Blindly massaging

Hanoi, Vietnam

In Thailand blind traditional masseurs are not unusual. Now they’ve found their way to Hanoi.

Hanoi has a range of masseurs, they are overwhelmingly women. Many work in the ever-expanding Nha Nhnis, guest houses with rooms rented by the hour and offer men a massage-plus.

Women go for the regular deal in one of the spas or beauty parlours that are now all over neighbourhoods in Hanoi. The masseurs are OK, but I am looking for more traditional forms, as in Thailand. My friends suggest a blind massage practice near their office.

A friend takes me there, off Ngoc Khanh street in Ba Dinh, now Hanoi’s diplomatic quarter. It’s a plain double story building, unadorned cement and tile inside and – at 10 am pretty quiet. Hahn welcomes me whilst my friend Nam Huong explains, in Vietnamese, the kinks in my neck and the missing bits of my lower back. I couldn’t go into such physical detail with my basic Vietnamese.

Upstairs there are basic, screened off rooms; Vietnamese women often bring their own pyjamas to wear (in Thailand you’d be given a laundered pair). The massage is rougher around the edges than what I’m used to in the best places in Thailand, where massage’s elevation to a temple art, experienced practice and a demanding middle class have refined approaches, techniques and reading the body rather than following a learnt technique.
The young blind masseur has the basics in hand, so to speak, and the style here has echoes of that in Thailand, a mix of acupressure, muscle pressure/squeezing and stretches. He also uses a local balm and a wobbly heat lamp when massaging my back.

From next door I hear the constant beating of wood on a bell. the masseurs tell me its a private house where buddhist blessings are given to young couples seeking the right marriage partner.

At night the centre is more than a workplace as the young masseurs, mostly from the countryside, cook, eat, sing and play guitar together in between massage gigs. It is great young, blind people are practising a trade here; my friends tell me its still hard for the blind to be accepted more widely into other occupations.

Worth a try. But take Vietnamese friends with you the first time. I’m working out how to give some useful feedback through my friends. Prices are ridiculously low – less than two Australian dollars for an hour’s massage. So, as its an institution which supports the blind through skills training I’d make a much larger donation each time.

How to find it: Tam Quat cua Nguoi Mu (Massage by the Blind) is in in Ngo (Alley) 94 off Ngoc Khanh Street in Ba Dinh, on the same side as, and about 100 metres west of the Ngoc Khanh hotel.


Hanoi: Neon nights – fast food and wifi free

Hanoi, Vietnam
In Hanoi you can be blinded by neon lights but still fall into holes on the street because you can’t see. Electricity demand is soaring in Vietnam and supply breakdowns have been reported this week in the English-language Vietnam News. Due to low water levels in the rivers feeding Vietnam’s hydro-based system industry needs have had to be prioritised around the country. In private life airconditioning units are crawling all over the new apartment towers in Hanoi. But I reckon flashy neon lights are eating into the grid too. “Fast food and WiFi Free” says one neon sign on Ngoc Khan Street. I sure hope so. And they have a Christmas Tree, actually a pile of flashing decorations smothering the plastic pine. It all started with the charming fairy lights so loved in this part of the world; they curled around tree trunks and spread out to the branches to create a charming ambience. But with development on the run across Hanoi in construction, cafes and services charm ain’t enough, you need noise. So at night multicoloured neons flash, beckon, scream for attention from hotel roofs, cafe gates and side alley shops. Giant plasma screens shimmer at street intersections blinding motorbike riders at red lights with the latest in mobile phones, DVDs and other techno tasties. In all this visual noise many Hanoians still steal electricity, plugging illegally into distribution boxes; messy ganglions of electricity wires still net their way along the streets. Along with a clean water system and a modern sewage system (current infrastructure installed by the French) Hanoi’s utilities drag behind the reality of a lit up town.

Cathedral Christmas in Vietnam

Published by The Australian, Travel – 15/16 December, 2007

I AM blinded by the lights and trapped in a congregational crush waiting for midnight mass to begin on Christmas Eve in Phat Diem Cathedral.

It is Vietnam, 1993. Vietnamese work colleagues suggest we travel to the Catholic heart of north Vietnam in Ninh Binh province, a few hours south of Hanoi. It is a flat Red River delta landscape of rice paddies scattered with European-design churches.

Intriguingly, an invitation to celebrate Christmas Eve has been issued to the foreign community by state authorities, a way of showing the country’s new open-door policy is extended to the temple and cathedral as well as the economy.

I don’t see many foreigners in the cathedral. Is this a foreign boycott or botched Vietnamese communication? Both are possible.

The local worshippers are dressed in their best: old men in white shirts, lumpy coats and trousers with fraying hems; women in scarfs, now and then a mantilla, over long, dark dresses. Only young girls sport a splash of colour.

My colleague, Tuan, tells me this is the first time he has been inside a church. And this is no ordinary church but an 80m-long Sino-Vietnamese architectural fantasy of granite, marble and wood set amid ponds, a lake, grottoes and chapels, and dominated by a bell tower with pagoda-like roof.

In The Quiet American Graham Greene’s journalistic alter ego, Thomas Fowler, watches a night battle between unseen Viet Minh and the French military from this bell tower.

Nearby in the administrative office the line of bishops’ portraits stops in 1954, when a half-million northern Christians moved south after what was supposed to be the temporary partition of Vietnam following the end of French rule.

A French student tells me he will sing with Vietnamese friends in the choir, at the back of the nave and up a set of rickety stairs.

I wonder if the organ will survive the service, as there are huge bits missing. The organ pumps up to announce the entrance of the clergy draped in old finery, and chattering dies as the mass begins.

My Vietnamese is basic and Tuan gives me brief updates while I look around at the rows of women (far more females than males), some teary eyed.

