A Back Room Massage

What do you do when you find yourself in a curtained off stall in the back of a Vietnamese market with your arms tangled in your shirt, which is now somewhere over your head, and there’s a lady holding a razor blade to your feet? In some cases, you might need to scream. I just needed to laugh.

Rewind about ten minutes and you’d see me walking around town, snapping photos of colorful shops with flowers dripping from their roofs, intricately carved old buildings, and lanterns hanging from trees. Just minding my own business.


And then, out of nowhere, a woman appears and asks me where I’m from (this is always the first thing people here ask when they want to sell you something, although it never segues into their follow-up pitch). She grabs my hand, makes a disapproving face at my nails (which look fine, thank you very much), and begins running through the different types of manicures she offers. Never mind that I didn’t ask for or even want a manicure.

As is the case in many successful sales pitches, everything is happening too fast for me to keep up. Prices keep changing and she’s whispering to me conspiratorially, as though we’re partnering up against some other, presumably more expensive, coerced beauty treatment. All the while, she’s still got ahold of my hand and is leading me down the street. At one point I heard something about $1, so I decided to go along, figuring that even though this is certainly a trick to lure me in, the final price couldn’t be that expensive. Plus it was getting pretty amusing.

So down the street we go, through the market and into this side alley, where we enter a small building that appears to have several stalls, sectioned off from one another with sheets posing as walls. When we get to her stall, she motions for me to hop up onto the table, all the while quoting prices for a variety of services. I keep telling her I don’t want to spend very much, that I can’t afford multiple services today, maybe I should just pick one. By now, she has my shoes off and begins examining my feet. She (accurately) assesses they are in need of much help and whips out a razor blade from who knows where. She starts scraping at my heal and I stop negotiating for a minute (‘cause you don’t want to be contradicting someone who has a razor blade to your feet).

The foot scraping was just a preview of her skills, so she stops after a minute to show me how much better my feet will be after this treatment. We go back to negotiating as she rattles off an ever-changing list of prices. 200 for the massage, 200 for the feet. Your feet though, we need that. And massage very good. With tiger balm. Every time she offers a new price, she looks around guiltily like she’s sneaking me a special deal (even though it’s obvious she’s the one in charge). At one point I think she kissed my shoulder. It was all happening so fast.

Too expensive, I say. Just the massage for now. Before I know what’s happening, another lady appears and starts pulling my shirt over my head, pushing into a lying position, and tugging at my sports bra, trying to get it off, seemingly confused by the lack of hooks. While this is happening, lady #1 has returned her attention to my feet.

I really need this foot thing she says. It’ll be better for me. So sexy. At this point, I am laughing to myself because I am now in the middle of the Anjelah Johnson nail salon skit and it’s getting more surreal with every passing moment. Ultimately, we settled on 100 for the massage and 100 for the feet (about $9 total). In a flash I’ve been pushed back on the table and lady #2 has resumed her struggle with my sports bra.

Remember, this is not a fancy spa. We are in a tiny, changing room-esque cubicle with a sheet between us and anyone who wanders by. And that’s only three sides of this space. The fourth side has a case of supplies and an open air window into what appears to be both a small parking lot and living area. The ladies do not leave to allow me to get comfortable in private. When lady #2 gets the rest of my outfit stuck on my head, sending glasses all askew and hair getting caught up in the melee, I decide to step in and get myself settled as modestly as possible.

The ladies are now double-teaming me, with lady #1 and her razor blade back to work on my feet while lady #2 gets going on the massage. If you have ticklish feet, as I do, it is important to focus on not jerking them around when razor blades are involved. Luckily, the tickle-factor wasn’t too bad, but I did get one warning to stay still.

After 30 minutes, several kinks had been worked out of my shoulders and back and my feet were much smoother. I did the reverse wiggle back into my clothes, doing my best not to flash anyone, and sat up ready to move on with my day.

After a few more sales pitches and graceful declines, I finally convince lady #1 that I don’t want any more treatments for today, pay her the agreed upon 200,000 dong, and walk back out into the market wondering what the heck just transpired.

Just another day in Vietnam.

Important note – Yes, my clothes were somewhat forcibly removed in this series of events, but I never felt violated or in danger. If you find yourself in a situation in which you are uncomfortable, no matter where you are in the world, remember that, whether it is the result of a cultural difference lost in translation or something more sinister, you have every right to ask that person to stop or to walk away. I have done this myself in the past when a situation did not feel right and don’t want anyone out there to worry about ‘sticking it out to be polite.’ Trust your gut and never feel bad about speaking up for yourself!

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