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What if you were asked to go to spa

Vietnam Heritage, July-August 2011 Advertorial -- The phone rang at dinner time. The voice said, ‘This is Vietnam Heritage. We want you to do spa.’ At first I thought it was a joke, then I thought, ah Spa you mean Spa-Francorchamps. Surely they do not want me to cover the Belgian F1 Grand Prix? That would be the ultimate luck for a great fan of F1 like me. I checked the calendar, found out the date was not April 1 (April Fool’s day) and decided it would be safe to go ahead.
Now, words have a habit of changing their meaning as they get adopted by different people around the world. A spa began life as meaning a town blessed with mineral springs where people, usually the elderly, went to seek a cure for diseases affecting the vital organs. Treatment would be over a week-long course of ‘taking the waters’ by drinking them and bathing in them with medical staff in attendance. The term ‘day spa’ has also come into use in the West and this too would mean a place where water-based treatments were given. The nearest oriental equivalent to a spa could be a Japanese ‘Onsen’. In Vietnam, spa has completely changed its meaning and is simply shorthand for beauty salon cum massage parlour.
Of course it is not only the Vietnamese who are capable of semantic shifts. Use the franglais phrases carte blanche and cul-de-sac in their English meanings in France and you will be met with puzzled faces. The word ‘hotel’ in India and the Middle East is often used for a general store. Which brings me to the story of the English tourist who walked into the Hotel de Ville in France looking for a room for the night only to get thrown out by civil servants as this was the Town Hall. Captain Cook and his men were others who got hold of the wrong end of the stick. Enquiring of natives, so the story goes, as to the name of a large, rat-like creature they were told ‘kangaroo’, local words meaning ‘I do not understand you.’
But why me for a trip? Surely I am the last one for such an assignment, as I am a stout, middle-aged man with what the Vietnamese term a ‘bụng bự’ or big belly. I can only assume they wanted to give Nhien Spa a challenge. My assigned masseuse was Miss Phuong, who quickly got to work. She found muscles I never knew I had. Stones were placed on my back and pressure applied, working her way progressively up my spine. I was glad I was in professional hands, as otherwise I can imagine being left paralysed for life.
As my masseuse pounded and pummelled me into shape I wondered what went on inside her head as she worked on my flabby, aging westerner body. This could hardly have been pleasurable, but she was relentless in her activity. Did it get boring day after day carrying out the same routine, attending to the aches and pains of all and sundry? As for my own thoughts, well, they were hardly printable at times. I had to focus on what I had come for, which was to achieve a better feeling of well-being. I grunted and wheezed a bit but I didn’t feel any pain. Perhaps I was in better physical shape than I had thought. One thing was for sure: as a full-blooded male I would never had have male hands do this to me. So there was an element of sexuality involved. In order to drive away unwanted thoughts, I engaged my masseuese in small talk. She was thirty years old. My goodness! That was a lot younger than me. In fact, I was old enough to be her wicked uncle. She told me she had a young son. ‘Is he as naughty as me?’ I teased her. Another question gave the answer I had expected. It did take considerable training and practice to get such professional hands as hers.
I returned to reception and interviewed Miss Nhan, assistant manageress, who incidentally doubled as sales agent for Six Senses Resort on the Côn Đảo islands. She told me they had been running for around a year. Clientele was fifty per cent foreign and fifty per cent local. The gender ratio of customers was eighty per cent female to twenty per cent male. They had ten masseuses (female) and there were also two masseurs (male), but the latter did only foot massage. I noticed prices were slightly higher for foreigners. I asked her why. She had heard this question before and now she had the reply off pat. ‘Well, you know, the foreigner’s body is much larger.’ ‘What about Japanese?’ ‘Same foreigner price,’ she said. ‘They are very fussy and need a lot of attention, as well as drink a lot of water.’ Just as I was about to ask if African pygmies from Rwanda qualified for a discount she was saved by the telephone ring tone. ‘Sorry’, she said. ‘Have to dash. Got a meeting.’
Well, I have to say the trip to Nhien Spa did me good. I left feeling toned up in mind and spirit and with my ignorance and prejudice about such places blasted. If you crossed continents to get to Asia you should at least try this once. As I left, the staff took leave of me smiling and waving. Whilst this sort of thing is not really my cup of tea I can certainly recommend this place both for price and service.

By Pip de Rouvray
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