This post is part of the story of our 19 months of cycle touring 16,000 km through 22 countries. To get all the details about visiting Huong Sen Spa in Hanoi, read on.
(Don’t miss: Our post covering everything you need to know before cycle touring Vietnam) →
10,197 km so far.
Our big project for today was to go to the spa. I know, poor us right?
Before we could do that though, we had to move from the fabulous Elegance Emerald to the also lovely Elegance Elite, since the Emerald didn’t have a room for us tonight.
Their great service continued as they transported all our luggage from one hotel to the other, so all we had to do was transport ourselves.
(Don’t miss: Our post about everything you need to know before visiting Vietnam) →
Visiting Huong Sen Spa – A Local’s Spa in Hanoi
When we asked the woman at our hotel to order us a taxi, she warned us that Huong Sen would be more like a factory than a spa, and that it was only really used by Vietnamese people.
OK, sounds perfect. Let’s go!
I always get a little nervous going to the spa. There is a whole spa culture, a set of rules, which confounds me. And the rules are never the same twice.
Question: Do you need to take your bra off when getting a facial? Answer: It depends. Very confusing.
Anyway, every time I go, I end up doing something to embarrass myself. I couldn’t even guess what awaited me today.
The first hiccup came before we even got through the door. We’d each opted for the 110-minute treatment for 250k VND. I’d thought I had 500k VND in my wallet, but no. Combining all our cash, we managed to pull together 499k VND, plus one American dollar. The man at the desk kindly gave us a 1,000 VND discount, letting us keep our dollar.
Fortunately, I’d read online that tipping is not expected at Huong Sen, so I wasn’t too worried about not having cash for that.
Rub A Dub Dub — What to Expect When Visiting Huong Sen Spa
Stephen and I said goodbye, and he was ushered into the male section, while I was led to the female side. I was given a locker key and a basket for my clothes. As I was opening my locker, I sensed that there was someone standing directly behind me. I turned around, but no one was there. Oh wait. I looked down and there she was.
One of the attendants was standing right behind me, looking up, waaaaay up. She must have been all of 4 foot 2, so we had a real DeVito and Schwarzenegger comedy thing going on. I was hoping she wasn’t going to stand right there while I got undressed, and luckily, she moved away to give me a modicum of privacy.
Stephen’s note: I am going to interject when my experience was different. So far, apart from the Schwarzenegger/DeVito moment, my visit was the same.
I threw my clothes in the locker, wrapped my towel around me, and followed my attendant through to the shower.
Stephen’s note: While I had been promised (OK warned) that this experience would be done sans clothes, I was given loose-fitting boxer shorts to wear. I was the only man in the man’s side so I don’t know whose modesty they were protecting.
The next station was the barrel soak. A line of wooden tubs, that looked like wine barrels split in half, were steaming away against one wall. I dropped my towel and slipped into the warm water. The scent of jasmine and sweet herbs made me feel like I was steeping away in a tea cup.
Two Vietnamese women had come in just before me, so I was able to surreptitiously watch what they were doing and follow their lead. After ten minutes or so, they moved on to the individual jacuzzi bath tubs in the middle of the room, so I followed suit.
At times like this, I always hear my mothers’ voice in my head, telling me about the diseases that can be contracted by sitting in a hot tub. The facilities here looked pretty clean though, so I shushed my mom and sat back to relax in the sweet smelling water… except, wait. There was to be no sitting back until the attendant scrubbed all the skin from my back and shoulders with a sandpaper glove.
Stephen’s note: What?! I didn’t get scrubbed. I love a good scrubbing. What gives?
All too soon, the attendant ushered me along to the steam room. I knew my two companions had headed in there before me, but the steam was so thick, I could barely make out their figures. One of them passed me a plastic bucket filled with yet more herbs and flowers in which to soak my feet. The heady scent pervaded the steam room. I wanted to stay in there forever.
My attendant saw to it that I did not. Next next next. Must keep moving on.
Pummelled, Kneaded, and Knee’d at Huong Sen Spa
The best massage I’ve ever had was a back and shoulders massage on the boat I’d taken with my family through Ha Long Bay five years ago. When the masseuse climbed up on the table and stuck her knee in my back, I was sold. Vietnamese massage is not exactly relaxing, but I kind of like it that way.
After the steam room, I was directed to shower again, and then given a fresh towel. There is no concern over privacy here, so I dried off while four or five attendants milled around me, remarking on how tall I was, and possibly saying other, more personal things. I was quite relieved to have no grasp of their language.
They gave me some paper underwear (completely transparent, so why even bother?) and a robe. I retrieved my clothing basket and was led down the hall. Here, there were several treatment rooms, all with three soft massage tables. I joined my two new friends in one room, and we all lay down, naked save for our paper knickers. I was actually surprised when we were given towels to cover ourselves up.
Stephen’s note: I was sent, in a fresh, dry pair of boxers, to a private room where my masseuse was waiting.
And then the torture began. No, I jest. Sort of.
The massage started with a tough head rub. Then the masseuse jammed her fingers into various accupressure points around my skull, which felt bad but good at the same time. She gave a thorough going over to all the bones of my face, including some uncomfortable attention paid to my eye sockets and eyeballs.
Ouch. I could do without the eye massage next time.
She pounded on my cranium for a minute or so with the sides of her hands, twisted my neck this way and that, and yanked hard on my skull a couple of times. Vietnamese massage is about as relaxing as a Chinese overnight train.
