Today I will tell you a tale of a horrid little massage parlor tucked away in the upper level of a building that may vary well be the worst in all of Ho Chi Minh City.
On Bui Thi Xuan Street in Saigon’s District 1 there is a low rent hotel called the Happy Inn Hotel. The hotel looks like any other, especially during the day. At night however a small sign lights up in neon advertising 24 hour massage services right next to the the inn at a place called Khach San Massage. In the quiet night hours this little sign has the potential to draw in anyone who passes by in need of a rub.
In order to access the massage services customers must pass through a street level parking garage and get into a cramped little elevator that looks like it hasn’t been inspected since Nguyen Van Thieu was in office. Those with navigational problems don’t have to worry. There always a twenty-something year old guy hanging around out front who is happy to accompany customers on their journey. In exchange for walking a few meters and pressing a button he does expect a tip though. Those who politely refuse will be asked again and again. On the way out they will then be asked again.
Once a customer reaches the shabby interior of the top floor he will quickly be greeted by a tattoo-covered chain smoking manager who looks like an extra out of a 1980’s Hong Kong action movie. Whether this manager is going over the books or playing cards with his cohorts the appearance of a foreign customer will be enough to instantly break him out of his activity. He will quickly scurry over and ask the new customer if he’d like a massage before pushing him to take a “VIP room” for 300,000 Dong ($14 USD). This is much less than the going rate for a room at a place like Minh Minh Tam or Minh Tam 2 and it soon becomes apparent to the customer why.
One the ticket is paid a male attendant appears seemingly out of nowhere to help the customer find his way down the dirty narrow halls and into his temporary quarters. For this one minute task he too will ask for a tip. Although he might not be as pushy as his coworker downstairs he will probably be just as insistent. Unable to speak much English he will repeat “tip” and motion with his hand over and over until money of some form appears in his palm. Once his goal is achieved he will break out a plate of fruit and turn on the little glass steam room.
After the attendant departs the room the customer will be left to soak in the scenery of the “VIP” surroundings. He will find himself in a dimly-lit room divided into two parts. The tiny section where he entered will hold a small massage table and a worn out chair. Through a doorway he will find the wash facilities which consist of a regular size bathtub and a glass enclosure the size of a closet. The room will be off kilter, dirty and decorated with several cobwebs.
Unlike some of the better massage parlors around town, the customer will find that this place offers nothing in the way of a television. While the unfortunate soul waits ten to twenty minutes for his masseuse to arrive he will have only the extremely loud and disturbing sounds of rats running through the walls and mating to entertain him.
At some point during the long wait he will probably try to remember the way back out of the labyrinth of halls that led to his room as he begins to regret his decision to enter this den of decrepitude. Just as he begins to really plan his escape his masseuse will finally arrive.
Dressed in a more worn version of the blue shorts and shirt that seems to be the typical uniform of all sauna-style massage shops in the city she will most likely be relatively friendly but strictly mediocre in the looks department. Although her hair, makeup and nails will be done, the customer will probably get the feeling that she’s seen better days. Things like runny noses and incessant coughs are quite common features.
Once the pleasantries are out of the way a typical routine will begin. The customer will be bathed by hand before being guided into the little steam room and seated atop a toilet. As a machine that looks out of place churns out steam he’ll try to position himself in a way that keeps his knees from hitting the glass door in front of him while at the same time preventing the steam blowing directly down from burning his skin. While this goes on he will worry about his wallet in the other part of the room.
When he’s had enough of the stream room torture chamber the customer will emerge to be greeted by the service provider. She’ll towel him off and give him a tiny pair of satin shorts to put on before situating him face down on the massage table. A purely perfunctory massage will then commence.
After a few minutes of skin stretching and slapping the customer will be asked to turn over. As the massage enters its final stage the masseuse will ask the customer if he’d like a nice oral ending. The price quoted for this service will be an outrageous 1,000,000 Dong ($47 USD) which is about three times the going rate at Ben Ny’s. If the customers tries to engage in local custom by negotiating he’ll get a counter offer of hand relief for a mere 500,000 Dong ($23.50 USD) which is again well above the usual rate for such services in Saigon. If the customer decides to partake in either service he’ll most likely have a vaguely satisfying experience though he may question the cost and the surroundings both before and after.
Once the massage is finished the customer will be bathed by the service attendant once more before drying off and putting his clothes back on. He will give his masseuse the agreed tip before being led back to the front office (for lack of a better term). A male attendant will hurry over to press the elevator down button so that he can ask for a tip, and the masseuse will probably encourage the customer to give him one.
Although this massage parlor is (quite literally) a rat hole it isn’t the worst I’ve ever seen. There are some massage parlors in Bangkok that appear as if they may fall over in a strong wind. Despite the running rodents and crooked walls that isn’t the case here.
The price is another factor that makes this massage parlor stand out when compared with others in the area but it’s not the worst in that regard either.
What about the staff? The tip thirsty male attendants are quite annoying but the women who work the place aren’t all that bad. Surely the conditions of their place of employment weighs on them but they’re not necessarily unattractive or bad at what they do.
So what makes it the worst? A combination of all of the above features with the fact that any foreign visitor unlucky enough to wander inside will most definitely be taken advantage of unless he already knows the ins and outs of the local industry and can speak the language enough to stand his ground.
The massage parlor in question has a steady flow of local customers that keep it in business. These customers pay local rates and are not hassled for tips at any time during their visit. They go up and down the elevators themselves and chose their own masseuses from the available line up and they are treated with a minimum of respect by the staff. These people are the bread and butter of the parlor.
Foreign visitors are likely few and far between. The place isn’t located on a street that gets a lot of tourist traffic like Bui Vien and the signage is small and easy to miss, especially in the daylight hours. While one could possibly understand that the staff may try to get a bit more than the usual rate from an unassuming newbie, going all out for a complete and total rip off is something else entirely. It’s only made worse by the level of service and atmosphere, both of which leave a hell of a lot to be desired. That’s why this place is probably the worst massage parlor in Ho Chi Minh City.