Mud Baths in Vietnam

Taking a private mud bath is a luxury everyone can afford in Vietnam! Today, I went to i-resort in Nha Trang, located in the south central coast of Vietnam for my first soak in the mud. Most mud baths are commonly shared with others so you got to wonder about the sanitation of this communal practice. I was thrilled when I discovered that i-resort offers individual bath tubs that are built into the hillside, and each tub is filled with wet mud from a hose right before your soak. Now I can relax knowing the mud is clean!

For 350,000 dongs (approx. $15 US), you get 20 minutes in your own private warm mud bath and unlimited use the hot mineral pools. The amenities of the hot springs resort are similar to those in Europe. The use of a locker and a towel are included in your fee.

There’s a spa onsite if you wish to book a massage. Of course, I couldn’t resist a 50-minute full body massage for 300,00 dongs (approx. $13). The spa was beautiful with tropical decor and the quality of the massage far exceeded my expectation. Prior to my massage, I was even offered a lemongrass orange scented steam that was built into the shower inside the treatment room. When in Asia, you just can’t judge the quality by the price alone.

Like most firsts, my mud bath in Vietnam will always be special and memorable. This positive experience will lead me to seek out more bath muds during my travels to enrich my spa experience collection.


A Journey Back to Paradise

Few of us get to recreate a life changing travel journey! I feel so lucky to have done just that this past week in Thailand. The love of my life swept me away on a 4-month travel adventure in Southeast Asia 26 years ago which led us to marriage and 2 kids. On the eve of celebrating our 24th wedding anniversary, I boarded a plane and traveled 18 hours to meet our daughter in Bangkok to kick off our mother-daughter Southeast Asia adventure for a month, in celebration of her 22nd birthday. The first week of this journey is a replica of the itinerary her dad and I followed, but in a much less primitive way. Hard to believe anyone could ever travel with no cell phone, no public wifi, no GPS, and no Vloggers giving you advise on the do’s and don’ts on your anticipated destinations. We were just armed with our Lonely Planet guidebook for backpackers and a sense of wanderlust. We mapped out our route on public transportation and set out to find our way to the remote islands of Koh Tao and Ko Nang Yuan. Yes – we used a paper map!

After spending 3 days in Bangkok visiting the usual tourist attractions, my daughter and I took a cheap flight, on Air Asia for $56.77US, from Bangkok to Chumpon, a fishing village which is a jumping off point to Koh Tao. The train ride we took years ago is still a popular option for backpackers these days but it really doesn’t make sense to suffer an overnight train for 8-10 hours when you can fly there in 1.5 hour for a few dollars more. 

Transportation systems to these heavenly islands are more well-organized than ever before. We were able to purchase a shuttle ticket from a kiosk at the Chumpon airport and immediately jumped into a minivan scheduled to whist travelers to town. On my previous visit, finding transportation was difficult to say the least and usually at your own risk. Not able to speak Thai meant that we didn’t always know for sure if we were going to end up at our intended destination. The ride my husband and I took with the questionable “taxi” from the Chumpon train station to the pier, via a dirt road in the dark of night, still sends shivers up my spine when I think back. 

After spending an overnight in Chumpon, my daughter and I boarded an early morning ferry boat headed to Koh Tao. I was so excited about the little less than 3-hour ride with toilets onboard. So glad I didn’t have to ride a little wooden fishing boat, and I mean little, with Mr. Dang’s family to the island like my last visit here. I don’t remember how long it took but it felt like a lifetime as I was throwing up the entire time.

The tourist boom on Koh Tao slapped me in the face as soon as we stepped off the ferry boat. Drivers holding name signs of guests they were picking up, tour excursion offices and restaurants lined the street in front of the Maehaad ferry dock. For a moment, I thought we were on the wrong island. Tourist transport and accommodation options are endless these days, unlike our only option back then of staying at Mr. Dang’s cottages because we were able to catch a ride with him. 

My daughter and I stayed at the Sairee Beach Cottage which was reminiscent of the little tiny beach cottages owned and operated by Mr. Dang. There was also a restaurant on the beach but with one big difference – when they made a smoothie, the lights didn’t go dim like it did at Mr. Dang’s.

For better or worst, many things have changed on the islands with the passage of time. As expected, with the ease of access to the islands comes over development in hotels and resorts. There were only a few dive shops 26 years ago as compared to over 80 dive centers now. There are more spas offering cheap massages ($10 US/hour) than I can count on one hand. But the most shocking of all were the changes on the Koh Nang Yuan island, a piece of paradise I have kept in my memory bank as “heaven on earth” all these years. It still has powder white sand on a sand spit but I had to share this beach with many. The newly established fee of 100 baht (approximately $3 US) to enter the island has not deter boatloads of tourists making the very short trip from Koh Tao to Koh Nang Yuan, nor has it helped to keep human trash from the ocean.  

