by Nguyen My Ha
Winter in Ha Noi and the northern part of the country is getting to its height as 2014 approaches its end. As everyone struggles to meet tight year-end deadlines or sales targets, you are stretched to the limit and beyond as you hustle to get work done ahead of a long-awaited holiday.
Though Christmas is not a public holiday in Viet Nam, more and more Vietnamese are enjoying the happy spirit of this Christian tradition and celebrating it with their families and friends.
But before all those good things happen, we have to face the reality: too much work and we catch a cold or worse.
Just before this story got edited, one of my colleagues was not able to meet a deadline because he was suffering from such a bad sinusitis infection that he could not even think straight. In such a situation, pills may or may not provide some relief, but Vietnamese have a healthy way to treat a cold: a steaming hot herbal sauna. Well, not everyone can afford a sauna, you would say. That might be, but in the past, this is what we did: Boil some medicinal herbs in a big pot, pull a big bed sheet or blanket all over you and the pot, creating an impromptu tent. Lift the lid of the pot and use a long chopstick to stir the herbal mix, and inhale deeply and exhale deeply for as long as you can stand the heat. There is no doubt that you will feel better.
Now that there are any number of salons offering herbal saunas and different kinds of massages, we don't have to spend so much time preparing the home-style remedy.
If you're in Ha Noi, chances are that you have heard about the Huong Sen Health Centre.
First opened at the Institute of Traditional Medicine in Thai Thinh Ward, Dong Da District, for treating patients, the service provided such good results that it spread its wings and moved outside the institute, attracting many people who want to get the herbal sauna and massage whenever they feel tired.
In beauty salons, the masseuses use many beauty products that are expensive, and not many people can afford them. At Huong Sen, they use the common herb, ngai cuu, mugwort, which means "saving scent." And it does live up to its name, helping revive the immune system. Stir-fry the dried herb with rock salt in a thick pan, wrap it in a thick cotton cloth and the bun can be placed at accupunture points behind the neck or on the back or tummy to relieve fatigue and pains.
The ngai cuu leaves, when cooked as a hot soup, help women ease their menstrual pains. Its bitter taste may put you off for the first time, but the lingering sweet taste on your palate will make you want to have it again. A chicken egg omlette with finely chopped ngai cuu is a healthy snack. If you get around town at around 5pm and see people gathering around a sign that says, "Trung ga ngai cuu", it means they are having this snack as an appetizer before dinner.
One of my friends used to go to the Thai Thinh centre one every week because she suffered from a prolonged headache problem for which painkillers provided little relief.
She said she felt much better after a big hot bun of ngai cuu was placed under her neck. The herb was a real lifesaver, she said, because the quality of her life improved significantly when she got relief from the blinding headache.
The Huong Sen, an affiliate with the Thai Thinh centre, seems to take care of its customers from the minute they walk in. Everyone gets a shoe-shine and every ticket also includes a hot mother-of-pearl rice porridge after the massage. At VND250,000 for a 90-minute package that includes a hot herbal bath, dry and steam sauna, and a full body massage, many customers feel they get real value for money.
There has been some negative feedback as well. A western oversized woman was angry that the people in the large massage room would not stop talking about her body. A woman even pinched her, she said. She did not file a complaint with the centre's manager, but I think that she should have let the centre know if she did not feel welcome there.
Touching a person unconsciously or intentionally is not so much of a problem in the East as it is in the West. But with more and more Vietnamese travelingl abroad, people here will understand the uneasiness of westerners when they are pinched or touched by strangers in public.
Some Vietnamese customers have also complained that the masseuses chat too much while doing their jobs. Well, if you're used to having a massage in a salon with dim light and soft music and the masseuse speaks very softly when they have to ask you something, you will find Huong Sen somewhat jarring. So I have a suggestion.
Leave all other impressions at the door when you visit Huong Sen. The massage room is big, accommodating nine or ten people at the same time. And the female masseuses are all from Thanh Hoa Province. They know everything about each other and their families, and this gives rise to lively chatter.
The service at Huong Sen may not be the most refined, but it will still give you a cosy and friendly feel. If you feel tired, or want to give yourself a health boost, spare a couple of hours for the bath and massage and get back in shape for the upcoming week, which is fully booked with work and social events.
In a big city of six to seven million people, health centres like Huong Sen are not a luxury, they are a necessity. — VNS