This pummelling, poking, squeezing, and pulling continued along all parts of my body. Does this make it sound like I didn’t enjoy it? Because I really did. I’m sure I have more knots and pains than the average person, and it felt like this rough treatment might work some of them out.
There was a general lack of concern over my level of comfort – my masseuse handled me with all the delicacy of a slab of meat, diving in to attack a fresh cut with no warning whatsoever. She climbed all over the table, sitting on one leg while working on the other, leaning on parts of my body as if I was not even there.
And when they say full body massage, they mean full body. There are a few square inches around one’s nether regions that are off limits, but apparently my breasts and my butt needed a kneading.
Stephen’s note: My breasts were ignored during my massage.
Cycling is very hard on the poor gluteal muscles, so I have to say I was more than happy to have them worked on.
Near the end of the massage, my masseuse directed my attention to the woman next to me. Her masseuse was lying on the table, knees in the air, while the client lay across her knees in a back bend. The masseuse grabbed her arms and hauled her into the air, pulling her back and forth to stretch out her back.
OK, that looks just like Acro Yoga. Naked Acro Yoga that is.
A few minutes later, my masseuse asked if I wanted to try. Well, you only live once.
Seconds later, there I was, mostly naked, splayed across a tiny Vietnamese woman’s knees as she hoisted me into the air, using her arms and legs to stretch out my spine.
Stephen’s note: This is yet another thing didn’t happen to me. Jane also forgot to mention the cucumber face mask treatment she received, which I also didn’t get. I ended up down in the lobby waiting for Jane for about 15 minutes before she was done. She clearly got a more thorough experience and treatment. I must say, when I found all this out, I felt cheated.
Just because I’m a man doesn’t mean I don’t like to get pampered.
The Embarrassing Tipping Saga
Before long, it was all over and I was being handed back my clothes. I felt pretty good about the whole experience. The attendants had been so clear with what I should do when, I hadn’t broken any major rules of protocol.
And then, as we were all getting dressed. I noticed that the other two women were handing money to their masseuses. Oh crap. They’re tipping. And I have exactly zero cash.
Crap crap crap. You see, this is why I never get massages! Something ALWAYS happens.
I got dressed slowly, knowing the dreaded moment was coming.
Finally, I could avoid it no longer. One of the other masseuses showed me her money and indicated that I should give some to my masseuse.
I nodded, and started to explain why I couldn’t. But none of the five ladies now waiting and watching to see what I would do could speak any English.
I got out my wallet and showed them that it was empty. I said I would go and get money and bring some back. They didn’t understand. I made the motion of walking out. Stopped, turned around, came back in, and then pretended to hand my girl some money.
Oh, now they got it.
I departed, now stressing about where I was going to find money. This street wasn’t exactly on the tourist map, and there were surely no bank machines around. I met Stephen and told him what had happened. He didn’t seem too concerned. His masseuse hadn’t seemed to expect a tip, so he didn’t understand why mine did.
Still, a promise is a promise. I’d told her I was going to get money for her and by gosh, I would. I knew my actions would reflect on all foreigners, and I didn’t want create a rumour that all foreigners are cheapskate lying liars.
After a thorough search of the area, we finally found an ATM, and I returned to the spa. I got change at the ticket desk and then walked back inside to find my girl. This is clearly a common occurrence, because everyone seemed to understand what I was doing.
The masseuse came down and I handed her a 50k dong note, about a 25% tip. I turned to go, and I heard behind me a gasp of surprise and happiness.
I’d handed her a 500k not 50k. That’s a hefty 200% tip, and while it’s not THAT much for me, it’s a heck of a lot for a masseuse in Hanoi.
For a second I hesitated and then I turned around. A co-worker called her back and she handed me back the money, which I traded for 100k, since by now I was feeling like I owed the poor girl something extra.
“Sorry, sorry!” I said, thoroughly embarrassed at my own stupidity – and at the amount of money I was just seemingly casually throwing around. “Sorry!” I said once more, and beat a hasty retreat.
The Guilt Trip
It took me hours (maybe days) to get over this little incident and I couldn’t figure out why until I discussed it with Stephen. The whole thing had really served to drive home the discrepancies in income and status that come with being born in a certain part of the world and into a certain kind of family.
By travelling out of our part of the world, we take on the role of wealthy foreigners, who can easily afford to stay in posh hotels, eat at upscale restaurants, and buy whatever trinkets we want. We spend as much on one meal as the people who are serving us spend in a week. It is hard to reconcile.
Do all these advantages equal more happiness and a better life for us? The obvious answer seems to be yes, but I don’t know.
At least outwardly, the people we’ve encountered doing simple jobs in Hanoi, like the fruit and donut sellers, the massage parlour attendants, and the pho sellers, appear to be happy. They laugh more, smile more, and crack more jokes than anyone on the LA freeways or the tube in London, that’s for sure.
Our trip is constantly reminding us that life in the West is all about abundance, convenience, and consumption, while life for many people in Asia is more focussed on family, and meeting ones basic needs.
Seeing what people live without is a good reminder that an extra bedroom, this season’s jacket, and having the latest iPad doesn’t make us happier. In fact, it may do the opposite. ♥
Hi, I’m Jane, founder and chief blogger on My Five Acres. I’ve lived in six countries and have camped, biked, trekked, kayaked, and explored in 50! At My Five Acres, our mission is to inspire you to live your most adventurous life and help you to travel more and more mindfully.