With the popularity of these islands bring greater variety and higher quality of food, especially the western options that we might miss while traveling. The good cup of cafe latte that I was yearning for on my previous visit is now on every restaurant menu on the island.

The old adage of “take the bad with the good” rings true for me on this second trip to Koh Tao and Koh Nang Yuan. They may not be the purist island escape they once were but they will remain on the top of my travel list. In light of posting this blog on Thanksgiving, I want to express how thankful I am for the opportunity to revisit this paradise with my daughter and shared my passion for traveling with her. 


A Wellness Itinerary in Bangkok

Is it possible to achieve wellness in this polluted city with constant traffic congestion? I am up for the challenge! Wellness can be found in many places and the key is to plan your activities around the city’s cultural attractions. I set out for my day of wellness focusing on the highlights of the city so I can see the sights and experience the culture at the same time.

Bangkok is known for its street food! There’s a huge selection for cheap, some healthy and some not so much. Around the corner from my hotel, there were fruit carts and BBQ meat stands. Nothing is more refreshing than the delicious locally grown mango, all peeled and sliced for only 70 baht (approximately $2.30US). I grabbed a box of mango and walked a few steps to this adorable little dumpling shop, Feng Zhu Pork Shop & Co., run by mom, pop, bro and sis. This savory breakfast is nutrient-dense, high in protein, low is simple carb and sugar which is far better for your blood sugar than breakfast cereal, toast, or pastries. Ten little bite-size treats were only 160 Baht (approximately $5.30US). This beats the continental breakfast for $17US at my hotel in more ways than just my pocket book.

Dumplings from Feng Zhu Pork Shop & Co.

After I filled my tummy, it was time to head out for some exercise. Bangkok streets are far from walkable. Sidewalks, if any, are packed with street vendors and often have little puddles of filthy water that you may accidentally step into if not careful. A better way to travel is on the Chao Phraya River which runs through Bangkok, dividing the city into the east and west banks. The east banks are where some of the world’s most beguiling temples are located. There are 34 piers that ply this 21 km route. Once you figure out which pier to catch your boat, it’s easy to hop on a boat that will take you close to your destination. For a fare of 15 baht (approximately $0.50US), you can enjoy the view of the city and all the local life along the river banks rather than sit in traffic when you travel by car.

There are more than 400 temples in Bangkok so visiting one is a must. The grounds of the Thai temples and palaces are usually enormous so better be prepared to do some serious walking. I took a boat from pier 3 to pier 8 which brought me right to the entry gate of Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn), located on the west bank. Given the beauty of the architecture and the fine craftsmanship, it’s not surprising that Wat Arun is considered by many as one of the most beautiful temples in Thailand. The 70 meters high prang (spire) by the Chao Phraya is one of Bangkok’s world-famous landmarks. It is beautifully decorated with tiny pieces of colored glass and Chinese porcelain placed delicately into intricate patterns. Climbing the very steep stairs on the central prang is a sure way to increase your heart rate. At the highest point you can see the winding Chao Phraya River and the Grand Palace and Wat Pho on the opposite east bank.

Wat Arun

After getting in 5,000 steps walking the grounds of Wat Arun, it was time to get some lunch before clocking the remaining 5,000, towards my wellness goal of 10,000+ steps a day. Besides, it was time to get out of this 92 degree temperature before I got dehydrated. To find a cooler spot, I rode the boat back down the river to ICONSIAM, an ultimate shopping destination on bank of Chao Phraya River. As expected by the flashy exterior, this vast complex is filled with high end designer shops. But what sets ICONSIAM apart from the other shopping centers is an area called SookSiam which brings the best of Thailand’s provinces into one “village”. There is no better place to try Thai street food than in this clean, air-conditioned mall. The authenticity of the experience was impressive, not only in the food but in the decor as well. I grabbed a bowl of Thai curry for 80 baht (approximately $2.65 US) and ate it squatting down at the miniature table and chair. With 5,650,000 sq ft of shopping space, I decided this is a great place to get in my remaining steps.

After unbelievable sensory overload, it was time to wind down with a traditional Thai massage. Rather than visiting the spa in the hotel, I opted for one of the many local massage spas. Magic Hands Massage is the nicest of the 6 massage spas on Si Phraya Road. The setup of these spas are all very similar – a row of very comfy reclining chairs for foot massages and massage mats for body massages. For 300 baht (approx. $10US), I had one of the best and most rigorous massages in my life. My body hasn’t felt so loose and limber in months.

It was a fun day, packed with sightseeing and good eats. All that’s left to complete a day of wellness is a good night sleep!


