Insider's Guide to Spas
Six Senses Ninh Van Bay; Photography by Kiattipong Panchee

My Spa Experience

Vietnam Spas & Healing Traditions

Perry Garfinkel

Vietnam had been on my must-see bucket list since 2004, though other assignments and deadlines kept taking me elsewhere. Finally, I had a window and reason recently to go. I would be writing about the spas of this small country, an S-shaped sliver of land 1,025 miles long and 310 miles wide that hugs the eastern edge of the Indochina peninsula—yet looms so much larger in the world’s conscience due to a misguided war that left in its wake so many bodies and so many more broken hearts and souls.

The scars and guilt remain with many Americans, not to mention many Vietnamese. Yet, as I personally experience them, the Vietnamese are such gentle, compassionate, and constitutionally strong Beings that they have moved on, to the best of their ability. If one needs a reminder, a first stop should be the War Remnants Museum, in Saigon, aka Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). Among my own aha’s while visiting it: Americans call it “the Vietnam War” but to the Vietnamese it was just war. They’ve been the object of violence from so many countries that they could call them the American War, the French War, the Chinese War, etc.

So for me it would be a trip of healing and not just for my body and my mind . . . but for my heart, as well. Yes, there was a woman involved, so this could well be a love story, or a story of unrequited love. The who, the what, and all other details won’t be revealed here but to say only that she was a Vietnamese beauty in every sense of the word, who’d moved to Paris with her family in 1975, when she was nine. We’d met Buddhist cute. Okay, some deets: it was at Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village retreat in the south of France. Eight months later, when I had to pass on an opportunity to visit Vietnam with her (dratted deadlines!), she broke up with me upon her return, most probably reminded of the distance between her culture and mine. Or at least that’s the story I tell myself.

I knew I would think about her a lot on this recent journey to Vietnam, to understand the culture she did come from and why I was so attracted to it . . . and her. I imagined her life there and saw her face in many faces. Surprised at my own reaction, it brought me closer to a feeling of tranquility, one of her qualities, and one despite the frenetic pace of life in the cities, than to sadness or loss.

I chose two of the country’s most celebrated and awarded hotel-based spas in the country, the year-old spa at the Revere Saigon (in the city renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976 during the country’s reunification) and Le Spa at the 108-year-old Sofitel Metropole in Hanoi, which spa opened in 2009. In addition I spent five blissful days at a Six Senses property. To better understand the context of the treatments offered at each, I did a little background research on the healing traditions of Vietnam. I suggest you do the same.

The Healing Traditions of Vietnam

The indigenous medicinal traditions of Vietnam, though not as renowned as those of other Asian countries like India, Thailand, China, and various native approaches from The Americas, have a long history that’s well regarded in professional healing circles.

That said, since many of Vietnam’s cultural cues come from its neighbor to the north—namely China—which occupied Vietnam for 1,000 years, there are clear similarities between Vietnam’s and China’s approaches to self healing. However, there are also distinctions between the southern half of Vietnam and the northern, as is pointed out in “Vietnamese Traditional Medicine,” a compilation of articles by Vietnamese physicians and academic professors. The north, on the border with China, is more influenced by China; the south is genuinely unique to Vietnam. For more history about key figures and herb benefits, I read an excellent succinct booklet, Vietnamese Culture: Traditional Medicine, by renowned cultural scholar Huu Ngoc and American expat Lady Borton, who had been field director of Quaker Service in Hanoi, and is author of several other books.

Along with reading that, in Saigon I also visited the Museum of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine, an old wooden building containing close to 3,000 tools of the country’s doctors dating back to the Stone Age. I felt as though I was pulled back in time, until I stepped back out onto a street full of traffic. In Hanoi’s Old Quarter, I walked what’s known as Traditional Medicine Street, Lan Ong, lined with shops selling fresh dried herbs. The pungent smell of those herbs hit my nose like a humid monsoon. Some of the shops have traditional medicine doctors in-house who prescribe based on some intake questions, a look into your eyes, and a quick pulse check, fingers to one’s wrist. In 2015, the Old Quarter’s management undertook a project to preserve the architecture on Lan Ong and make it more appealing as a tourism destination.

