My Magic Personal Oasis
When asked why I have chosen to volunteer at Blind Link and Omamori Spa, my simple answer is, “people.” That is both the short and the long answer but it would probably help if I provide more detail.
I have long been attracted to the people of Vietnam—ever since meeting a classmate with a “funny” name in high school who said his family escaped Vietnam on a fishing boat and came to the United States. He was really hard working, funny, friendly and interesting to talk to. Over the years and long before coming to Vietnam I have met many more Vietnamese living in the U.S. I have been consistently impressed with their sincerity, their handsome or beautiful features, and their friendliness. Much later in life I was exposed to Vietnamese food and its delights. Thus it is that my wife and I finally decided to visit Vietnam. First Hoi An, and then Hanoi. For me, it was love at first sight. Again, I was, and still am charmed by the children constantly calling out to me, “Ha-lo!”, by older children, students and university students who ask if I can spare a few minutes of my time to help them practice their English—or to take a survey in English. Of course, I’ve run into the occasional shoe-shine or donut lady who wanted to offer me their services or goods at scam prices. This doesn’t change how I feel about Vietnamese people—this exists in one form or another everywhere I’ve ever traveled.
It is with this experience of Vietnam in general that I began to explore the side streets and alleyways of Hanoi, feeling safe and secure and delighting in the markets, the huge numbers of people cooking, dining, drinking tea or coffee, playing cards and board games, and relaxing on plastic chairs on the streets. One day, seeing a sign that read “Tam Quat” on a back alleyway, I went in to investigate. It was a little dingy, not well lit and not particularly clean, but a friendly voice invited me up a narrow, winding staircase. I entered a crowded room with six massage beds side-by-side and was asked if I wanted a massage (80,000 vnd). All of the masseurs but one were male and, I soon realized—blind! To make a long story shorter, I had a good massage and began visiting on a regular basis, making friends with several of the masseurs and getting to know them in a way I had never before known anyone who was bind or severely vision impaired. I even started planning a trip with them to Cambodia after learning that none of them had ever traveled out of Vietnam. It was at this point that magic started happening.
As I told an acquaintance at a coffee shop about my plans to assist with the trip to Cambodia, he suggested I might want to visit Omamori Spa and meet the director of Blind Link, who he knew was closely associated with the blind community and had several years’ experience running a spa employing visually impaired therapists. Here, I met Huong Nguyen, founder and director of Omamori Spa, a lady with a vision and a heart (and seemingly unbounded energy). The first person to greet me when I entered Omamori, however, was Jessica, her twelve year old daughter (now thirteen). Jessica told me a little about the massages available and a little about the therapists. I was charmed by her and by her command of English, and equally charmed by the other receptionists who brought me tea as they chatted with other customers. Over time, I have gotten to know all of the receptionists and almost all of the therapists working at Omamori. They have magic in their eyes and in their smiles…and in their fingers and hands, at least the therapists do! There is magic in the way they play with and tease each other. Of course, when I first decided to volunteer at Omamori I did not know these people so well and could not have known all of this. But there was a magic chemistry in the air, even in those early days, and I have since seen that many of our customers notice this from the moment they enter. One lady from Canada, of aboriginal New Zealand (Maori) origins even said that she felt almost as if a magic wind was drawing her in from the street to our Hang Trong location—and she hadn’t even yet experienced a massage or gotten to know anybody yet. She said she had left another spa immediately upon entering the door because it didn’t feel right.
So I was hooked. By the place, the ambience and people working there, and even many of the other visitors I met while there. But I finalized my decision to volunteer so much of my time assisting at Blind Link because of its business model. Here, the visually impaired are provided (not given) the opportunity to learn how to better themselves, as therapists—and for those who are interested—as future business owners. It is a model that is financially self-sustaining and which has the potential to grow organically—in effect, to snowball. Those who have trained here and go out on their own may be inspired to train others, who train others, and more… Here, the staff working for Blind Link in administrative positions also receive training and are provided opportunities to learn and grow as business people, and hopefully, also to see the social benefit to the Vietnamese society and its people which derives from operating a business in this fashion. Thus, though imperfect in its execution at times, the working model of Blind Link is an excellent model of empowerment of the individual through personal effort. Rather than a charitable model encouraging feelings of entitlement it is a model encouraging individual effort resulting in empowerment. Indeed, many of our visitors have also mentioned that one of the big reasons they have chosen Omamori Spa amongst all the may other choices in Hanoi is because they wish to support this model.
So, for me, there is a perfect cocktail of elements, complex, balanced, refreshing and relaxing in their essence, rendering this My Personal Oasis. An oasis where I can work knowing that the work I do is likely to reach far further than just the few people I am capable of directly assisting on a personal basis. As a personal oasis for our customers, this is a place where all are welcome and all can escape the rigors of travel or of their working lives into a peaceful, caring and therapeutic environment. Knowing that each satisfied customer will also go out in to the world spreading the message of our work gives an enhanced sense of reward for the work I do. This is pure magic.