By: Alison Spencer
Winding through the men’s section, a distinct thwacking sound echoed down the narrow hallway. I’d had massages previously but never heard such noises, clearly made from hard and repeated skin on skin contact. As I neared the ladies’ area, the cacophony of smacks and thumps only grew, reaching its peak as I entered a large room divided into eight segments. As someone with exceptionally tight muscles and an aversion to most spa treatments, I nearly hightailed it out of there, afraid for my body and my mental wellbeing. But, never one to shy away from adventure, I pushed aside any discomfort and stepped behind the closest curtain.
In a space containing nothing more than a padded table and locker, I received my first instructions. She spoke little English, but I knew what she asked, thanks to the common language of gesturing. Once she stepped out, I started removing my clothing, placing each item in the cabinet provided until I’d removed every article. Just as I’d stored the final piece, and well before I’d situated myself beneath the sheet, she walked back in. With no means of covering, I cringed, striving to use my limbs to shield my nudity until I realized the most comforting fact. Here, every masseuse is blind.
Tourists flock to Southeast Asia to experience the plethora of and exceptionally inexpensive spa treatments available. I’ll admit, I too felt excited to dabble in that world and while traveling the region had my fair share: a foot rub in Chiang Mai, a fish pedicure in Angkor Wat, and the traditional Thai massage in Chiang Mai as well. All proved affordable. All proved relaxing. But the experience I most remember? The most unique spa treatment available in Southeast Asia? A blind massage in Ho Chi Minh City.
It is well known that people with disabilities, regardless of city or country, consistently have higher rates of unemployment and, when combined with increased medical expenses, poverty. Seeing individuals stuck in this cycle of needing additional finances with no means of obtaining it, The Blind Association for Ho Chi Minh City turned to massage. Because the practice centers on touch rather than sight, it became the perfect opportunity for both employment and subsequently, a more stable income. And so, the Association supported the creation spas.
As she stood before me, and I before her, in my birthday suit, I momentarily forgot that she couldn’t see me or my exposed body. Starting about her business rather than making eye contact, it slowly sank in and I began to appreciate that my body would be seen only by her hands. An exceptionally self-conscious individual, that thought allowed me to relax far more than during any previous massage. I still however, somewhat reflexively grabbed the sheet, placing it completely on top of myself, as I laid down.
It started as a typical massage, my back muscles loosening as she applied well aimed pressure. She found every tight spot instantly, kneading away the tension held from days of travel. Rubbing soon turned into significant pounding, my body and her hands now making the thwacking I’d heard upon arrival. I couldn’t quite believe how effortlessly she worked, using lotion as a means of learning my body before making more intense contact. Flipping over I could watch her work. The sheet barely covered my front which, ordinarily would cause internal panic. Yet as I looked up her head wasn’t even turned in my direction. Operating solely on feel, her eyes gazed into the distance, her fingers doing her eyes’ work.
The hour was not the most relaxing I’ve had. My masseuse whispered through the curtain to her fellow employees. A cell phone or two rang. At one point a cat walked into my room, perusing the space and me before ducking back under the divider. I’m also fairly confident (this happened while I lay face down) another individual enjoyed a snack whilst in my room. But my body felt incredible after the fact. The cupping and pummeling removed every knot and point of tension, making my limbs perfectly relaxed. And, from start to finish, it was a truly unique spa experience.
So, whether in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, or any of the other Vietnamese cities, make your way to a spa offering blind massages. Go for the memory, for the muscle pounding and the knowledge you are helping someone earn an income.
About the author: Alison Spencer is a teacher and traveler. To her, travel is much more than simply seeing somewhere, it’s about the experience, about fully immersing oneself in a new place, surrounded by new people. With a camera in one hand and a pen in the other, Alison sets off to capture and learn about the world in which we live. Read more on her blog, AmcSTravel.com.