Bui Vien is the main backpacker tourist area in District 1 in ‘Ho Chi Minh City’ (Saigon). It’s sort of an equivalent to Kao San Road in Bangkok or Pub Street in Siem Reap. There are many inexpensive restaurants with cuisines from around the world, souvenir shops, lots of places to stay, and most importantly, plenty of cheap massage spas! Grab a streetside stool, have a cold beer for under a dollar, and watch the craziness unfold! At night, the street really fills up with locals and foreigners alike. It’s a fun place to hang out for a few days.
Even though it’s called a ‘walking street’, there is a constant stream of motorbikes and some larger vehicles weaving their way through the crowds so you need to keep your situational awareness up. I’ve read that there are occasional pickpockets as well so don’t carry anything too valuable. I make a point of carrying just enough money for a massage and a bite to eat and drink.
There are massage spas and salons galore on the street offering anything from foot massages to full body massages. For a tourist area, prices are very reasonable and range from 5-10 dollars an hour for a basic massage. I had several during my stay and they were all quite good.
If you’re a single man on Bui Vien, however, you will quickly discover that getting a simple massage is not so simple. Any man ranging from his late teens to his 70s is a prime target for the masseuses that work this street. During a typical stroll down the street, you will be blocked, pawed, and grabbed by cute and aggressive young women in their twenties who will thrust a little flier into your hands, listing the different massages and prices. They will try to drag you into their salons to give you a massage. During the day, many of these ladies are dressed in normal street clothes but at night, their garments become more provocative. Some of these women are just handing out fliers and once they’ve steered you into a particular salon, you’ll be assigned a masseuse.
As your fearless massage reporter, it was my job to throw myself into the fray, as it were, and see what goes on in those backrooms! I had several massages and although I often had to fight hard to reject the extras, I did manage to get in some really good massages. Unlike some other parts of the world where a massage salon is often a front for prostitution and the massages one gets there will be poor-to-non-existent, in Saigon, every lady worked hard to give me a good strong, thorough, and pleasant massage. Some of them were veritable artists with their hands.
If you go for a foot massage, you’re in no trouble at all. You’ll get your treatment on the ground floor beside several other clients, in the open with a view of the street. There’s usually wifi available so that you can catch up on your communications while getting a good foot rub.
If you’re after a full body massage, you will be led upstairs into a private room (or larger room with several beds separated by curtains) and your session will begin. You can get an hour, 90 minutes, 2 hours, or even more, I suppose. You can ask for two girls and get a four hands massage. The most common massages run about an hour and can be done with or without oil. Without oil will be a massage with lots more pinching and kneading whereas oil massages are more gentle, Swedish-style sliding effleurage and pressing of hands into flesh and muscle.
Here’s a description of one of my massages to give you an idea of what to expect. I found an attractive young lady named ‘Thuy.’ She was 25 and came from a small village near Da Nang. She showed me the rate card and I chose a one-hour full body oil massage for 200,000 dong (about $9 USD). I had to pay up front which is normal in Saigon (everywhere else in Asia you normally pay after the massage).
Thuy asks me to remove my clothing and provides a basket for me. I put the basket under the massage table where I can keep an eye on it.
There is usually some music in the background, sometimes from a house system or sometimes just the masseuse’s cellphone, but if you’re right on Bui Vien in the evening, chances are it will get drowned out by the pounding bar music outside!
I undress and lay face down on the table, throwing a towel over my buttocks. Thuy climbs on top of my back and begins some warmup kneading on the back of my legs and back with her fists, then undrapes the towel portion covering my back. She takes out the bottle of oil and begins a back massage. She works my upper arms and back for about ten minutes. Then a few minutes are spent massaging the buttocks. At this point, if you get some ‘accidental touches’ to the more private parts, it’s a good sign that the masseuse is teasing and testing to see if there is some ‘interest.’ If you are in a professional spa, these kind of accidents don’t usually happen and the hands stay well clear of the ‘danger’ areas.
Then it’s on to the upper legs, thighs, calves, and finally to the feet. She kneads the feet and toes a little bit but not very much compared to what you would get in a dedicated foot massage. She might pound the soles of the feet with her fist.
Now she dries any excess oil off with the towel and gives a good pounding and pummeling of the back and legs with her fists. Often she will walk on your back and the back of your legs. These girls usually weigh less than 50 kilograms so I always let them do their thing but if you have a fragile back and don’t trust them, tell them not to do it! Real back injury can occur!