How to Find the Best Spa Experience

We are not talking about the top 10 destination spas you drool over in the Travel and Leisure magazine. There is no doubt that you will get the best spa experience when you open your wallet to these top-rated spas. If not, you can probably ask for your money back. For novice spa goers, it can be confusing to know what to expect for the money you spend at a spa. Below are the three S’s to consider when choosing a spa that will give you the most bang for your buck.

Setting

The spa decor and atmosphere will set the tone for your spa experience. You can think of it as a prelude to your treatment! It doesn’t have to be an ultra luxurious space but it should be clean and give you a sense of calm. An esthetically pleasing setting will feed many senses and start your relaxation immediately. Does it have soothing colors, soft music and a pleasant scent? Even the most basic spas should provide these elements, since it is relatively inexpensive to do so . If the spa owner doesn’t have a discerning taste in creating the spa setting, I would question the calibre of their treatments and staff.

The amenities available will definitely add value and enhance your experience. Do you have access to a pool, sauna, steam room, locker room or a relaxation lounge? You can expect higher prices with more amenities, due to the cost of the spa operation. Decide what is important to you and worth the extra money. No point paying for amenities that you won’t be using. Personally, I find a comfortable relaxation lounge with tea and filtered water as a minimum to help me unwind before, and refresh after my spa treatment. Wet amenities are worth the money if you have enough time to enjoy them prior to your treatment to loosen your mind and body so you can get the most out of your treatment.

Size does not matter when it comes to sauna, steam room and whirlpool, as long as it is appropriate for the volume of traffic. My recent spa experience at LE SPA SOTHYS PARIS RÉPUBLIQUE confirmed this for me. Surprisingly, this spa only has 2 treatment rooms so it has a low volume use. The sauna, steam room and whirlpool were petite (see photo) but well-designed and provided privacy and exclusivity. Always ask for a tour of the spa to see if it brings you a sense of tranquility. Is that why we visit a spa?

Spa Services

An extensive spa menu is fun to read! I love oohing and aahing over the treatment descriptions. But if all you want is a really good deep tissue massage, too many fancy treatments on the menu may be a detractor. Just think about all the spa protocols the therapists need to learn and perform rather than focusing on delivering excellent massages. However, if you are planning a full spa day or in search of innovative spa treatments, then it’s a different story. Just like spa amenities, it is irrelevant if you are not taking advantage of the offerings.

Staff

Spa is a hospitality business so having warm, caring, and friendly staff is a must. If you don’t get that feeling when you call to make your appointment, it is likely that you will be disappointed with your overall experience. Spa therapist qualification, training and experience are most critical to the quality of the treatment. Estheticians and Massage Therapists should have professional training to properly treat the face and body, respectively; they are licensed or certified in the US. Spa industry certifications are specific to each country so be aware of varying standards and regulations, if any, when traveling to foreign countries. Do not hesitate to ask about therapists’ training and certification before you book your appointment.

To sum it up, reviewing the setting, spa services and staff at a spa will help you find the best spa experience in any country!


3 Steps to Glowing Skin

Life is complicated enough so skincare shouldn’t be. Here are 3 easy steps for your daily routine, recommended by Eminence Organic Skincare:

Step 1: Cleanse

Non-drying formulas leave all skins feeling fresh, clean, comfortable.

Step 2: Exfoliate

Sweeps away pollution, excess oil, dulling flakes to reveal fresher skin.

Step 3: Moisturize

Gives the skin the “drink” it needs to maintain optimal moisture balance.

The consistency of this daily routine with the correct products is key to beautiful skin! With hundreds of skin cleaners, exfoliants, and moisturizers on store shelves, making the right choice can be difficult. As a seasoned spa director, I get asked frequently what skincare products I use. It is a reasonable assumption that I would use the “best in class” since I am in the spa business. And I do! However, what I use for my skin may not be the right products for your skin, unless we have the same skin type and concerns. If you want to buy effective skincare products, your skincare routine must be customized to you. Is your skin dry, normal, oily, combination or sensitive? Do you have acnes, rosacea, fine lines, large pores, pigmentation, etc? If you are not sure, it’s time to find out with a professional facial or at least a skin analysis by an Esthetician. If you are a product junkie and always looking for the latest and greatest but still not getting the results you are looking for, you might try the Eminence skincare quiz to guide you in choosing the most suitable products for your daily regimen. It’s simple and fast!

Once you have selected the cleanser, exfoliant, and moisturizer for your daily routine, follow the product direction and stick with the routine for at least 30 days, unless you have an allergic reaction. Nothing happens overnight and it take time for your skin to adjust to a new regimen. There are many other products – serum, masque, eye cream, lip care – you can add to enhance your beauty treatment but they should not replace any of these 3 basic steps.