With that backdrop, here’s what I found at the city spas.

The Spas of Vietnam

Le Spa at the Metropole
To reach the spa, you have to walk through the legendary open-air Bamboo Bar, where journalists hung out when not filing war stories, then past the outdoor pool and gardens within the hotel complex, by which time you already feel the hustle bustle of the city is well behind you. In 2013, Travel & Leisure ranked Le Spa du Metropole as the No. 5 spa on its top ten list of the World’s Best Spas.

While the oldest continuing hotel in Hanoi exudes old world French-inspired charm, the two-storied spa speaks of modern blends of Eastern and Western decor. Each of the treatment rooms is designed differently—off-white wooden panels, pale jade colors, gray striped timber molding, flashes of red so propitious to Vietnamese, even one room inspired by Thailand’s Maruekhathaiyawan Summer Palace. The skincare product lines are from France (Sisley, Clarins, and a blend made exclusively for the Metropole by perfumer Luarent Severac) and from Thailand (Ytsara).

Of the treatments themselves, the choices are also global: from the Turkish hamman to the Finnish sauna to the Asian “sacred flower scrub.” The massage offerings draw from a variety of traditions: a “jetlag recovery” using Indian ayurveda kansu bowls, a Japanese shiatsu, a “French silhouette” using bamboo stick. There’s an “ethnic fusion”—which is what I had since it included a blend of Asian and other techniques. What I did not find was a solely Vietnamese massage and spa manager Bac Ha explained why:

“Our concept is to adapt and blend Chinese and French to offer unique combinations. We don’t have one-hundred-percent Vietnamese style, which involves such techniques as a sort of lifting of the muscles and Vietnamese cupping therapy, mainly because they are not that popular.” The Vietnamese don’t use oils for massage either, she added.

For any of the purely Vietnamese massages, she suggested a few outside the hotel but she advised me to check them out carefully for hygienic reasons. (I did go to one and I found she was right.) Here’s more info.

The Spa at the Reverie Saigon
The Reverie is almost diametrically opposite the Metropole. Located on the top 12 floors of the 39-story Times Square Building overlooking the Saigon River, it exudes luxuriously opulent modernity, with 17 different Italian design houses collaborating on the interiors. Nothing Vietnamese about it.

CNN called the two-level 13,000-square-foot spa one of the world’s 10 best new spas after it opened, based on service, treatments, amenities, and ambiance. The whole area is bedecked with Carrera marble, hand-laid floral mosaics by Sicis of Italy, and gold accents. A dramatic spiraling staircase leads to the 10 treatment rooms on the second floor. Treatments are equally decadent, from mother-of-pearl scrubs to couples treatments with red wine body wraps. This is the only spa in Ho Chi Minh City to carry products by leading organic brands ila, a British “beyond organic” luxury skincare brand), and VOYA, an Irish brand which developed the world’s first genuinely organic seaweed-based cosmetic products.

Again, I took the “fusion” massage to compare and contrast with the Metropole. Along with the zen-like foot ritual common in most Asian destinations—warm water and oil and gentle TLC hands—this fusion consisted of warm bamboo and Swedish butterfly massage.

I could have (maybe should have) gone for the “Classic Vietnamese,” which involved cupping therapy (which uses smaller cups than Chinese-style cupping) and said to stimulate circulation, detoxify, and reduce tension. But to be quite honest, I was a bit anxious to try it, having committed the sin of reading just a little enough about it to be in the “dangerous thing” zone.

Given my preexisting condition of an autoimmune dysfunction, and in a place far from the familiarity of the physicians who were treating me, I was wary to go too far out of my physical comfort zone. It was a personal lesson for a dyed-in-the-wool risk taker, a lesson other spa-goers have also experienced so I’m here to say hey, it happens and it’s sometimes okay to stick with what you feel is safe. More on the property here.

There was this one experience that reminded me “holistic” means all environmental influences – nature and nurture.

