A Refuge amongst the Rush
By Simon Cordall in HCMC
An oasis of calm awaits those seeking a break from the frenzied pace of Saigon life at the Vietnamese Traditional Massage Institute at 185D Cong Quynh Street in HCMC’s District 1. Operated by the HCMC Association for the Blind, the Institute offers a rewarding alternative to the more commercial massage parlours to be found nearby.
|Entrance to the Vietnamese Traditional Massage Institute, 185D Cong Quynh Street in District 1 - Photo: Simon Cordall|
It is a strange feeling, stepping from the frenetic pace and noise of Cong Quynh into the relative calm of the Traditional Massage Institute. Opening out into a large white square, the Institute occupies the left hand side, with the rest given over to accommodation and training for the next generation of Saigon’s blind masseurs.
Inside, precedent is firmly given to the practical over the aesthetic. Climbing the stairs to enter the Institute, visitors are struck by both the sharp tang of muscle relaxant and the sense of austerity that defines the building. This is, without doubt, very much a no frills operation. However, to judge a visit to the Traditional Massage Institute by its interior design choices is to do it a disservice. Lying face down on one of the many massage beds in a large airy room, separated from other visitors by nothing more complicated than a curtain, visitors are in for an experience they won’t forget. Massages here are conducted mostly in silence. What noise there is echoed off the high bare walls as the masseurs soundlessly go about their business. Directions are given mostly by touch, as Masseurs, most with little or no English, physically mould visitors into position.
While the idea that the blind somehow make for superior masseurs is little more than a patronising myth, it’s hard not to be impressed with the skills on offer. Binh, who I met while researching this article, has worked at the Institute for twelve years. Simply to qualify as a masseur, he explained, requires six months of training while resident at the Institute. It’s training evident in its application, as Binh takes ample time both pummelling and needing my flesh in equal measure. Working a twelve hour day, Binh can see around twenty five visitors over his shift at the Institute, each receiving about forty minutes of his expertise. Like any good massage, there’s no small amount of pain and discomfort involved. However, it’s a pain that makes masochists of all, coming as it does with the subsequent release of countless nagging tensions and anxieties. Thumbs and elbows are inserted into joints and held there for untenable periods, before being released and followed by a sense of well being that’s hard to express in type. It’s a feeling hard to shake off, too. It follows you throughout your day and unmistakeably improves it.
Overall, while massage parlours abound throughout Saigon, The Institute for Traditional Vietnamese Massage offers visitors something unique. In an industry that has chosen to define itself in purely commercial terms, it is refreshing to come across something that is as authentic as it is individual. It may be a little unpolished, true, and the paint may be chipped here and there, but it unfailingly provides visitors with a sanctuary from the horns, the traffic and the simple unending rush that makes up so much of life in Saigon.
The Institute for Traditional Vietnamese Massage, 185D Cong Quynh in HCMC’s District 1 is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Massages cost VND60,000 and saunas VND30,000.