Massage diary: Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam

Massage shop in Chiang Mai, Thailand
One of the hundreds of massage shops in Chiang Mai, Thailand

A few hundred kilometers from the borders of Vietnam, Laos, and Burma lies Kunming in southwestern Yunnan Province, one of China’s more attractive cities, and a convenient stepping-off point for a multi-country massage journey. There is a key difference between massage in China and massage in Southeast Asia, where massage shops proliferate wherever tourists are to be found, jostling for attention among all the bars, cafés, and restaurants with their catchy English-language signs and menus. China’s massage industry, by contrast, geared as it is almost exclusively toward domestics, is indifferent to foreigners and tourists. In your typical Chinese city, massage shops are scattered uniformly throughout most neighborhoods, their shop signs are in Chinese, with the occasional “Massage” or “Spa” in English (“spa” being code either for the full panoply of massage services or a body-care salon for women; accompanying Chinese characters usually clarify which). There is no clear division between sexual and nonsexual massage services; you cannot tell from the outside of a shop much about what goes on inside. But it’s not as if anything goes. In both policy and practice, most of China’s massage venues are no-nonsense, nonsexual therapeutic services, functioning as a requisite neighborhood facility. As many women patronize them as men; the phenomenon of the Chinese female massage addict is not uncommon, attested to by those I see at the same shops I frequent as well as those who have confided the predilection to me.

At the lower echelon of the Chinese massage industry are the male and female rural blind. These “Blind Massage” shops are found in every city. The blind would not otherwise find employment and are grateful for the work, strictly therapeutic at that, though contrary to their alleged superior ability they are not always well trained or suitable for the job. I’ve never found a blind technician that can compete with the best seeing technicians (“technician” or jishi being the term many massage workers prefer to call themselves). The rural disabled tend to be poorly if at all educated and are dependent upon overseers in an austere organizational environment, with little opportunity or incentive to develop professionally.

Overt prostitution (sexual intercourse) is rare at massage venues; it gravitates rather to the KTV bars, “rest & relaxation” businessmen hotels, and house-call and escort services. Prostitution massage parlors can be found in the outskirts or seedier areas of certain cities, mostly in the country’s south (Shenzhen, Dongguan), but they are not the norm. The fashionable falsehood pedaled by anti-prostitution activists that massage workers are routinely enslaved bears little relation to life on the ground. None of the hundreds of Chinese massage workers I’ve met over the years has ever told me they were either forced into the job or prevented from leaving it. Working conditions can indeed be draining, running ten to twelve hours a day, seven days a week, with one or two days off a month. To ensure adequate staff are on hand, some establishments don’t let them leave the premises apart from their days off. Those no longer willing to put up with this are free to quit and quit they do, moving from massage in and out of other occupations—hairdressing, nursing, apparel, insurance sales—at will. It should also be noted that Chinese factory workers often labor under the same strictures: locked in company compounds 24/7. Many might prefer the comparatively relaxed routine of massage work (typically five or six customers per day) to the relentlessness of the assembly line.

“Sex work” is a clumsy term, too blunt to describe the ways massage is actually sexualized. There is a full gamut of possibilities along what can be termed the “chaste/erotic” continuum, from acupressure to “Euro-style” oil massage, erotic teasing, and finally the handjob. Different masseuses at the same venue may engage in all of these or not, or with some customers and not with others. Anything can and does happen inside doors, in the secret negotiations and personal vibes between massage worker and customer. It is this very drama and suspense that provides the Asian massage venue with its fascination. The astute masseuse knows that each customer has different needs and expectations. She likewise has her repertoire of techniques and her limits. It’s a question of a good fit between technician and client. As long as she can satisfy enough customers with her skilled handiwork, she can do good business.

Within China, Shanghai has the best of everything, both in range and quality of services. At midrange shops a 60-minute oil massage runs around 300 yuan (USD $45); the more decked-out the decor, the higher the price. One chain, Yu Massage, specializes in a four-hands “Double Rejoicing” massage, performed by two masseuses who synchronize their stroking. The venue is popular with foreign couples. Yet single males might be massaged a bit more erotically, as I was when one masseuse reached between my legs and stroked my perineum—the huiyin acupressure point. Not that she was necessarily crossing the line of respectability. Such lines are notional constructs, more fluid and permeable in cultures outside the Western puritanical context. I say “might”; that was the only masseuse at this chain to caress me thus, which would otherwise wish to maintain its reputation for politeness among its largely Anglo-American clientele. The chain is located in the upscale French Concession area and was one of the first to cater to foreigners.