Six Senses Ninh Van Bay
This visit had been in the works for almost a year. Of all the Six Senses properties I could have visited, this seemed the fulfillment of many dreams for me . . . though considering the thoughts of my ex, the setting might be too romantic. The hotel consists of 70 separate two-story wooden villas, most with private pools, and strung like pearls of a necklace surrounding a bay of white sand. Bordered by huge boulder formations and set up against a high mountain range at the tip of a peninsula, there are no roads to the property; you have to take a 20-minute boat ride from Nha Trang across Nha Phu Bay. So you feel as though you are stranded on an island—stranded in a good way. With three dining facilities and a cave turned into a private dining room—and the spa a few minutes walk from everything—there is no need to go anywhere else.

But the biggest attraction was its Integrated Wellness Program, which sounded like one of the spa industry’s most ambitious and sophisticated attempts to combine Western and Eastern modalities. The multi-pronged approach involves diet and nutrition, sleep analysis, yoga, and other exercise.

Upon my arrival, it began with an intake with the in-house doctor—Dr. Sohal Shah, a naturopathic doctor, acupuncturist, wellness consultant and yoga teacher from India. After asking some questions about my health status and any medications I was taking, and what I wanted out of the program, he proceeded to administer a galvanic skin response test, hooking electrodes to my body, and having me place my hands and feet on a metal screen, to measure and analyze key physiological biomarkers. It would be assessed for changes at the end of my stay.

Based on his read—I was low in magnesium and zinc, among other findings—and on my explanation of an auto-immune disease and an impending hip replacement, we set up a daily regiment. Inasmuch as Six Senses promotes itself as a spa retreat that doesn’t force people to follow some stringent program, a la the spa boot camps, Dr. Shal recommended my days consist of very light yoga each morning, a variety of daily massages (from lymphatic for the immune system to reflexology for the overworked feet to deep tissue for those muscles bearing the brunt of my deadline-stressed journalist lifestyle), afternoon light exercise (walks, cycle around property, swimming), and a diet that excluded red meat and caffeine, and reduced alcohol intake to a drink (okay, or two) a day, and leaned more heavily toward fruits, vegetables, grains but not much starch and fish. Except for the wine and vodka part, this diet suited me well and was not too different from my usual food intake.

Nonetheless, in combination with the yoga, massage, and exercise and perhaps all that fresh sea-tinged air, by the third day I felt lighter and looser. But there was this one experience that reminded me “holistic” means all environmental influences – nature and nurture. It was when marine biologist Anna Zora, the guest experience director and wife of general manager Hilton Hastings, took me on a two-hour snorkel dive to the edge of the beach and beyond. In accordance with the Six Senses sustainability philosophy, she had spearheaded a move to restore and preserve the coral reef that has been slowly deteriorating due to several causes, including local fishermen and uninformed tourists. When we took a break at one tiny beachhead, she explained what was being planned toward that end.

For me, the experience was uplifting—literally and figuratively. Suspended at the salt water’s surface, virtually weightless, elementally transformed from lung to gilled species, with time frozen, defined only by the space between each breath, I was washed with restorative energy. To be honest, it healed me more than all the treatments. But to be fair, the Six Senses experiences, and the ones I underwent at the Reverie Saigon and the Metropole, probably opened me and prepped me for this breakthrough. It put in perspective all I had learned about Vietnam’s healing traditions.

And it did one more thing for me.

By the day I checked out, results showed improvements on my biomarkers, but more importantly—a calm had overcome me. The same kind of calm I felt when I was around my Vietnamese ex. I realized in the end, in some fashion, she never left me, or perhaps she left me with something that only going to Vietnam could reawaken.








Perry Garfinkel

Perry Garfinkel

Perry Garfinkel, who has been covering cutting-edge health and psychology trends for almost 40 years, is the author of the national bestseller "Buddha or Bust." A longtime contributor to The New York Times, currently regularly to the Vocations column in Sunday Business, he has also written for the National Geographic Magazine, the AARP magazine, the L.A. Times mind/body section, and many others. The author of "Travel Writing for Profit and Pleasure," he leads writing workshops around the world, at hotels and other venues.