When head massage places cast a spell

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Expat ruminates on the discovery of a Vietnamese head massage, offers checklist for pleasurable encores

A customer gets his hair washed. Photo by Kelly Norman 

Like so many of the best things in Ho Chi Minh City, I found out about goi dau (literally, "shampoo") by complete accident. It was 2005, and after settling into our new place in an unglamorous apartment block on Ngo Tat To Street in Binh Thanh District, my husband went for a haircut downstairs. He came back with great news.

"They massage your head for forty-five minutes straight."

I was incredulous. I had to see it for myself.

Stretched out on a vinyl bed at the salon, my head cradled in a plastic basin, a skilled woman rinsed, scrubbed, and kneaded it for nearly an hour. She washed my hair twice, scratching my scalp over and over before administering conditioner and then a facial massage with just the right amount of pressure. My neck and shoulders were massaged, and she wasn't afraid to use her knuckles on the knots that had developed there during my first few weeks in HCMC. Afterward my head felt light as air. It was heaven. It cost VND40,000.

I became a devotee of the shop called Ngoc and located at 83 Ngo Tat To Street. When I moved to Phu Nhuan District a year later I would find any excuse to visit the old neighborhood. Sure, there were plenty of places in the city to get a hair wash, but for some reason none of them compared to Ngoc. Perhaps it was the familiarity of the friendly staff I'd gotten to know, or the skill with which they styled my frizzy hair. Or maybe there really was something special about their technique.

I left Vietnam for several years, but almost immediately upon returning this January I stopped by Ngoc. Not only did they remember my name, but the goi dau was exactly like I'd remembered (although appropriately inflated to VND70,000 by now). I'm hesitant to proclaim it the best goi dau in town, since I must admit there are probably thousands of hidden gems throughout HCMC, but it ranks pretty highly in my book.


Massage therapy

As a self-proclaimed semi-connoisseur of the fine art of hair washing in HCMC, allow me to offer some criteria, a few standards, and my personal suggestions for where to go. My favorite places are necessarily limited to the districts in which I've lived. It will probably take me several more years to test a more robust sample, and I absolutely intend to do so.

First, a few general observations: The price of the service is not directly proportionate to the quality of the goi dau. I've been to plenty of expensive, well-appointed salons that failed to satisfy my expectations. It's often the little salons tucked into alleys or out of the way that surprise. In fact, one of the best goi dau I ever had was off a back road in Duc Trong, a rural town near Da Lat.

Next, when you find a good thing, remember the address. There have been several mid-afternoon slumps that I've been magically brought out of by way of a splendid hair washing, but I failed to take a business card or make note of my location. Often I've trudged in from a traffic jam or a long meeting with no air conditioning, dizzy and exhausted, and left in some kind of blessed-out trance, never to find the place again.

When it comes to goi dau, always say yes. Would you like your face washed? Of course. How about cold cucumber slices? Naturally. A pedicure at the same time? Just say yes, mostly because the up-selling is minimal compared to the impact, but also because whatever you can do to prolong the experience is a good move.

Ngoc shop, where the love affair started. Photo by Kelly Norman 

Finally, if it hurts, you should say so. Most of the time you'll get the opportunity when you're asked, "Co dau khong?" Some practitioners of goi dau seem insistent on scratching off a layer of skin from your scalp, and if you fail to alert them to your pain, they'll just keep right on going.

Some salons are better at styling than others. Particularly for women blessed with waves, sculpting hair into something that reasonably resembles civilized in this humidity can be quite a challenge. Often after washing my own hair the herculean task of dealing with the unruly, curly mess is too much and I opt instead to throw it into a bun. When I have the time, however, I visit my new favorite salon. Spa 49 on Le Van Mien in the Thao Dien neighborhood of District 2 is close to my house and always gets my hair right. The thorough facial massage that accompanies the goi dau leaves me looking bright and not as sleepy as I feel, and every time I've had my hair washed and styled there, they magically turn me into a slightly sleeker version of myself. Spa 49 may be my only exception to the rule about goi dau price points a hair wash will set you back VND150,000, but the skill applied to the entire process makes it well worth the extra money.

Some fair warning about the timing of your next visit to the salon: if you attempt to crowd into a busy shop during rush hour, you'll get a corresponding rush job. I tend to steer clear of salons on the weekends altogether if I can manage it, unless it's during dinner time. There's nothing sweatier and more distracting than a fully-loaded goi dau room with six women having six different conversations on cell phones. I need my full attention on the tension slowly leaving my body via my scalp.

There are several moments during a day or week that provide the perfect opportunity to press the goi dau reset button. Jetlag often finds me struggling to stay awake in the late afternoon, and getting out of the house, even if I end up falling asleep at a salon anyway, can work wonders. There's also the relentless heat of the city, and the kind of days that can send even lifelong Saigonese groping for a shady hammock. There's nothing that quite punctuates a sweltering day like laying in a darkened room while a nice lady washes your face and hair with cold water. Finally, goi dau is my secret hangover and headache cure, and I'm frankly surprised foot massage is more often advertised along the backpacker streets. Feel like your head is going to explode? Caffeine and a vice grip massage will take care of it right away. Bonus points if you can say, "My head feels like it's going to explode" in Vietnamese.

A few parting thoughts: always tip. I tend to give 20 percent, and sometimes more if I'm at one of my regular places. Also, make it social. I have fairly regular goi dau dates with friends, and if you plan ahead and go during off-peak hours, you can have the place to yourself to chat. Plus, you'll introduce a few new people to a lovely little neighborhood secret that they'll start frequenting as well. The owner will love you for it. Lastly, as a female I can't exactly say what goi dau nam ("men's hair wash") is, but I can read enough Vietnamese to understand it's not for me. If what you're after is a relaxing, straightforward hair wash and head massage, stick to the basics.

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