Now it’s time to turn over. She will normally hold the towel up so that you can turn without her seeing your private parts. The towel then covers you up and the front part of the body is massaged, starting with the legs, on to the arms and hands, and sometimes there will be a belly rub. The latter isn’t as commonly done as in neighboring countries but I’ll almost always get a belly rub if I ask for it.
It’s sometime during the front massage, that the masseuse may ask you if you want your private parts massaged. This may involve just a straight question and pointing or she may be a little bolder and actually touch you ‘there’ (or even make a bold grab) so that’s there no possibility of any misunderstanding. If the customer gives the go-ahead, there will be a brief discussion as to the cost and then the business proceeds! Cost for this extra service is usually a tip in the order of $10-$30 US. Vietnamese sometimes this act a ‘baby massage’ but it’s more commonly known as a ‘happy ending.’
If you are not interested in the extras, then you’ll have to come up with an excuse as these ladies can be very persistent. Even if you’re not interested mentally or morally, your body may betray your alleged lack of interest!
One of my most used excuses is that I have a girlfriend who says I can go for a massage but no happy endings are allowed. Most masseuses understand the logic of this but they will try to get you to ‘cheat’ anyway assuming that most men have one thing only on their minds! My strategy, if I decide I need a massage on Bui Vien, knowing full well what they would like to do, is to tell them upfront: I just want a normal massage with no happy ending. I tell them I’ll still give them a generous tip ($5-10). “Do you still want to give me a massage?” Usually, they’ll say yes, especially if business is slow. But sometimes, they’ll frown and steer you towards another lady. They’re holding out for the big fish! Naturally, the latter are not too crazy about doing foot massages as the tips will be paltry in comparison.
I talked to several masseuses about their economic conditions. The basic arrangement is that a lady works for a massage salon and gets a basic monthly salary (say, $75-150 per month) and she may or may not get a ‘per massage’ commission of around a dollar. They may get two to four days off per month and if they take more days off, they are penalized substantially. A lot of women said they get nothing from the salon if the customer is a male, and maybe 20% if massaging a lady (although occasionally female clients like to get a little extra attention, too!). A masseuse here makes very little from the massage itself and depends almost entirely on making a living from the tip. And those single men and that special service is what brings in the best money so these ladies make it a priority.
Foot massages are safe as they are done in full view of the street on the ground floor with lots of other patrons getting the same treatment. I have been propositioned during a foot massage on occasion, with suggestions that I could get another massage later upstairs! You will find a few spas away from Bui Vien (such as nearby De Tham and Phạm Ngũ Lão streets) where the masseuses are dressed in uniforms and are more professional. You shouldn’t be harassed in these places.
Here is the situation from their point of view: they have to work at a job they don’t particularly like (at least most of them). Many are single mothers (recently abandoned or divorced by their husbands) driven to the big city in search of work. For the untrained woman, massage is often one of the easiest ways to make good money with a minimal amount of training. They have to be in the room with their customer for an hour. For no extra effort, they can get a huge increase in their income. They only have to divert their hands from one area to another, one piece of flesh instead of another. It’s the same amount of effort with exponentially greater income. Out of the 10 dollars the client pays for the massage, only a dollar (or less) goes to the masseuse. That’s not enough to live on. Days are long, usually 12 hours and sometimes 16 hours and even then, they may only get one or two massages, some days more, sometimes none at all. If it’s a normal massage with no extras, they might get a dollar or two tip, perhaps more, sometimes nothing! But happy endings can be 10-20 dollars extra. It’s definitely worth their time. Does the act disgust them? Possibly for some, but they all get used to it very quickly. To the male customer, of course, it’s a pretty big deal. To a bored and tired masseuse, it’s just another bit of skin and muscle to rub for a while.
I did find one spa (Sala Salon) in the midst of all the mayhem, where the owner assured me that there was no hanky-panky allowed. I tried a couple of massages to test it out and got very good service with no funny business at all. In fact, I stuck around for a haircut, pedicure, and manicure here as well. Lisa, the owner, pays her workers a much higher commission than the other salons. The address is 84/5 Bui Vien Street, District 1. It can be found about 30 m down the first little alley to the right as you’re heading down Bui Vien with Crazy Buffalo behind you..
I should mention that there are lots of masseurs (males!) working as well but I don’t have any experience with them. Lots of people choose men for massages thinking that they are stronger but from my experience, Southeast Asian ladies are plenty strong enough and can cause lots of pain if it’s called for!
Be warned that if you’re looking to get a quiet night’s sleep, get a hotel that’s not on this street as some of the bars play head-pounding music until the wee hours of the morning. Find a place a block or two away.
I hope I’m not striking unnecessary fear into my readers! You will get a good massage here but I just wanted you to be prepared for all of the possibilities!