It's evening on the massage table at the Sun Spa Resort in Vietnam. My masseuse's name is Soong and she appears to be trying to break my leg. I'm face up and she's hoisted herself onto the massage table and is kneeling between my legs and pressing with Maria Sharapova-like grunts on the mid-section of my tibia. It hurts like hell.
This is after kneading the same section of my leg as one might dough, and it feels as though she is ripping the hairs out. This is probably not a problem for the smooth-legged Vietnamese who are her normal clientele, but for me – ouch.
The spa at the Sun Spa Resort at Bao Ninh Beach, just on the north side of what was once the border of North Vietnam, is pleasant enough, yet it does not stray far from the utilitarian. Soong is 22 she tells me, holding up two fingers twice. She's up to about my armpit, and stocky. I am thinking she might have an agricultural background and there is something distinctly rural about the quality of my massage. Perhaps Soong's accreditation was gained from practising on water buffalo.
The music in the massage room is cranked up to high volume. It sounds like someone gave Hawaiian instruments and a drum machine to a mariachi band and asked them to compose music for people visiting supermarkets. The massage table is flat, with a pillow but nothing that caters to capitalist fetishes such as a hole for the head.
At some point, almost all massages have an element of "Gee, I hope she doesn't linger too long at this spot". Most of my time with Soong falls into this category.
Soong, meanwhile, has graduated to my upper body and she's found something about my ear that causes her to squawk in alarm. She also notices that I have a rather prominent chin, and from time to time, she amuses herself by giving it a playful tweak and laughing.
Every now and again she breaks off from her endeavours as though something far more interesting has caught her attention and we both wait in silence before she sighs and resumes.
Soong has now got to my nose and takes it by the bobbly end and moves it this way and that, apparently fascinated. On my forehead, she discovers a pimple, which she squeezes. Hard. I have not squeezed a pimple for at least three decades and this adolescent hangover brings on a melancholy turn of mind.
Soong makes a flipping motion with her hands and I roll over. She squirts lotion from a tube onto my back and lathers. There's a lot more heavy duty kneading and then a movement I call the quacking of the mallards, forming the hands into a sort of cup and punching the back to produce a duck sound.
Finally it's over, and although the clock says we're still a few minutes shy, I am not about to argue.
There's a survey form to fill out. "Excellent" I write. "Amount for tip" says the form. I reach for my wallet and pull out two 10,000 dong notes. Soong pokes out her lower lip. I add two more notes but her pout stays. Forty thousand dong is about $2. An average worker in the city might make $120 a month. I head back to the shower room glad to be out, although when I wake up the next morning, the pain in my back I've had for the past 10 days has gone.