Elsewhere in China, the massage industry is at the mercy of the political weather and periodic police crackdowns and clean-up campaigns, with legitimate establishments unfairly caught up in sweeps and thrown out of business, only to pop back up under a new name or location. Kunming seemed to be having bad weather during my stay there in late 2016. Two days of scouring the city turned up nothing except a single shop specializing in muscle ailments. I would likely have found more shops had I been more at leisure, but I had urgent traveling to do.

Laos: Luang Prabang and Vientiane

With the exception of the U.S., no country seems to have a more fraught and conflicted attitude toward massage than Laos; or to be more precise, the government’s conflicted attitude. Massage—along with guesthouses, restaurants, and ecotourism—is a cash cow in the expanding tourist industry and must be allowed to develop, yet at the same time rigidly controlled. Burma, which I visited in 2014, makes for a useful comparison here (see my book Massage and the Writer: Essays on Asian Massage). In that country the massage arts had a long tradition until stamped out under the military regime. It was only then making a comeback, but there wasn’t much. In Laos, by contrast, there’s a thriving massage business in the country’s prime tourist haunt of Luang Prabang, or I should say at least the trappings of one.

Luang Prabang is a lovely little city, with a mile of tourist guesthouses, restaurants and massage shops spread out along the Mekong. On the main boulevard parallel to the river a couple blocks up on Sakkaline Road, Buddhist temples with stacked roofs commingle with colonial-era homes built by the French. The French influence is still evident, as it is in Vietnam, in the high quality of the coffee and bread, while restaurants run by French proprietors offer a decent imported wine selection. A writer or romantic would find it an idyllic Asian haunt to hide away in, even without the prospect of a decent massage. I spent four days growing ever more flustered in my research.

I start off with a few shops on Khem Khong Road along the river. They all have open fronts. The masseuses sitting in the entrance at the first place I step into acknowledge me without evincing any hospitality. I am led upstairs to a shabby little room by a woman in her 20s with her hair dyed blond. She gives me an indifferent and wholly chaste massage with one hand while playing with her cellphone with the other; at one point she interrupts the massage to leave the room and take a call, returning a good five minutes later. At the next venue I take a chance on, the young lady massaging me is so inept that I am compelled to do something I rarely do, quit halfway through. I pay part of the fee and take off before any further dispute arises (in China when this happens, they’d demand I pay for the full hour, but I can handle them with my ability in the language).

At the far end of the town and around the bend where the Nam Khan River flows into the Mekong, the quality of the housing steps up, and the massage shops are larger and more upscale, some with a coveted TripAdvisor placard; many occupy the traditional A-frame teakwood housing you can also see in Thailand. I choose one. A variety of massage essences is offered, and the shower is elegant and immaculate, with fluffy towels. A competent and thoroughly unmemorable massage follows in the steep-raftered room by an attractive young lady wrapped in the Lao sarong, or sinh. I suppose if I didn’t have such high standards and it was my first time, the experience would have been wholly satisfactory and stamped indelibly in my memory of the country. But when you’ve racked up untold massages in a variety of countries, you become picky. Hers is the old one-size-fits-all treatment, the same massage she gives to all of her customers. In the massage arts the usual notion of quality control—maintaining identical standards in a product line—does not and should not apply. She lacks, as all but the best masseuses do, the ability to read the customer and grasp what they want.

I try several more shops over the following days. The massages are all noted for their sameness, down to the way they always start working upward from the calves. There’s no reason why one can’t work upward from the calves, but it seems like they were all trained in the same state-run school.

