When Marcus Williams got a massage in Vietnam, he was faced with a hard choice—harder than he expected.
On a cruise several years ago, I arrived to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (formerly Saigon) with no organized touring plan. I was friendly with some of the crew and heard from those familiar with this port that the nearby Hotel Rex was a great place to get a massage. I’m a big fan of massages and have had the pleasure (and occasionally pain) of sampling massages all over the world. I don’t indulge my taste for massages near home as much as when I travel, because it can be an expensive habit. The Hotel Rex offered full-body massages for about a tenth of the shipboard rate, so I shuttled into town and found it as soon as guests were allowed to disembark.
I wasn’t the only person to make a beeline for the Hotel Rex, so it didn’t take long for the day’s massage appointments to get fully booked. I was in the first wave of people, though, so I didn’t have long to wait before it was my turn. In the waiting room, I noticed a blurb at the bottom of the price list that said, “Tips are at customer’s discretion. Therapists are not allowed to solicit tips.” Roger that.
A male attendant took me to the men’s changing area and gave me a robe and thin pair of no-fly shorts. After I put on the robe and shorts, I exited the changing area, and an attractive young Vietnamese woman was ready to escort me to the massage room. On the walk to the room, she put her arm through mine, which I took to be a local cultural thing. No big deal.
The room for the massage was small and simple, with plain walls, a small table in one corner with a bottle of oil, and a regular massage table in the center. I took the robe off, left the shorts on, and laid on the table in the customary face-down position for getting massages started. The masseuse dripped some oil onto my backand started kneading and rubbing and palpating like masseuses do. A small towel was draped across my hips—also pretty standard for a massage. As she got to my lower back, she hitched her fingers into my shorts, pulled them down a bit, and massaged my glutes—a.k.a. my ass. I was a little startled when she hopped up onto the table and sat straddled on my legs while she massaged my back and glutes, but I’ve had massages in exotic places before, so I was prepared to just go with the flow. No big deal.
After some relaxing attention to the arms, back, and gluteal region, she dismounted the table and began to work on my legs. As she worked her way up from the bottom of my legs to the top, she hiked up the shorts a bit (giving me an idea of what a thong feels like) and after a minute or so said, “You not really need these,” so I went with the flow and let her pull them off. I’ve been naked for a massage before and recognize the distinction between sensual and sexual, so this development didn’t faze me. No big deal.
I’m used to a masseuse repositioning body parts for easier access or to execute some technique, so I offered no resistance to her molding of me, which included moving my legs slightly apart. The end result wasn’t a full spread eagle, but there was space between the legs all the way up to my crotch as she continued the massage. Feet felt good. Calves felt good. Upper legs felt good. Inner thigh felt—
OK, that little perineal nudge was out of the ordinary, even for an exotic massage. The touch didn’t linger there, but sure enough, those little nudges kept happening. The first time was kind of a shock, the second confirmed that the first time wasn’t an accident, and by the third and beyond (though I’m embarrassed to admit it) I was sort of accepting and happily anticipating those little nudges.
I’d had massages before, all around the world, so some surprises were expected. I had been walked on before, had my limbs yanked until I had to ask a masseuse to stop, been slathered in yogurt from head to toe, and scorched by hot water and rocks. I’d been massaged by both men and women, in a state of undress ranging from modestly clothed to completely nude. Every other time prior to this massage (not counting intimate massages while dating or married), the obvious erogenous zones were diligently avoided by the masseuse.
In a massage context, I have few inhibitions about being touched by a relative stranger, but I nonetheless get embarrassed at the possibility of manifesting an undesired physiological response during the treatment. In other words, the last thing I want to happen is to get a hard-on. I imagine that masseuses are used to it happening, so I’d expect them to maintain a professional calm in the presence of an uninvited erection, but it’s still an embarrassing prospect. This fear was heretofore unrealized, but here I was lying on the table, being slightly pushed and swirled into the soft table through the natural motion of massage, and an attractive young woman was making repeated contact with my inner thighs, perineum, and even the region just slightly north of the perineum. I tried thinking of football, but could only conjure up images of cheerleaders, so that wasn’t working. The deal started to get a little big.
My mind was right there to help, though, kicking in with that theory of how masseuses are used to it happening, so I had nothing to be embarrassed about. Besides, I was still face down, so it wasn’t like I really had much to worry about, so just go with the flow, go with the flow, go with the flow.
“OK, you turn over now.”
Um … OK. This is fine. I’m used to turning over. Both sides always get worked for full-body massages. I’ve got the towel. If she notices any stirrings, so what. No need to be embarrassed. Even if I get embarrassed, she’s a total stranger. I’ll never see her again. No big deal. So she’s pulling up a stool right next to the table. So she’s propping one of her feet on the opposite thigh to get into the next massage position. No big deal. So she’s taking my arm and massaging it a bit, and happens to drop my arm such that my hand is resting on one of her thighs. No big deal. So I’m shivering a bit and she gives one of my nipples a little tweak. No big—
“You want me massage here?” she asked, laying her hand on my crotch and giving a little stroke through towel.
“I … uh … um … wha’s that?”
“I massage you here, make you feel good.”
“Umm … is that included?”
“You pay me money …”
“Well, I … um … you see …” At this point, she removed the towel, giggled at the stiff consequence of her recent touch, and wrapped her hand around it to give it a squeeze.
“You want I massage it? I not on salary, only make money on tips. I like make you feel good.”
Hell yes, I want she massage it. But I couldn’t say that. For all my willingness to go with the flow, this would amount to paying for something I’d never paid for before, and I knew I couldn’t break with that history without feeling lousy about it afterward. Getting my mouth to produce the words necessary to decline was no easy task, but I managed a rather stuttering refusal of her offer:
“Um … thank you … that’s very nice … but … well … I don’t even know you, and … I wasn’t really expecting that … uh … that’s not something I pay for … um … but thanks for asking.”
She wasn’t inclined to take “no” for an answer, and met each stuttering phrase with a look suggesting that the words I was choosing weren’t within her limited English vocabulary. Words that were in her vocabulary, however, included, “It’s OK, I like make you feel good,” and “Why? It no problem, I like it.”
I’d be lying if I said my resolve never wavered and that inviting squeeze was a tempting preview, but except for the fact that I didn’t exactly knock her hand away when she grasped my hard-on, I resisted her overtures and finally got her to accept my “N-n-no.” She finished out the massage with nice platonic attention to my arms, albeit with an expression on her face that suggested she was even more disappointed than I was. Not likely.
There’s a part of me that wishes I had accepted the “happy ending”—I’m sure you can guess which part—but I don’t regret my choice. I was not disgusted by the offer, even though I hadn’t sought it out. Ultimately, though, I couldn’t shake my concerns that, despite her expressions of eagerness, maybe she didn’t really like offering complete strangers handjobs for money and maybe it wasn’t completely her choice. In theory, I don’t morally object to sex for money, as long as the person selling is completely willing and fairly compensated. In practice, I’ve read a lot more evidence of women being victimized by sex trade than benefitting from it, so in a massage parlor in Vietnam, my theoretical ideal was not met. Even if it had been, though, a handjob (or more) wouldn’t be as inviting if I didn’t feel selected for the privilege.