A teenage girl reads from the Bible, a wall of gold lacquer shimmering behind her. Then the choir at the back of the cathedral breaks into Silent Night. In Vietnamese it is both strange and deeply familiar: a song of birth and peace in a country that has lost millions in war.

The French boy sings without a song sheet and voices fill this huge cavern held up by 48 ironwood pillars. The cathedral was hit by US bombs in 1972, though its wounds are now barely visible.

Tuan is transfixed as the priest delivers the sermon. After the mass I find out why. He holds his hand on his heart as he tells me: “It was about a poor, young married couple. At Christmas the woman sells her long hair, her great possession, to buy a watch-chain for her husband. She does not know he has sold his watch to buy her lovely hair combs.”

The priest has told the most famous story by American writer O. Henry, The Gift of the Magi. “It is about what we are prepared to give up when we love,” Tuan says as we stream out of the warm cathedral into a chilled, ink-black Christmas morning, breathing in the moment and wishing chuc mung giang sinh to all around us.

Rice and warm in north Vietnam

Published in The Australian 11 July 2009,,25747383-5002031,00.html

Spectacular views from Topas ecolodge

NOTHING can disturb an urban traveller more than silence.

Real silence. This is my early morning thought on the balcony of a stone cabin perched atop a peak in north Vietnam.

On a nearby mountain, hand-carved rice terraces spill down into the valley and farther away there are chiselled ranges that will change colour and texture as the sun moves across a giant sky. Then I hear the distant chatter of women passing the cabin on their way to breakfast, the first sounds I’ve heard since dinner last night. Television and telephones are forbidden around here. The manager tells me there’s no wild night life either, apart from frogs.

Most people come to Topas Ecolodge in a shuttle bus from nearby Sapa, but I hire a local motorbike taxi for a slow ride through intermittent heavy mist along 23km of a runnelled dirt road that is regularly washed by clear-water run-off from the mountains.

We pass through the Muong Hoa Valley, strewn with mysterious, ancient carved stones; the origin and meaning of their inscribed patterns of couples in sexual embrace, the sun and parallel lines still baffle scientists.

This region is home to about 30 Vietnamese minority groups, some of whom moved here from China during the past 200 years. A carved stone, metres long, is fenced off opposite the small local museum. Somewhere around here a French scientist is taking stone impressions the old-fashioned way, with carbon paper and ink, while assigning locations to each one via GPS.

The road snakes through the Hoang Lien Mountains, now recognised as one of the most biologically rich in Vietnam. There’s a race to preserve what is left: years ago, poor Vietnamese used to kill, stuff and sell birds and animals to tourists in the local markets. That seems to have stopped, but the Indochinese tiger has become a prized stock for pharmacies across the border in China and there are fewer than 2000 left here.

Every now and again a human form takes shape out of the mist and is swallowed again. Then the curtain rises and a series of fairytale valleys is revealed. I glance down on earthen terraces of rice stubble and turbid water. Once or twice we dismount the bike to ford a gushing stream: my taxi driver, Hahn, walks through and I jump across rocks.

I want to ride forever but we run out of road and into the Ecolodge. Brilliantly clothed Red Dzao women are sitting and sewing at the entrance. They look so much more relaxed than the Hmong and Red Dzao women in Sapa, trapped in their created cultural villages.

The lodge features 25 white granite and hardwood cabins clustered on one side of the mountain top, all with solar panels. The surprise centrepiece is a huge, reconstructed Tay (minority) meeting house that now houses the bar, upstairs restaurant and office. On the restaurant’s doorstep is a rice field and down the path is the lodge’s organic garden, which supplies ingredients for contemporary Vietnamese dishes: lime and chilli-splashed salads and spiced seasonal vegetables served with tender beef and chicken on silver platters.

The bar is fire-warmed and there is a menu of local rice wines, crystal clear or tinged pink, which slide delicately down the throat like the best malt whisky.

So much of life in rural Vietnam revolves around rice-growing and to every thing there is a season. In July the Red Dzao harvest the rice around the lodge; months later they will plant young rice shoots again. In just two days, the average stay here, you can slip easily into this seasonal rhythm. Or get active. A group of Danes straggle in from a morning walk to nearby villages: the difference between a walk and trek is that the latter, apart from being longer, comes with a swarm of porters drawn from local villages.

“When we have a rush of visitors, we can always call on our neighbours to help us out at short notice,” says manager Walter Ariesen. “That’s one of the many benefits of having built a strong relationship with people in our community.” That philosophy, and the sublime location, is what makes Topas Ecolodoge unique.

Topas Ecolodge, near Sapa, north Vietnam. Phone +84…; Tariff: Depends on the season and package inclusions. In December, for example, double or twin is $US115 ($145), including all food and transport.
Getting there: Topas Ecolodge will transfer guests by bus from Sapa.
Checking in: International guests, mostly Germans, Australians, Danes, French, Canadians, Japanese and Taiwanese.
Wheelchair access: All cabins are accessible from a footpath, but there’s a lot of uphill. Suggest an advance request for wheelchair assistance.
Bedtime reading: The Light of the Capital, three short Vietnamese classics from the 1930s (Oxford), translated by Australians Greg and Monique Lockhart.
Stepping out: Breathtaking treks, biking, kayaking, walks to nearby minority villages. Climb Vietnam’s highest peak, Fansipan (3143m).
Brickbats: A torch and umbrella should be standard additions for each room, given the distance from the restaurant. Menu could do with more variety.
Bouquets: Staff are friendly and relaxed and the lodge has a community feel. Vietnamese-grown Arabica coffee is brewed here and served with the Western breakfast. In 2004, the lodge joined Australia’s GreenGlobe21, a worldwide benchmarking and certification program facilitating sustainable tourism.
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