I’ve long found that the older or less attractive a masseuse is the better, if only because she has likely come to terms with her profession and is able to relax into the job and focus on the customer. At another establishment in a lovely teak dwelling, a middle-aged masseuse produces something approaching a satisfying session. She gets her fingers into the ridges of my groin while refraining from any direct genital contact—delicious enough for me to request another half hour. With her nonexistent English, an amusing scene ensues. I try everything—pointing to the clock, writing down the times—but fail to convey my request. If an Asian masseuse knows any English at all, it’s money-making words such as “another half-hour?” and “hour and half?” The Lao aren’t yet savvy enough to anticipate the customer who simply wants to extend their massage. We have to interrupt the session while she goes off in search of her boss who is momentarily out, to get to the bottom of my strangely urgent query. She arrives back fifteen minutes later and conveys my message to the masseuse. By then the spell has been broken.

On the bus passing through one of innumerable mountain villages on the way to Vientiane, I am confronted by a shocking sight. A woman is standing in a tub by the roadside pouring water over her magnificent breasts, naked but for the sinh around her hips, casually glancing up at us as we speed by. (I’m not able to snap a picture in time. It can’t be discounted, indeed seems quite likely, that she was something of an exhibitionist, given that the bus would have appeared around the bend about the same time every day. Exhibitionism is discussed in my essay Transgressions: From Porn to Polyamory.) By “shocking” I must underscore that I don’t mean offended, only that it’s the first time to witness the like. Laos is a traditional society and hardly expected to be progressive and openminded. Yet in this one respect they are freer than much of the rest of the world, above all Americans, so notoriously squeamish and so easily bruised, so quick to reject out of hand our natural freedom to be naked, so quick to demand freedom from the sight of the naked. According to this parochial mindset, unless young and of fine physique, the naked body is ugly by definition. There is no middle ground: the body is either highly sexualized and frightening or decrepit and offensive. The social force of these negative attitudes is such that breastfeeding mothers are reluctant to expose their nipple in enlightened New York City, where public nudity is in fact perfectly legal but only performance artists dare assert this right. To bare an American nipple for the baby’s mouth thus amounts to a form of performance art and a radical act. There is no valid argument against public nudity. There is only the futile question as to why it’s not universal.

Mountain village in Laos
A mountain village in Laos, much like the one where I saw a woman bathing herself by the road

Most of the passengers get off at the popular backpacker haunt of Vang Vieng, with its hiking, kayaking, and rumored opium dens. Your massage researcher is the only foreigner left on the bus for the remaining stretch. Hours later, we pull into the capital after dark. Somewhere near the city center in a tuktuk, I speed by a shop with the word “Massage” in English and another word before it beginning with the letter “E,” perhaps “Erotic”? No, it can’t be. At that very moment, a shapely woman emerges out of the shop as if noticing me. In a sheer net dress, her breasts and panties are starkly illumined by the streetlight. It all happens so quickly I can’t be sure I’m not hallucinating. If this quasi-communist state can’t even turn up a single decent massage shop, I must be hallucinating. The tuktuk drops me off at a hotel with an inviting front restaurant, the Mixok Guesthouse. In the reception, I see a middle-aged white guy having dinner with an attractive Lao woman. That much is reassuring. Like China of the 1980s, the government here, I’ve heard, forbids women to consort with foreign men.

As with many authoritarian states, much of Vientiane’s city center is swallowed up in broad boulevards, monuments, and billboards adorned with the country’s leader. My guesthouse is located in the compact international nightlife area, a few crisscrossing streets several blocks in scope. There are plenty of massage shops around, but I don’t partake, expecting more of the same. To be sure, I’d benefit from a few more days here to let the town soak in and things pop out of the woodwork, a few locals to meet and perhaps a woman to chat up and get friendly with. But I’m on a tight schedule and impatient to cross over to the other side of the Mekong where the action is.

