Spa Day and Reflections on the Fourth of July

As oxymoronic as it sounds, I figure if you’re willing to suffer for work, you should be willing to suffer for fun. I also believe a cost-benefit analysis can be applied to almost any situation. My belief systems sometimes end up contradicting one another. For example, because I was usually sleep-deprived due to work, I was usually willing to forego sleep for the sake of a good time. Tom and I always used to book the latest returning flight to prolong our vacation as much as possible, even if it meant getting home at 2 A.M. and having to go to work the next day. If we had done a cost-benefit analysis we might have realized we were being dumb.

I jumped at the opportunity to have a spa day even though the hoops I jumped through were rather ridiculous. My cousin SW had vouchers for 120 minutes of spa treatments that were going to expire in mid-July. Only problem was, SW was in Saigon and we were already stationed back in Long Khanh. My mom had to travel back to Saigon on July 4th to embark on another trip, and Tom encouraged me to go with her so I could take advantage of the spa vouchers and make a day of it. The distance between Long Khanh and Saigon would probably be an hour-long car ride on a U.S. highway, but VN roads, traffic, and transportation being what they are, it takes between two to three hours. We boarded a non-air conditioned bus at 8:30 on the morning of July 4th and, due to traffic, didn’t arrive to Saigon until 11:30. I was sweating profusely by the time we climbed off the bus, and the 15 minute walk from the bus stop to my aunt’s apartment under the glaring midday sun with a backpack on my back didn’t help matters. After lunch, I passed out from the heat until SW called to let me know she was leaving work to pick me up in time to make our 4:00 massage appointments.

We arrived to the beauty salon exactly on time. It was primarily a hair salon that had branched out into the massage business, so it didn’t really have proper spa facilities or amenities. The sauna was steaming hot but tiny and unscented. It might sound spoiled but I really enjoy steam rooms when they’re scented with eucalyptus mint or lavender or some other fancy fragrance that signals you’re being pampered. SW had asked her co-worker to join us and the sauna was barely large enough to accommodate the three of us. The masseuses that were initially assigned to us were two females and one male, but SW demanded all female masseuses and refused to let any male touch us (even if he was blind, as the salon employees assured us he was). It’s funny that SW was so adamant about guarding our virtue, almost to the point of seeming prudish, when she wasn’t shy about her body at all. In the sauna she stripped off her towel and told me to do the same to get the most out of the steam. I was kind of shocked at the sight of her nakedness and tried to avoid looking in her general direction. She kept encouraging me to get rid of my towel but I wasn’t eager to flaunt what my children and an unhealthy lifestyle have done to my body. It’s also funny how you feel pressured to be naked when you’re sitting next to a naked person, or is that just me? I seriously felt obligated to show her my boobs so I let my towel drop a little, to prove that I wasn’t prudish. As soon as her co-worker walked in I instantly covered up again, proving that I’m actually prudish after all. After a stint in the sauna, the salon employees invited us to take a shower together, as there was only one bathroom on that floor. I declined and headed downstairs to shower by myself, leaving SW and her co-worker to bask in each other’s nakedness as much as they wanted. Once again, the distinctly VN bathroom left much to be desired. I showered facing a dirty mop, next to several dirty buckets (amusing side note — nowadays when we take our kids to an unfamiliar bathroom, they’ll ask if it’s going to be clean or dirty, because in VN it’s a total craps shoot — no pun intended).

