Things No One Tells You About Vietnamese Cupping Therapy

“Sorry this didn’t turn out exactly how I expected,” I told Mike.  “I thought we’d be fishing in the morning after tai chi class and biking or kayaking around the lagoon after lunch.  Then we’d watch the sunset together from our overwater bungalow and hold hands on a moonlit stroll.  Maybe cap it all off with a cigar or champagne from our terrace.  You know, something super romantic for Valentine’s Day.”

“Did you hear that God?  My wife needs a little help,” Mike chuckled.  “Anything else you want to ask for now that I have his attention?”

overwater bungalow vietnam
Our overwater bungalow, over Tam Giang Lagoon (Hue, Vietnam)

When the rain just won’t stop, the next best thing seemed to be a day at the spa.  And determined to still “do” something local, I signed up for a Vietnamese massage.

Then I started googling what that really means.  Therapists light a match under glass or bamboo cups to create a vaccuum before placing them against your skin for major suction.  Would it burn my skin?  Would I end up covered in massive hickies?  

Nothing beats cabin fever like the thought of suction cups up and down your back.

vietnamese massage
The “After” of Vietnamese Cupping Therapy (Photo via Wikimedia Creative Commons)

Half of me thought I had made a terrible idea.  The other half reminded myself this was an upscale spa, so how bad could it be?  You can live through anything for an hour, right?

So I disrobed for my appointment, flinching a little at the first touch from my masseuse.  She started with long, gliding strokes.  

Good, I thought.  Maybe it was accidentally miscommunicated as a Swedish massage.  This will be fine.

As she continued to work on my back and shoulders, I started to relax.  Finding the perpetual knot on my left shoulder — I’ve nicknamed it my “fiddler crab” because I often feel so unbalanced — my masseuse asked, “Okay harder?”

Yes, please.  The signature Swedish strokes became a deep tissue massage…Or something like that.  Before I knew it, I was being slapped, punched, and chopped.  My brain said “stop” and my body said “hurts so good.” I said nothing out loud. 

My masseuse was beating me up and I didn’t want her to stop.

But she did.  She stopped and she walked away.  I heard the rattle of glasses and then the strike of a match.  My comfortable bliss disappeared in an instant and my body seized. 

vedana lagoon spa
The spa at Vedana

This was it.  Soon I’d be covered in glasses with unthinkable suction.  I’d look like a monster for days from the marks (and bruises from the punches).  My husband probably wouldn’t want to look at me…so much for our romantic getaway.

The first cup popped on and I flinched. 

“It okay?” my masseuse asked.

Actually, it was.  I wasn’t sure it felt good, but it didn’t hurt.  “It okay, ” I responded.

She continued, one cup at a time.  My arms warmed up.  My whole body felt intensely alive, the way your foot feels when the blood rushes back in after the pins-and-needles of falling asleep from previous lack of circulation.  Sometimes she left the suction where it was, other times she’d slide the cups around my back. 

Euphoria washed over me and I had an incredible urge to laugh out loud.  There was a childish grin on my face that I couldn’t stop and I felt like I was sliding down rainbows.  

I couldn’t stop smiling after my Vietnamese massage

I don’t know that there is any muscular benefit to these techniques, but I know that my masseuse got me to mentally loosen up in ways I never have before.  Not only that, but it was one of the weirdest sensations I’ve ever had — and that alone was worth the experience.

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If you go…

I got my massage at the Vedana Lagoon Resort & Spa, a hotel about an hour outside of Hue in Central Vietnam.  The resort features overwater bungalows which we splurged on ($175/night) mostly for the novelty factor.

overwater bungalow vietnam
Inside our massive villa with glass floor (Vedana Resort, Vietnam)

In addition to my 60 minute Vietnamese “body therapy” (be smarter than me and book the full 90 minutes!), I also had an amazing facial and a terrible body wrap.  Let’s just say the website description was more appealing than the reality of having dragonfruit seeds in places the sun doesn’t shine.

Frankly, we barely took advantage of the resort amenities — free bicycles, kayaks, a gorgeous infinity pool, yoga on the pier, shuttles to the beach — because the weather was so poor.  We cocooned in our bungalow, ate steamy bowls of soup, and yes, enjoyed the spa.

The resort makes a good base for Lang Co beach or Canh Duong beach, plus Elephant Springs and Bach Ma National Park.  You can day trip to Hue, but there’s a lot to see so that would end up as a very long day.  We separately stayed at Moonlight Hotel in the city itself and highly recommend it.

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This travel writer got a Vietnamese massage, including suction cup therapy. Find out what it's like and whether or not it's painful (yes, it can leave bruises or hickeys).

20 thoughts on “Things No One Tells You About Vietnamese Cupping Therapy”

  1. Wasn’t that the same thing Michael Phelps did prior to the Olympic Games? I remember seeing all these circles on his back before his first event.

  2. I have trouble with my jaw and acupuncture and cupping are the only things that help. I agree that it’s weird and amazing all at the same time.

  3. I have heard a lot about this recently and you put my mind at ease a bit. Still not sure I would be able to try it but perhaps I could work up the nerve. Sounds like you had a great experience.

  4. My mom bought a couple of the cupping sets a decade or so ago in Vietnam. They are so much more pleasant than the other method my mom used(scraping a quarter along your neck/spine/ribs/back with icy hot). The cups are definitely less painful than the quarters.

    You may want to try this when you are feeling sick(flu/diarrhea). The quarter/icy hot method relaxes you after the fact and the warmth is very comforting. I pass out for half day/a day after the “procedure” and wake up feeling 10x’s better. You smell like an old person but better than feeling like crap. I don’t know how you would do it with the cups since you can’t put icy hot on your back while cupping(doesn’t allow for suction).

    1. @Pepper, Very cool therapy that I had never heard of (one of the reasons I love learning more about other cultures). I think, at least the first time, I’d need to watch someone do it who knows what they’re doing, but I’d be willing to try.

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