Thailand: Nong Khai and Udon Thani

A short bus ride downstream and across the bridge and I’m deposited at the Thai border in Nong Khai. I can’t tell whether there are more Laos or Thais in the crowded customs outpost. In contrast to the stark border control upon entering Laos, with its stolid officers in their communist-era uniforms and high-peaked caps, the atmosphere on this side of the river is relaxed, the channeling of people efficient, and there are a lot more people to channel. A female customs officer with blunt bangs and seductive eyes directs the crowd into the right queues. It’s my second visit to Thailand and my first to Isan, the country’s least-developed region. What makes me curious about the northeast is almost all the masseuses on my previous stay in Bangkok told me they hailed from Isan. Their migration into the sex trade is not in dispute, but I envisioned swaths of arid farmland and the population living in huts and dressed in rags (pockets of rural poverty certainly exist, as attested in Susan Aldous and Pornchai Sereemongkonpol’s account of Isan in Ladyboys: The Secret World of Thailand’s Third Gender (Maverick House, 2008)). I want to witness the place for myself. Laos has long been an insular culture and due to national inbreeding, the people often resemble one another. In fact, northeast Thais are ethnically Lao and you can see a resemblance in some. Isaners—and rural Asians generally—are stereotyped as dark-skinned and the well-bred as fair-skinned. But also evident is the same wide range of hues and facial features as in the rest of Thailand.

I have no idea where to stay in the small city. A tuktuk drops me off in the city center, several kilometers away from the border control. I step into a coffee shop to use their wifi, and my GPS map shows a concentration of guesthouses along one section of the river. The staff points me in the right direction, but I see nothing ahead but dusty streets. I go into a convenience store to ask for more help. An attractive customer at the checkout offers to drive me there. She’s well-dressed and her car is new. I’m grateful for her kindness and would much like to get better acquainted, but I don’t know how to break the ice when neither of us speaks a word of the other’s language.

The foreigner enclave amounts to one narrow street stretching for a block, with a handful of guesthouses and open-air restaurants overlooking the Mekong. I can see that Nong Khai is going to be too small for me. Still, things get off to a brisk start, as I knew they would. The first guesthouse I step into displays a poster in the lobby advertising 400 Bhat/hr ($12) massage room calls. I get settled in my room and a masseuse is at my door a few minutes later. She’s in her forties, hefty with huge hips, possibly pretty when she was younger but no longer, but that doesn’t matter for, on top of having good technique, she soon drives things into erotic territory. A towel is draped across my midriff, and as she pulls my knees back to stretch my legs, she exposes my erect shaft. Now, a massage doesn’t have to collapse halfway through. I prefer it’s brought right up to the edge and held there in a state of arrested tension for sixty minutes. But this is Thailand, where massages have a way of devolving into sex—to mutual satisfaction. It’s clear she enjoyed things and she doesn’t ask for a tip. The house call is so unbelievably cheap I give her a generous one anyway.

I stride out of the foreigner enclave, my normal energy level now supercharged from the lightning encounter, to hunt down another massage. One shop, a bit off the expat strip, has a sign in English for “Oil Massage,” but it looks more like a beauty salon. A sexy woman around forty is attending to a female customer and points at the clock, indicating she’ll be free at six. I backtrack down the street to a cozy little coffeehouse where I wait out the hour. When I return, she’s ready, the shop to herself. She leads me to the massage tables in the unlit back end of the premises. At most venues in Thailand, you just strip and get on the table naked. If you’re shy you keep your underwear on and a towel is usually provided to cover yourself with, but they’re not in the least fazed if you take everything off. This is a barebones sort of shop and there’s no towel, nor is she adept at massage, which is surprising since the place seems to cater to locals with therapeutic needs rather than foreigners, but she indeed gets right down to business and offers to fuck. She has a marvelous body and I offer to massage her instead.

An hour’s bus ride south is Isan’s largest city, Udon Thani. The US military had a base there during the Vietnam War for staging operations in its secret bombing campaign in Laos. I have no idea what the city was like back then, but the main drag with all the pubs and go-go bars remains lively today, while the composition of the expat community has shifted to retired Brits. It’s much larger than Nong Khai and the quality of the Western restaurants is impressive. During my two days in the city, I visit quite a few massage shops; there are scores of them. They run the usual gamut from no-nonsense chaste to the erotic. And as in China, what the shop looks like on the outside is no help; it all seems to come down to whether a masseuse takes a fancy to you. But already rather exhausted by massage at this point, I prefer to spend my time with the lovable middle-aged waitresses at the Smiling Frog pub, who look like they might have been sex workers during the war days, except they aren’t quite old enough for that. They serve the best pizza margherita I’ve had since Otto Pizzeria’s at the Venetian in Las Vegas.

