It’s All In The Mind, You Know
It was damn cold in Hanoi last week, damn cold for Southeast Asia that is, so I shivered a bit with my blood thinned by too many years in the region and wished that I had brought a jacket.
My consulting project for a local bank had finished early, and I had two hours to kill before meeting my local partner for dinner. As I was returning to my hotel I noticed a new massage parlor had just opened across the street and I could think of no better way to kill an hour and perhaps warm up.
There are several types of massages in Vietnam, one being the spa massage. You are directed to a room with a small sauna and hot tub. I went to one recently in Ho Chi Minh City, got washed while I was fully naked by a young (clothed) lady and received the eventual offer of manual release, which I declined, not needing to pay for something which I can do myself.
The new parlor I went to last week was different. I was directed to a room with three massage chairs and given a t-shirt and shorts to change into. The young lady placed my feet into a tub of hot water to which she added various potions, and with my feet still in the tub she had me lay back while she placed cold slices of cucumber on my face. She then began the body massage.
Staying very clearly away from my delicate areas she massaged my arms and legs, removed the cucumber from my face and my feet from the bucket and had me turn over. When she was done doing my back she then motioned for me to stand, she lay down on the chair first with me on top of her also facing upward and bearing all my weight (double that of hers) she lifted her body (and mine) in various ways thus massaging me from below.
After an hour we were done. Before I changed clothes she gave me an evaluation slip, where I was to rate her on a scale of excellent, very good, good or fair. I ticked the excellent box.
Now I had been thinking about how much to tip her. In Thailand, where massages usually cost a standard 300 baht, I always tip 100 baht, figuring a girl deserves at least that for having endured my body for an hour. The price for the Vietnamese massage, I had checked before entering, was 200,000 dong, roughly the equivalent of 300 baht, but the same 100 baht tip would be about 70,000 dong and I felt stupid giving that odd amount. So I reached into my pocket and gave her a 50,000 dong bill, a bit less than I would have liked to.
She refused the tip. Now I have never had a Thai lady refuse a tip, no matter how paltry the amount, and was taken aback. For her part, her minimal English failed her. She pointed to the evaluation slip and said "excellent" and wanted to say something else but clearly couldn't think of the words.
For my part I was confused but figured we could sort it all out downstairs where the lady at the front desk spoke reasonable English. I put the 50,000 dong note back into my wallet and, getting dressed in private, went to the lift with the masseuse. Going down together, a light dawned on her and turning to me she exclaimed "Excellent. Tip, 100,000 dong".
Now this was getting interesting. We went together to the front desk where the girl handed my evaluation slip to the front desk lady. I asked her how much was the tip to which she said "100,000 dong for excellent service". Although I thought that was too much, and resented being forced to tip a certain amount, I paid for the massage, tipped the requisite amount, and went into the chilly night.
Had I been scammed? Was this forced over tipping something they were taking advantage of me with?
Truth be told, I didn't care. The massage was great, and if it cost me, in total, $15 instead of the $13.50 I was expecting to pay, frankly, the extra $1.50 wasn't worth it to me getting excited about. I went to my dinner relaxed, not angry and peeved about some perceived scam.
I think all of us, foreigners traveling about in places where we don't speak the language nor are intimately familiar with all the customs, are naturally on our guard and want to make sure everything is on the up and up. On the other hand, too much paranoia can ruin a great holiday, and sometimes it is best to let things slide. Years ago I would have been incensed, and would have demanded my right to tip the amount I felt best. But there are times also to live and let live.
There are crooks and charlatans and scam artists in every country in the world and we must all be on our guard against them. To paint one country as being more scam friendly than another is perhaps a cultural bias. Frankly, I have always felt most scammed against in Africa. Are the Vietnamese particularly bad? Hard for me to say. I just won't let a perceived scam ruin my day. My time, and my peace of mind, is worth more than that.
Most odd! For sure, I agree with you that it's not worth sweating the small stuff – and there is plenty of "small stuff" in these parts. I too would have made a song and dance about a compulsory tip in the past, but would be unlikely to do so today unless the service was really bad.