Not for the faint-hearted; but if you’re brave enough to enter the banya bathhouse, the rewards can be tremendous.
“You’ll have to prepare yourself for it,” says Shyam Goyal, spa manager at Amanoi, with a knowing smile when asked about the Aman Banya Treatment, one of the spa’s latest launches.
The Vietnamese resort has recently introduced two Spa Houses, offering an immersive wellness experience. Guests staying at the secluded retreats not only enjoy spacious living areas and calming vistas of the Nui Chua National Park or the lotus lake, but also an array of spa therapies and private thermal facilities. At the heart of the Thuy Lien Spa House (which translates as ‘Lotus’ Spa House) is a hammam, while the An Son Spa House (or ‘Peaceful Mountain’ Spa House) features a wooden-clad banya.
Spa junkies are probably familiar with the Turkish hammam; but what is banya?
An age-old bathing tradition from Russia, banya is essentially a type of steam sauna or bathhouse, which typically comprises a steam room, a washing room and a predbannik (a ‘pre-bath’ where people relax and socialise between steam sessions). Compared with regular saunas, the banya has a much higher level of humidity, often reaching 65 per cent.
The history of bathing dates back to the 5th century BC, and by the Middle Ages, banya had developed into a unique and incredibly popular Slavic custom. Not only aristocratic households, but villages would have their own private or communal steam houses, and bathing took place at least three times a week. Today the tradition remains a beloved pastime and weekly visits are common.
One of the earliest mentions of banya comes from the Primary Chronicle compiled in 1113, in which St Andrew the Apostle’s trip to what is now Russia was documented: “Wondrous to relate, I saw the land of the Slavs…I noticed their wooden bathhouses. They warm them to extreme heat, then undress, and after anointing themselves with tallow, they take young reeds and lash their bodies. They actually lash themselves so violently that they barely escape alive. Then they drench themselves with cold water, and thus are revived.”
Centuries later, the modern banya has retained the same valiant spirit. During a bathing ritual, the steam room is entered multiple times, and a cold shower or a dip in cold water – or even snow – comes between each sweat session. After the body is thoroughly warmed up, small amounts of water are splashed on the stones to produce a fine, light steam. An invigorating beating with bath brooms called veniks – bundles of birch or oak twigs and leaves moistened with hot or cold water – follows; this can be done on your own or with the help of others, but you need not lash yourself as ‘violently’ as folks from St Andrew’s time did!
DETOX AND DE-STRESS
Although St Andrew described the ritual as an act of “voluntary torture” and “veritable torment”, at Amanoi’s An Son Spa House the Aman Banya Treatment is an indulgent experience. It has adopted an elaborate sequence, combining traditional banya with beauty treatments.
“It’s a 90-minute sequence designed to relax, deep cleanse and boost the immune system,” explains Nancy Nguyen, therapist and spa supervisor, as she leads me into the steam room for a 10-minute warm-up. “You will feel energised and your skin refreshed after the treatment.”
True to the authentic banya experience, each heat session is followed by time in the cold plunge pool – two minutes is recommended, but most, myself included, last just about 20 seconds, for the temperature difference between the sauna (70°C) and the pool (10°C) makes it almost unbearable. It’s no wonder many liken it to exercise: the alternation between heat and cold leaves you gasping in the cold water and your heart racing – a workout for your cardiovascular and respiratory systems, while blood flow is also stimulated.
Back in the sauna, the treatment continues with a honey and salt body scrub. Like other bathing traditions, banya is chiefly a cleansing treatment, with the warm steam opening the pores while intensive sweating helps eliminate toxins. The scrub facilitates this process by removing dead skin cells, at the same time moisturising and nourishing. The ingredients are also said to have antibacterial, antifungal, pH balancing and anti-ageing properties. A Moroccan eucalyptus and sesame black soap is used afterwards to clean the body in relaxing movements.
The much-feared veniks first appear during the third sweat. Lying flat on my stomach, I brace myself as Nancy announces, “I’m going to hit you now!” But instead of pain I feel cool leaves gently patting my legs. “These are oak leaves from Russia,” she says, “they can help reduce inflammation and fight against virus or bacteria. It’s good for improving circulation in specific areas as well.”
She continues to explain the benefits of using oaks, such as reducing blood pressure, skin irritation and relieving strains in muscles and joints, while gradually increasing the pressure, methodically lashing me from my feet to neck, before asking me to turn around to give my front the same treatment. Later, a shorter lashing session with warm oak leaves takes place before mud is applied to nourish the face and neck with minerals.
After the last soak in freezing water, I’m rewarded with delectable refreshments – Russian tea with fresh orange juice instead of milk, and homemade cookies – as well as supple and smooth skin. Amazingly I feel tired, relaxed and energised all at once. The exhaustion soon passes though, and I feel more awake than ever. Being smacked across the whole body isn’t the most pleasant experience, although for some it may not even be as painful as a deep-tissue massage. Nancy keeps a close eye on my reactions to check my comfort level, and her humour is a welcome distraction from the stinging sensation. However, if it becomes too much for you, don’t be afraid to ask your therapist to stop or adjust the pressure. www.aman.com
OPPOSITE PAGE: Amanoi’s new Spa Houses serve as secluded retreats for anyone seeking immersive wellness experiences. THIS PAGE: Banya sauna room at the An Son Spa House.
Tips for First-Timers
For those eager to experience the banya ritual, Goyal has the following tips:
• Avoid the treatment if you are pregnant or have asthma, heart condition, acute pain or injury, hyper skin sensitivity, high or low blood pressure, or severe sunburn or skin infection.
• Avoid going in hungry or with a full stomach.
• Wear the felt hat provided; it protects the head from the heat.
• Drink water between steam sessions to stay hydrated.