Commercial massage is more relaxed and liberal in some countries than others, and Thailand is where the art of massage has been permitted to flourish more than anywhere else. All cities in this country have an endless supply of massage services, but Pattaya and Chiang Mai stand out. Pattaya is notorious as Thailand’s swinging “sin city” (open-air bars, go-go bars, soapy massage), to be compared not with Bangkok but something raunchier, like Angeles in the Philippines. Chiang Mai, by contrast, is not known as a sex mecca. On the contrary, it tends to draw tourists who come to the country for all the other reasons, the “culture” and laid-back atmosphere, the golden conical pagodas and orange-robed Buddhists strolling the streets, the food. Yet the city crawls with massage. So much so that there almost seems something funny going on, as if every time you think you’ve found a street free of any massage shops, yet another one peeks out with a good old “Hi there!”

To newbies, these shops can go from family-friendly to frightening in the space of a few meters. Most have open fronts, where you see couples and their children getting their feet massaged in reclinable chairs as you pass by. In the room behind or the floor above, floor mattresses are at the ready for Thai-style massage, performed by a masseuse who uses her body weight and her knees, elbows, and feet to elasticize you. You are clothed so there is no pressing need for privacy here either, but curtains partition each space to assuage the skittish Anglo customer anyway.

Massage lady in Nong Khai
Massage lady in Udon Thani

And then in private back rooms or cubicles, there is oil massage, performed on a dedicated massage table with a face rest. When the masseuse enters, she’ll drape you with your towel, if you haven’t done so. Once the massage begins the towel tends to come off unless you insist on keeping it on. In the presence of the Thai masseuse, we’re dealing with a special form of intimate social nudity. Male and female customers alike can expect a massage over the entire body, normally but not necessarily excluding the genitals. Some masseuses keep things chaste; others are happy to deliver more to those who want it. For men, this may mean a laxer draping procedure, the inner thighs worked closer to the groin, exposing your scrotum or letting your erection pop out. From there on it’s a dance of draping or sloughing off the towel once and for all; the towel functions less as a veil than an instrument of wordless dialogue, a gentle matador’s cape. The penis may be folded into the treatment and your semen squeezed out—or not. She may ask for a tip beforehand or afterward or not at all.

In the window of the massage shop next to my guesthouse in Chiang Mai, a sign in English warns foreigners: “We only offer proper massage here. Please do not ask for anything else.” I am led to a back room, and a masseuse begins to work my legs and buttocks. Mysteriously, another masseuse soon shows up to take over. An Asian version of Judy Garland around 40, Dang is fair-complexioned with wide-set eyes, in a tight black shirt and blue silk sarong. Guided by the supreme technique of mere thoroughness—if only all massage workers understood this!—she proceeds to deliver one of the most explosive massages I’ve ever had. The usual massage worker is given to fast stroking. I always have to tell them to slow down. Dang is a master of slow massage. It takes her only several hundred strokes to use up the hour. If that sounds like a lot, the usual masseuse expends several thousand strokes (and mangles her hands for good if she keeps it up day in and day out). Dang dispenses with the towel early on, and I’m naked when I turn over. She works my limbs to my solar plexus, from the legs upward and the chest downward deeply, strongly, and purposefully, as if plowing the soil, before terminating the hour with a precise number of upward strokes along my shaft, stopping just short of ejaculation. She’s that rare poet of the hands, building up erotic tension in layers and suspending it there quaveringly without relief. It makes all my other massages in Chiang Mai pale in comparison. (Dang no longer worked at the shop when I returned to Chiang Mai in 2019. However, they called her up and she agreed to make a special trip, arriving soon on her moped and almost unrecognizable, now a Buddhist nun and completely shorn of her hair, but she again delivered a massage as electrifying as her first.)

Smiling Frog restaurant
Waitress at the Smiling Frog Bar & Restaurant, Udon Thani
Smiling Frog restaurant
And their divine Margherita pizza

Females too should have this experience, though few women go for commercial erotic massage, an unfortunate consequence of sexism. It is also a problem of the imagination—on the part of customers. Since so few women ever request such a massage, no masseuse (or masseur) dare venture there and risk causing a misunderstanding. I suggest that any female desirous of having a more deluxe-style treatment could start with a breast massage—few Thai masseuses have a problem with that and the practice is common in China as well—and if she intuits the vibes to be right, request more. A few masseuses may balk, others not.

