Jun 1, 2015


As of the morning of 31 May, The Itch was progressing to where I was thinking about looking into a full-body skin transplant. I called Global Rescue and, after clarifying that it was NOT an emergency, I told them about my three months of ITCHING and everything I’d done to try to alleviate it. What a great organization! For $639 a year they will consult on medical issues and help you resolve them—even if it means a no-additional-charge private jet ambulance halfway across the world. Hell, I'm riding a motorcycle almost every day in Việt Nam, how could I NOT have this? It costs less if you’re only going to be gone a few weeks or a month or three at a stretch and I recommend it to everyone who’s heading overseas. As long as you are at least 60 miles from your home address, they will get you to whatever medical facility you want, anywhere in the world, if no other way is available and fast enough. If you break your arm, you’re probably going to get local help, though if I’m conscious, anything that involves cutting through my skin or making sure my bones heal in the shape they’re supposed to be is going to happen in Bangkok, NOT VN! If it’s something really bad and/or life-threatening, they’ll send the cavalry (check with them for details, I’m just a happy customer).

GR found a Western dermatologist (Spanish, speaks four languages) in Ho Chi Minh City who could see me on Tuesday. That’s 6-1/2 hours by motorcycle and 8 by bus. The good news is that I was going down Monday anyway—I’m typing this on the bus—to bug Hau enough to get him to fix my DR-Z. I asked the shop in Đà Lạt to send it down to him when they couldn't fix the oil pump. He’s had it for 10 days and only just opened it up. Without my in-person prodding, it could be a month before I see it. The bus takes all-day, so getting in to see the doc at 9:20 Tuesday morning works well. It’s gonna cost me more than all five Vietnamese doctors combined (Western medicine at higher than Western prices), my medical policy won’t cover it, and I don’t care! I’m not gonna tell the doc, but I’d pay US$1000 to fix this itch!

I’d neglected my shoulder therapy exercises for the past few days, so the headaches were back. After eating breakfast (ăn sáng—literally “eat morning”), I walked to the place where I irregularly get a massage. I was there three days earlier and Phúc, my massage therapist, knew about the itch and didn’t have an issue with whatever caused it. Yet.

Phúc is very good and extremely professional. In my experience, massages in Đà Lạt are more like the therapeutic massages I got in the U.S. Phúc wears a shirt and long pants under a white “lab coat”—nothing at all like the sexy, low-cut, high-hemline dresses that are de rigueur in most Ho Chi Minh City massage businesses—and she’s never offered a “happy ending”, either. The hot stone massage is almost 50% more than a standard massage and, because I’m a high-roller, I spring for the extra 30,000 (US$1.43) every time! Yes, the very good one-hour hot stone massage costs 100,000 Việt Nam dong (US$4.76).

As I wrote during my first trip about 18 months ago, the women (and a few men) who give massages in Việt Nam survive on tips; the house gets 100% of the massage fee. I always tip about 200%, so for Phúc, that means 200,000. The first time I gave her the 200, she thought it was for the massage and the tip. I can still see the huge smile that lit up her face when I gave her another 100 for the massage. There aren’t too many places in the West where you can get a great massage and make someone’s day a bit brighter all for about US$14.

To put the amounts I’m throwing around in perspective, a “decent” 10' x 20' room with kitchen, bathroom, and sleeping loft outside the Đà Lạt city center rents for 1.5 million VND per month ($71.42). That’s a lot for someone who averages 50-100,000 per massage and might do two in a good day. It’s worse for those who work in Sái Gón, where that same 1.5 million gets you a 10' x 15' room with no loft, no kitchen, and a shared bathroom down the hall. It is also the reason most people in VN work 27-28 days every month. That, and the culture that trains thousands of country girls from a very early age that when they turn 18 (or 16), they will go to the city and do whatever it takes, even prostitution, to send home 6-8 million VND or more every month. The family doesn’t care how the money is earned, you’d just best not send less. Virtually all of the young women I’ve talked to send home monthly at least twice what they spend on themselves.

Some who read this may think that I’m believing BS stories made up to generate sympathy and, therefore, a bigger payday. To you I say, come here, get to know the people, and then tell me that I’m wrong. At first, I was very skeptical. Now, after spending 10 of the previous 18 months here, I’ve heard similar stories all up-and-down the country and I choose to believe. I’m sure that some are stretching the truth; most aren’t. I will NEVER know for sure and honestly don’t care. I’ve seen both of the rooms I mentioned earlier and the Vietnamese people are NOT shy about asking and telling what everything costs. Complete strangers ask me at least four times every week how much I paid for one or the other of my motorcycles and I’m always embarrassed to say because each cost more than the average Vietnamese family of four gets by on for a year. The official poverty level here is a shade over US$700... per year. If you come here on holiday or to live and cannot afford an extra 100,000 VND once or twice a week, then you’re either out of money or out of empathy. Either way, it’s time to go home and reload.

