstairs meant climbing a VERY steep ladder through a hole in the ceiling into a dank little loft built over a third of the massage area below. “Watch your head,” I was warned, one of the few things I heard in English in that massage parlor. But I guess I didn’t duck enough because I immediately cracked my head on the ceiling. Joanie was right behind me, laughing. Upstairs there were two little day beds side by side, our own private little loft massage parlor. It was musty and clammy up there and we had no idea what we were supposed to do, but we could hear the thunderous thwacking of fists on flesh below. Apparently we were supposed to wait here quietly until their other clients left. Where the hell were we? Were we going to take our clothes off, here?
There was nothing to do but crack up, just not too loudly. I was having real doubts about this place, but as I always tell myself, “No matter what. It will make a good story.”
This was definitely going to be an adventure.
Fifteen minutes later, the female masseuse came up the stairs and handed us a basket to put our clothes in, two pair of large men’s running shorts to put on and a towel. It was only when she handed me these things that I noticed her face for the first time. I almost gasped at her beauty. She had one of those unusual angular faces that had everything working in perfect harmony. Every feature in perfect alignment. It was hard not to stare at her–she was that beautiful. I immediately imagined her being snatched off the streets of Hanoi and whisked away to become a movie star. Her looks were that unusual and stunning. She was probably a size 2 or 4. It was hard not to just keep drinking her in (could she really look that perfect?), but I did keep peeking at her during the course of my massage and later, Joanie told me that she did, too.
“One hour body and half an hour feet?”
Sure. That sounded good.
“Oil?” the woman asked me. Did I want oil or dry?
I looked at Joanie. “Do we want oil?”
“Sure,” Joanie said, and so we had oil. But it felt unlike any massage oil I’ve ever had on my skin before and I worried that it might be rancid. The whole room had that dank feeling. We should have left then, but what the hell. We were committed. And we were in it together.
I got the female masseuse and Joanie got the young man as soon as he finished up his massage downstairs. Brother and sister, we wondered? Husband and wife? They were so easy with each other, intimate and comfortable, and they looked similar. We couldn’t tell.
We were told to lie on our stomachs. There was no face cradle on my uncomfortable cushioned table; in fact, there was a big crease under my stomach. The “massage table” was too ottoman-size couches pushed together. We were given a big pillow for our heads. This completely tweaked my neck so I tossed the pillow on the floor and let my head drape over the edge with my face hanging straight down to the floor. The scent of mildew rose up to meet my nostrils.
Then my masseuse started working on my back and I found out what her Vietnamese version of a body massage was: hard, painful repetitive strokes on my back for 45 minutes, digging grooves into places that didn’t have grooves before. I like hard massages, but not like this. Interspersed with her painful digging strokes was the very fast pounding the Vietnamese masseuses do with their fists–sounding like a very rapid drum. It was the only part of the massage I liked. In fact, I liked that part a lot. The rest I had to tolerate. If Joanie hadn’t been lying next to me, “enjoying” her massage, I would have bolted. “Okay,” I told myself, “This is going to be one of those kinds of massages.” I’d had bad cheap massages in Asia before.
Luckily, I have great skills at dissociation, but my back felt like a over-tenderized piece of meat by the end of the first hour.
This is what we deserved for walking in cold off the street.
When the first hour was mercifully over, we were told to put our top clothes back on, leave on the little shorts and come back downstairs for our foot massage. We sat up for those, and during the whole foot massage our two masseuses talked to each other, her soft feminine voice in six tones and his soft masculine voice answering her. I sneaked looks at her amazing face while I listened to the two of them conversing. I had no idea what they were saying, but their words felt like music from a brook pouring right over me. It mixed in with the honking from the street, the sounds of two older Vietnamese women who must have had their kitchen right on the other side of the thin back wall, the staccato thwap of fists on our skin, moving in perfect, rapid rhythm, and the music they had piped into their massage parlor. All those sounds rolling over each other. I let myself get lost in them. I loved what I was hearing: such a complex, varied symphony of sound. I focused on the auditory and did my best to forget about the tactile part of the massage, the ACTUAL massage, but a part of me kept thinking, “When is this going to be over?”
When it was finally time to get dressed (in the world’s tiniest dressing room–a curtain on a rod in the corner, a foot from the wall,) I realized I didn’t have any US dollars–and the price on the front door was quoted in US dollars. I think it had said 12 bucks for an hour and a half. I asked, “How much in dong?”
The young man wrote on a piece of paper, 500,000 dong each. And he insisted on a tip of 200,000 dong each. I knew it was too much. That was $30+ bucks for a massage that had been mostly unpleasant and at times barely tolerable. I paid him what he asked (what was I going to do? I was the rich American tourist and he was eking out a living in this little musty hole in the wall), but knew I was overpaying. When I questioned him, he told me that “oil” had significantly increased the price.
Maybe all those melodic sounds, their voices tumbling over me like a soothing river had really been a conversation that went something like this:
“Hmmm….how much should we gouge these two hapless losers for?”
“Nah, I think 700,000 is more like it. Just watch me.”
I paid the requested amount, knowing we’d been had. If it had been a great massage and I’d felt melted and relaxed instead of beat up, I would have let it go more easily. But as it was, it left a foul taste in my mouth.
Back on the street, I turned to Joanie. “If it had been a fantastic massage, that would have been okay, but I hated that massage. It was painful and if you hadn’t been there, I would have gotten up off the table. The only redeeming quality was the pounding of their fists, the music of their voices, and all those peeks I stole at that woman’s perfect face. But I feel like it’s going to take me a couple of days to recover from that massage. My back is killing me.”
As we turned away and stepped off the curb into the street, Joanie looked at me and smiled. “Laura, I think we’ve just been Hanoied.”