Chiang Rai, up in the northwest corner of the country and a three-hour drive north of Chiang Mai, is a miniature version of the latter, with a smattering of famous temples, a handful of decent cafés and restaurants, and an expat-backpacker enclave a few streets in extent. It is also home to the extraordinary White Temple (mentioned in my essay “Toilet Terror”), built by the eccentric architect Chalermchai Kositpipat, who continues to add wild structures and futuristic ornaments to the temple complex. It’s extremely popular with Chinese tourists; Chiang Mai is deluged with Chinese tourists as well, who visibly outnumber those from all other countries combined (until, of course, the Covid pandemic). The temple and Kositpipat’s gallery of paintings are worth a trip to Chiang Rai alone. As for the massage scene, it’s an extension of Chiang Mai’s, which is to say there’s a lot, enough to keep one busy for days. Some strips closer to the main drag cater to single men or couples, those further back to men only. My guesthouse as well offers its own massage service. By this point, however, I am too massaged-out to sample any of them.

Chiang Mai massage shop at night
A massage shop viewed from my guesthouse window in Chiang Mai
Bangkok masseuses
Masseuses at a Bangkok massage shop celebrating their TripAdvisor promotion

Cambodia: Siem Reap and Phnom Penh

I am due for a change of scenery and after a brief stay in Bangkok to see a friend, I grab a bus to Cambodia and my first visit to Angkor Wat, the world-famous, sprawling ruined temple complex. The archeological encounter is thoroughly worthwhile but with volumes written about it, this is not the space to add any more verbiage. The nearby city for accommodation, Siem Reap, I expected to be a dusty outpost in impoverished and devastated Cambodia. It turns out to be one of the liveliest tourist cities I’ve encountered in Southeast Asia, a bustling, disorienting congeries of chic restaurants, nightclubs, bars, cafés, and massage parlors in every direction. I gather some expats like the place enough to buy property and retire here.

The several massage joints I sample are comparable to their Thai counterparts in price and services offered but rather lackluster, with the exception of the room service at my upscale guesthouse. The central patio houses a pool surrounded by palm trees, crowded with tanned Western couples throughout the day and evening. The atmosphere is upscale, and I don’t expect anything more than the primmest of massages. When my masseuse arrives at my door in a white uniform, I mistake her for my housekeeper. She has no problem massaging me fully naked and bringing me off and discreetly departs without asking for a tip. I make sure she gets one down at the reception.

Cafe in Siem Reap
A lovely cafe in Siem Reap

The capital is grander and more populous, with an established expat crowd and lively nightlife scene along the Mekong riverfront. Phnom Penh has an old-world atmosphere, with bars on the gritty 136 Street named Pussy Cat, Olala, and Dirty Old Sailor (I am not making these up). There’s a “Spa Bar” with liquor and massage on the menu, a novel combination, but the timing is off. I remain massaged-out from Thailand and not much in the mood. As well, I am still intoxicated by Dang’s powerful massage back in Chiang Mai and enveloped in its lingering, perpetual glow; I want to keep the memory alive and avoid dissipating it in disappointing massages. Finally, I try out one shop next to my hotel with thin New Agey trappings but the massage is fussy. I’ll have to do the whole trip again one day in reverse, beginning with Vietnam and Cambodia, starting out massage-deprived.

136 Street in Phnom Penh
136 Street in Phnom Penh

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum makes a strong impression on me. The museum occupies the same high-school grounds used as an execution site by the Khmer Rouge. The horrible photos reveal the connection between state terror and sex. Torture regimes the world over operate with remarkable consistency, stripping their prisoners naked and stringing them up in chains or binding them to tables, or iron bed frames as in this prison, male and female victims alike reduced to bloodied blobs of flesh at the hands of their male torturers. When terror is applied to individuals, it becomes perversely intimate. It’s the sadomasochistic relationship with the playacting removed. It’s sex at its most humorless. If rape is sex enraged, torture is the tragic corollary of massage. That’s why massage is so frightening for many neophytes: to mount a table naked and surrender your genitals to potential attack. (See for instance Nunca Mas: The Report of the Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1986), a comprehensive report of torture, including sexual torture, under the Argentine military dictatorship. The ironic parallels between torture and massage are explored in my Massage and the Writer).