Are you wondering yet why I started with how much I itch? Or just hoping I won’t get back to it? The “good” news is that after years of my stories disappearing down the rabbit hole (right, Rich?), I’ve learned to find my way back… most of the time.

I was lying there, zoned out, enjoying my massage, when Phúc (today’s heroine) cried out. I’m clueless what she said, though I’m guessing it was the Vietnamese version of “HOLY SHIT, BATMAN!” I then felt a bit of a scratch on the back of my leg and she came up to where I could see her, holding out her right forefinger. On the tip was a tiny (as in miniscule) dot. Once she had my attention, she squeezed the dot between two fingernail tips and wiped the resulting tiny red spot on the white massage table cover. 

You can see how small they are—that's a pretty tightly woven fabric...
My turn for “HOLY SHIT, BATMAN!”

She then rapidly rotated back and forth from my legs to my head, each time popping the little fukr and wiping it on the table.


For the next 10 minutes, she pulled them and popped them. She even had me pop a couple… and the whole time she’s saying, “Nhieu, nhieu!” (many, many). I was, at the same time, embarrassed and ecstatic. SHE FOUND WHAT FIVE FCUKING DOCTORS COULD NOT and four of them used a Sherlock Holmes-era magnifying glass!!!
Yeah, I know... I thought it was a rash. Embarrassing...
While she was grooming me like a chimpanzee, I took a few photos and sent them to Global Rescue. Even though it was 2 a.m. at their Boston HQ, they responded within a few minutes: “The (iPhone) pictures aren’t the best, but those look like it could possibly be bed bugs…” SHITE and EUREKA! We have a diagnosis that makes sense…

Phúc speaks about as much English as I speak Tiếng Việt and few of the words/phrases go well together, so it took a few minutes of charades and Google Translate for me to understand that she was giving me a piece of paper with the name of something I should buy at the pharmacy that would kill the little fukrs faster and more efficiently than picking them off and popping them. Yes, it’d speed it up a bit to pick them off and drop them into a glass of hydrogen peroxide (it’d be great if they would explode, though I doubt it) or rubbing alcohol or tequila… they might like the tequila…

It was raining HARD when I left, so I hailed a cab and had him stop at a pharmacy where I showed Phúc’s writing and got the “we don’t have it” gesture. The second pharmacy didn’t have it either. After trying a few times to tell this poor, addled soul how to get to the pharmacy that would have it, she finally gave up, held up five fingers and said, “Nam phut” (five minutes), which I did understand. She returned with the prescribed package in four.

After verifying that it was what I sought, she charged me 20,000 VND ($0.96). I tried to give her another 20,000 for her trouble, but she refused to accept it. This is now my favorite pharmacy—and it’s only half a kilometer from my house.

56A Nguyn Công Trũ
The first thing I did when I got home was strip the bed and throw everything into the washer and fill it up with HOT water from the shower and a couple pots I boiled on the stove. Most homes (and hotel rooms) in VN have hot water only from an on-demand heater mounted on the wall above the shower. Even though the kitchen sink is on the opposite side of the wall with the hot water heater, there is no pipe running to the sink. Nor is there hot water at the bathroom sink. It’s just the way it is, so when I do dishes, I usually fill the electric kettle and add its boiling water to the cold in the sink. I think the hot water kills germs better, though that could be disproven by now. In any case, it’s more comforting to me.
Then I took the mattress off the frame and leaned it up against the wall outside the front door. No flippin’ way that’s EVER coming back in the house! Next, I vacuumed everything in the bedroom twice; soaked the bottom 18 inches of the mosquito netting (mosquitos will get a blog post soon) in a bucket of the hottest water I could pull; and vacuumed the living room couches and carpet twice before hitting the shower with the anti-parasitic bug shampoo.

The directions say, in English, to use it three times in three days, lathering up twice each time and letting it sit for a bit the second time. For the first time in quite a while, I followed the directions. Sort of. I used it a second time when I showered before bed in the awesome Zen Valley Hotel

(say hi to my friend Axle) where I stayed because I no longer have a mattress and a third time during this morning’s shower. I’m pretty sure the three day thing is to make sure you kill the little fkr’s eggs (shudder), so I’ll buy another bottle when I get to Sái Gón.

As I write this, less than 24 hours since Masseuse/Bác Sĩ/Groomer Phúc’s diagnosis, the itching is all but gone. I still have the occasional thought that I’m itching, but that could be like the pain an amputee feels after losing a limb… or there could be one of two of the little fkr’s who survived six killer baths. They won’t survive eighteen!

There’s so much more, non-itchy, stuff to relate, though if you’re still reading, your eyes are probably glazing over, so I’ll end this here.

Thanks for reading and especially for your occasional emails of support. It’s nice to know you both enjoy my ramblings ;-)

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