It’s a good thing SW insisted on having all female masseuses because part of the treatment entailed massaging a large portion of my butt. I must admit the butt massage was pretty enjoyable. It sounds so wrong but feels so right. The entire massage was pretty enjoyable, though it felt too short, like most massages do, and there were some oddities. The masseuse often climbed up on the table with me to perform parts of the massage, and used her feet in addition to her hands. At one point SW giggled; in pain, I realized, when I looked up to see her masseuse walking on her back. Fortunately my masseuse decided not to walk on my back; because I was too skinny, she explained. I was grateful to escape spinal injury and gratified to hear that someone thought I was skinny. There were minor drawbacks as well: the masseuses didn’t use any scented massage oils, just baby oil. The massage tables were ordinary cots that didn’t have headrests so you had to lay with your head craned to one side, which ironically resulted in a sore neck by the end of the massage. And the cots were lined up next to each other, separated by curtains (like what you might find in a hospital emergency room), so we only had to lift our heads to see each other. The only concession to ornamentation was a plastic vine with green leaves that had been wound around the curtain poles. After our massages we received hair treatments which seemed to me to be an over-complicated process of shampooing and conditioning. I gladly would have traded the hair treatment for an extended massage. Overall the experience was fine; definitely not the best but neither was it worst I’ve ever had. We left the salon by 7 P.M. and SW and I met up with my favorite cousin from my dad’s side of the family for a quick dinner of goat curry. I got back to my aunt’s apartment by 8:30 and immediately started getting ready for bed. For a variety of reasons, the most practical means for me to get back to Long Khanh was to take a 4 A.M. bus, which meant I had to wake up at 3 A.M. My aunt’s husband dropped me off at the bus stop at 3:45, it took off promptly at 4, and I arrived in Long Khanh about quarter after 6. After a ten minute walk from the bus stop to my uncle’s house, I was holding my children in my arms again. I was away from them for less than 24 hours, and in that span of time I rode an un-air conditioned bus for over 5 hours, enjoyed a 2 hour spa treatment, and slept for about 7 hours (including naps). All told, my “fun time” amounted to no more than 4.5 hours — SW picked me up for a 4:00 massage appointment and delivered me back home by 8:30. From a “work hard, play hard” perspective, was it worth it? I love spa treatments and lord knows they are few and far between for me. I got my first massage in Hong Kong during our SARS Vacation, after my first year of law school; since then I probably average one to two spa treatments a year (usually at a firm-sponsored retreat). They’re such a rare luxury that I like them more than I should, and apparently will jump through quite a few hoops to redeem a spa voucher. From a cost-benefit perspective, it almost certainly was not worth it to make a 5.5 hour round trip for 4.5 hours of fun. I could have just gotten a massage in Long Khanh, if I weren’t being dumb. I wanted to spend some quality girl time with my cousins, and I was unaware of the state of the spa facilities. Which leads me to my next semi-related but not-really-related point: how much I love the U.S. and how proud I am to be American.

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Women cleaving raw meat at the morning market as bus departs at 4 A.M. You don’t see this in the U.S.

Throughout my spa experience I couldn’t help but think how much more enjoyable it would be if I were in the U.S. Back home I wouldn’t wonder if the towels on the massage tables had been changed in between customers or if the masseuse’s feet were clean. I would just assume that all was as it should be. Part of the reason why I wanted to live in a foreign country for a period of time was to force myself out of my comfort zone. Now I’m questioning what’s so bad about being comfortable? More and more I appreciate the things that make the U.S. so awesome and how lucky I am to be its citizen and call it home. I’m not only referring to modern conveniences, though central air, clean bathrooms, and reliable sources of potable water are nice perks. There’s so much I took for granted that I miss so much now. I love the orderliness and logical predictability of the U.S. I love how U.S. regulations deter pollution and littering and promote the health and safety of the general population. I love how Americans are (usually) courteous and polite to one another, and allow people to get out of elevators before getting on, and let passengers in the rows ahead exit into the aisle instead of pushing past them, and don’t steal taxicabs from people who have been waiting in line first. I love how Americans frown upon public smoking, especially around children. I love how the American sense of entitlement produces exacting standards of customer service. I miss being able to put on make-up without it melting off my face or wearing a sleeveless dress in broad daylight without being considered scandalous. I miss recycling and my Prius. I miss charcuterie and good wine. I miss grocery shopping and comfy couches and making pasta and salad at home. I miss book club with girlfriends where we would talk about anything and everything except the book. I miss weekend movie nights or donning a cute dress and heels to enjoy cocktails and people-watching at the Cosmopolitan. I miss Häagen-Dazs and thin-crust pizza. I miss refrigerators that don’t smell like durian. Basically I miss my former life. It’s what I’m used to and I find the familiar comforting. Having a spa day in Vietnam on the Fourth of July got me thinking about all the other little luxuries that I find familiar and comforting, like gender equality and free speech. There are subjects I refrain from blogging about and won’t blog about until I’m safely back in the U.S. because I don’t want to risk getting arrested or detained. I don’t think any U.S. citizen believes the U.S. is perfect or even close, but I do think most Americans, myself included, have faith in our country’s capacity to evolve and change for the better; we’re grateful for the incredible privileges and freedoms we enjoy; and we’re cautiously optimistic about the future. The political pendulum swings to extremes at times but the net effect is that we’re inching toward a more enlightened, compassionate, and civilized society; maybe it’s not happening fast enough for some people, but we’re not doomed. I love my country for being in a constant state of self-improvement (albeit through a painful and painfully slow process of trial and error), and I’m thankful it’s where I get to raise my children. Certainly there are things the U.S. is really, really bad at — disgraceful even. But there are also things the U.S. is extraordinarily good at. Like spas.

God I love you, America. Happy belated birthday from overseas!

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