Vietnam: Saigon

Saigon masseuse
A massage lady in Saigon

My first stop in Saigon is the War Remnants Museum, and more horrendous photos of mutilated bodies, this time at the hands of the U.S. military. It’s still hard for me to fathom the massive disparity in deaths between the two countries from the war: two to three million Vietnamese, more than half of whom were civilians, versus a mere 60,000 US personnel: 50 Vietnamese for every American. Most Americans aren’t even aware of these statistics, let alone the profound moral aspects of the problem, the ease with which we can march into distant countries with our big military toys to teach the racial Other a lesson, blithely oblivious of the consequences and the scale of the slaughter and destruction.

This is my first trip back to Vietnam in ten years. I was previously in Hanoi, a crumbling but charming city, with a fledgling massage scene at the time. I heard Saigon was a crowded, chaotic urban mess, but I find it to be nicely laid out and pedestrian-friendly, at least by Asian standards. The nightlife street associated with U.S. troops back in the war, Đồng Khởi, is now lined with five-star hotels and exclusive boutiques. On that street, I sample an “Oriental” massage parlor next to an artisan coffeehouse. While awaiting my masseuse in the lobby, a male and female pair of police officers walk in and go over the store’s account books at a table nearby. They speak to the proprietor quietly and pay me no attention. As expected, the massage is chaste, more expensive than Thailand but cheaper than China for the equivalent service.

I try out three other places over the next two days. Bùi Viện Street is now the main nightlife drag, packed with Parisian-style people-watching restaurants, fire eaters, and in the labyrinth of inner lanes, massage shops. In one such shop, oddly only a dry rub-down is on the menu—until the masseuse pulls out a bottle of baby oil in the last few minutes and offers more for an extra fee. I turn down happy endings if the massage itself is wanting, preferring to gamble my money on another masseuse. A shop on a street near my hotel turns out to be the best. A jeans-clad woman with shapely hips by the name of Thao leads me up a narrow staircase to a room with a molded massage table. She delivers a satisfying oil massage, to the tune of a Rachmaninoff concerto on her boom box. She speaks only a smattering of English but seems into me and the massage is good and I allow her to release me, at double the session’s price. Even that isn’t enough, apparently. Her boss, an older woman with youthful bangs, confronts her outside the door and they have a testy little spat, trying to keep things to a whisper; I am nonetheless spared further fees. We exchange contact information. I still get emails from Thao asking me when I’ll be back in Saigon.

Bùi Viện Street, Saigon
Bùi Viện Street, Saigon

I need a city large enough that it can never be exhausted. Between Bangkok and Saigon, I would choose Saigon to retire in. The Thai are renowned for their friendliness and hospitality, and their massage industry is vastly more developed, but a wall stands between. While they are very good at making tourists feel at home, all signs of the West disappear outside the foreigner enclaves. I also understand from those with experience in the country that Thailand is riven by class prejudices, and the well-bred are less enthusiastic about mixing with foreigners. My experience in Vietnam is also limited, but the place just feels familiar and more like home. This is presumably due to the formerly extensive contact with the West, going back generations (the French were here long before the Americans). Whatever the case, walking on the street, the locals look you in the eye more spontaneously than in other Asian countries.

On my last day in Saigon near the Bến Thành Market, I pass by a hot woman in her 30s in a tasteful silk dress. “Massage?” she says with a winning smile. That never happens in Thailand except when passing by a massage shop. It rarely happens in China, and they never say it with a smile but more of a taunt. It also happened in Hanoi on my previous trip, a young woman who rode up to me on her motorcycle, offering “Massage? Marijuana?” Unfortunately, I have a plane to catch and not enough time, or I’d immediately go with her.

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This essay appears in Sexual Fascism: Essays, available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

Related posts by Isham Cook:
Transgressions: From porn to polyamory
The sewage system, or What is fascism?
Toilet terror
American massage
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Sexual surveillance in the Covid-19 era

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