I'd agreed to a two-dollar pedicure from a vendor on Vietnam's Cua Dai beach, but now that she'd opened a fishing tackle box full of stained rags and sharp instruments, I was having second thoughts.
"No! No scissors," I said, making a cutting motion with my fingers.
"No cutting," she responded, dragging a plastic footstool over and tossing my feet across it. Then, she dumped a jug of lukewarm water over it all, reached into her bag, and rising to full height, she brandished a large knife with a curved blade.
Just as I was ready to bolt, she produced five limes from her bag. And, with a flourish worthy of Jamie Oliver, deftly sliced each one into a perfect half-moon and twisted them, one at a time, on my toes like a mini juicer. So began my day at the impromptu spa.
I was on a month long solo trek through Vietnam and had joined up with an Intrepid Travel group for a seven-day stretch through the country. Today was a free day in the town of Hoi-An and, while my assigned roommate had gone off to do some shopping for silk, I needed some quiet time away from the motorbikes and crowds. So, I'd borrowed a bicycle from my hotel and pedaled to the beach where the Thu Bon River empties into the South China Sea.
Our hotel, Cua Dai, (a bargain at $20 including breakfast) was at the edge of town so it had been a leisurely bike ride of 5 kilometers – past ancestral shrines and young boys riding water buffalo.
Finding a palm tree to rest beneath, I struck up a conversation with a woman from Canada. But, within a few minutes, she pointed down the shoreline at some approaching beach vendors. Purveyors of body treatments, they were young girls who patrolled the beach seeking customers.
"Oh, no, here they come," she said, grabbing her beach blanket and making a run for it. I didn't move fast enough and soon, a roving pedicurist had my foot up in the air for inspection. After a month of trekking from Vietnam's cool misty north to its hot sultry south my feet were a mess, so, despite misgivings, I agreed to a treatment.
It was more like a pyjama party than a beauty treatment. Everyone was giggling and grabbing one body part or another. A folding table popped up and a manicure was soon underway. I tried to protest, but I was at the mercy of my pedicurist, Da`o.
I noticed that each girl wore the traditional cone hat as well as a colorful bandana tied around their faces and gloves with the fingers cut out. Motorbike drivers in Hanoi wore similar kerchiefs for protection from traffic fumes. But here on the beach, we were far from noxious odors. "Why do you wear those?" I asked.
"To keep beautiful," Da`o said, lowering her gingham bandana for a peak. "It keeps skin white." There were murmuring nods of admiration all around – here they valued pale skin.
"Sun too hot here. I go to school in afternoon," continued Da`o while she dug a tattered brochure and reflexology map out of her bag to show me the vocational school she planned to attend.
I wondered how she would afford it, but then I realized that these enterprising girls would likely get ahead. They'd pedal to school, three to a bicycle; at night, they'd be busy shaking out laundry, lugging vats of nuoc nam fish sauce, or doing whatever menial task would earn a living.
Hoi-An has a long history as a town for entrepreneurs. An important seaport for Persian and Arabic trading ships, many 17th century merchant shops still line its narrow dirt streets. But now, instead of the elephant tusks and porcelain of its trading past, those shops are tailor shops where the latest fashions can be ready the next day.
As I made my own fashion choice from the fishing tackle box, Da`o put the finishing touches on my pedicure. My shoulders felt relaxed thanks to the back massage, and my manicure was drying on a special silk pillow. The total bill came to 120,000 dong or about $10. I tipped generously, and we were happy all around.
Later, as I pedaled back in the setting sun, a few crickets chirped from a muddy riverbank and the scent of jasmine was on the evening breeze. In the dimming light, my toes flashed like reflectors lighting my way home. I thought of how, in her rush to escape, my friend had missed so much. And, with each flash, I admired Da`o's handiwork and sent good wishes her way.