“You like try same same I do before for sick?”
I’ve been feeling a bit shitty for a while now, just tired and with a sore throat. But it’s lingering and they keep trying to feed me antibiotics that I don’t trust. So sure, I’ll go and get a deep tissue massage with some ginger and stuff. It certainly can’t hurt and I might as well try it.
Mrs Hanh, a neighbour and I all climb on the motorbike, it’s a little after 5pm and darkness is beginning to settle in Central Vietnam. I’m in the middle and enjoying being shielded from the wind. The journey is short but when we get to the short side road Hoa and I are ordered off the bike in case we should all topple into the canal alongside the narrow pathway.
When we get to the house it’s in darkness. Mrs Hanh parks her bike and calls out to the neighbours. Her aunt is over 70 years old and has been a healer for most of her life. I trust this woman already, even though I haven’t met her. She opens the front door and brings us in to the main room in the house. It’s completely bare save for a poster on the wall and a small shoe rack in the corner. There’s a man in the small room behind, his two small children watch from the doorway as the old lady finishes rubbing him down with a small piece of cotton. He puts on his shirt and pays the woman. Bundles up his children and leaves.
I’m taken in to the back room and ordered to strip to my underwear. Mrs Hanh and Hoa take up their seats in the corner of the room and make smart comments about my blue pants. If I’d known what was about to happen I might have worn some plainer ones, or just not gone.
I lie on my front and the woman rubs my back with hands that I hadn’t expected to be so strong. Clinking glass stirs me – small glass cups. I’m assured that it will help and I go with it. The small glass globes are arranged and the woman opens an old detergent bottle. She dips a cotton topped stick into the bottle and lights it. She starts by rubbing one cup around my back and it feels ok. Then she starts into it, working so quickly that like most things in this country, I don’t know what’s going to happen until it’s happening.
The blade really catches me by surprise. The woman starts making tiny nicks in my shoulders before putting the cup over it, I’m really not enjoying this. My tender skin lets me know that I have a fever coming on and I try not to complain too much. The three women watch my skin rise and bleed and tell me with grave tones that I’m very sick. They know because the welts are dark. I breathe, sure enough I’ll live.
After a few more uncomfortable moments the cups come off. The woman wipes the cups and my back with some cotton and tells me to turn over. I try not to look at the blood. There’s goes my next year’s blood donations out the window…
She starts again on my front. None on the legs this time. Hoa is ogling and even though I don’t understand her I can tell what she’s saying. She wants to see what’s under my strategically placed palms. We’re all women here, I put my arms down my sides. She laughs and makes a remark in Vietnamese. There’s not one part of my body that doesn’t invoke some reaction in this part of the world. Grey hairs that need plucking out, calves that make women ask how many bowls of rice I eat a day, squeezes and slaps are part of the everyday. It’s forgotten again.
The old woman moves to my head. She takes the blade and starts to make more nicks around my hairline. She takes a small piece of yellow cotton and scoops up some ginger inside. Then the ginger rubdown starts. I thought the cupping was uncomfortable, this iss vicious. I sit up and she scours me all over with the tiny yellow bulb, I’m just grateful it’s nearly done.
She gives Mrs Hanh some vitamins and antibiotics for me to take. One dose. I put them in a pocket to forget about. The journey home is longer and the February air bitter. I climb the stairs and find my bed. I’m dazed and chilled and there aren’t enough blankets in the world right now. Three hours of shivering lie ahead and then the best sleep I’ve had in weeks. The next day I don’t know if I really feel better but I’m told to sleep and the hot lemon helps too.
The polkadots are entertaining and I make sure to get a decent photo before they fade, along with the sore throat.
A few days later Sarah decides she wants to look like a human dalmatian too. She’s curious and I’m equally so. I take my camera and drive her, eager to see this from another viewpoint. Sarah isn’t really sick so she doesn’t get the blade.