Mid-afternoon in Saigon. From the rooftop bar of the iconic Rex Hotel, we see the monsoonal clouds gathering. It’s the kind of day when your shirt sticks to your skin, no matter how light the fabric. You can feel the rain coming before it arrives. But on this steamy, sultry afternoon, the rain holds off long enough for me for sip a classic margarita while looking down on the city below.
The Rex was a base for the American Information Service during what the Vietnamese call “The American War”, and was the scene of daily press briefings to foreign correspondents and what was known as “five o’clock follies”. I like that! In recent years the Rex has had a facelift, including some very upmarket shops on the ground floor, but up here on the fifth-floor rooftop the charm remains.
When the rain comes, it is a typical monsoon downpour. Fat drops fall from the sky, sending us scuttling for cover. It’s been a busy day of sightseeing – my second visit to the Cu Chi tunnels outside Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) – and then some shopping and people-watching in the Ben Thanh Markets. My ankles have swollen in the heat and humidity, and I’m ready to find a soothing foot massage to finish off my Vietnam sojourn.
We jump in a taxi for the short ride back to our hotel, ready to try out the place next door that has a large illuminated sign at the front door advertising its massage services. Upstairs we go, Miss Chris and I, eager for this last-ditch touch of bliss on a budget (an hour’s foot massage for around $20). No bookings are necessary, we’ve already been told, and we’re soon being ushered into a foot massage room.
The room is full of Vietnamese men. Men who are smoking. We grimace, wave our hands in exaggerated fanning motions, and back out the door, telling the young woman accompanying us: “Oh no! No!” She is apologetic…”Come, come…” and we head in another direction. To the “No Smoking” foot massage room. That’s better.
There is one man in the room. As we settle into large comfy reclining chairs, and pop our feet into tubs of hot water, the man rises to leave, tucking cash into the strappy top of the young woman who’s been massaging his hands. Now we are alone with our therapists, pretty and buxom 19-year-olds wearing what appears to be a “uniform” of a short black skirt and a white t-shirt with a plunging neckline. As they sit at our feet it’s difficult not to see just why the place is full of men.
On the wall behind them, a large flat screen is showing the latest Vietnamese soap opera. Even without understanding the language, it’s easy to follow. As our foot massage continues, other therapists pop in and out, take seats in what somewhat resembles a 20-seat Gold Class cinema and catch up with the latest episode. I shut my eyes for a while and when I open them my therapist has twisted her head around to watch, her hands still expertly soothing my sore and tired ankles and feet.
At the end of our hour, the girls present us with a coupon to fill in. It seems we pay at the front desk on our way out. The paperwork leaves us with a common dilemma: there is a space marked for a tip. Miss Chris and I share a despairing look. Tipping is a very free-and-easy affair in Australia; sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t and there is no real expectation of it, or problem if you don’t. There are no standards, and so when we go overseas we fumble and dither over what’s the right amount. Tentatively, we write in an amount. The girls peer over our shoulders, and exchange horrified looks. Oh no, it’s not enough. They are very clear on that! They suggest double. It’s still only a few dollars, so we happily agree. The deal is done and off we go.
It’s been a great afternoon, and a wonderful way to end our sojourn in Saigon and our time in Vietnam with tour company Footsteps in Asia. This has been my fifth visit, and one day I hope I’ll be back again.
A Glass Half Full travelled to Vietnam as a guest of Footsteps in Asia and AirAsia.