Smoke Signal

From moxibustion to pinch and pull therapeutic massages, traditional Chinese medicine practitioner Antoine Tran can help balance your energy

Wherever you are in Saigon, chances are a massage of some sort can be found nearby. There’s an endless variety of offerings, from high-end spa packages promising an experience of the utmost serenity to the shady, back-alley operations promising something a little different. You name it, you can find it in this city

Many styles of massage have become common knowledge, such as the pressure point-focused shiatsu or the forceful, sometimes pain-inducing, Thai-style. Yet, down a quiet Thao Dien lane, one will find a holistic healer with a wholly unique, and rather obscure, skillset.

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His name is Antoine Tran and the majority of his life has been devoted to a swath of traditional Chinese medicine techniques, studying the connection of mind and body through the power of human touch. Standing somewhere between massage therapist, medicine man and philosopher, his expertise range from acupuncture to more unknown practices like moxibustion (smoke fume therapy) and Qi Gong Tui Na (pronounced cheekung twee-na), a Taoist healing technique placing an emphasis on one’s Qi, or energy.

“I believe that the practice of massage brings out a good side of humans in those moments because they let go of ideas and it comes down to the basics of who you are and the warmth that you have in you,” Antoine shares as we sit over coffee in the villa where he lives and practices. With a wiry build and hair resting in a ponytail on the back of his neck, he gives the impression of one who has an old soul.

Born in Vietnam, Antoine was adopted by a French family when he was four years old and spent his formative years in Europe, though he always felt a connection to his birth country. In his youth, he began practicing martial arts and it was at this time that he was first introduced to massage as a way of healing sprains, torn muscles and ligaments and cramps.

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At 24 years old, he jumped at the chance to return to Vietnam, fulfilling an internship working with the blind. Helping the disabled and disadvantaged would remain a recurring theme throughout his life, though it was also at this time that he began to hone his massage technique and study its healing effects.

“In 1995, I met a man who practiced massage on the beach in Nha Trang,” Antoine recalls. “He had acquired skills from different countries: Thailand, Indonesia, many places. I asked him to teach me certain techniques and that’s when I started to practice, mainly with friends and acquaintances.”

Over the years, his skills have been learned through various means, from becoming a certified acupuncturist to more unofficial understudying with traditional Chinese medicine practitioners. It’s a trade that, by nature, is often learned in backrooms, due to resistance from the Western medical establishment for not necessarily being quantifiable and also because that’s simply how it has been passed on for thousands of years in far corners of the earth. It is an alternative to the mainstream system and thus cannot exactly be regulated by the mainstream system.

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The Emotions That You Don’t Let Out

In Antoine’s arsenal of ancient methods is Tui Na, which he acknowledges is closely related to what is referred to as Reiki in Japan and Magnetism in France. “The focus of Tui Na is on finding certain planes of energy in the body,” he shares. “This could be practiced without even touching a person. By keeping your hands close to the body but not actually touching it, the practitioner can find meridian points in the body and achieve a transfer of energy from the earth to those points.”

Based in Taoism, Antoine explains that this technique maintains the belief that there are five elements associated with organs: the liver is wood, the spleen is earth, the lungs are air, the kidneys are water, and the heart is fire. “So when you work with this, you can transfer or balance the energy from different meridians in the body. Sometimes energy might be building up in one place, rather than balanced out. The important distinction here is finding those points of energy and transferring it between different meridians, rather than focusing on a physical, stereotypical type of massage. This is more inside the body.”

What fundamentally separates traditional Chinese medicine from Western medicine is the belief of the body’s interconnectivity. As Antoine notes, in Western medicine, “If you have a problem with your eyes, you see an eye doctor. If you have a problem with your ears, you see an ear doctor. If you have a problem with your stomach, you see another doctor… You should never cut up a body into different pieces, so to speak, because it’s one whole.”

With his patients, he finds that the cause of physical discomfort can often be rooted in the mind, pointing to someone who doesn’t express their emotions as an example. “At a certain point in time, the emotions that you don’t let out will accumulate inside your body, be it in the stomach or the intestines, and that will result in certain physical pains. You have to be very conscious of the fact that a pain in a specific organ does not necessarily mean that organ has a problem.”

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Rather than prescribing something to cover up a symptom, his job is to help patients find the cause of their condition and in doing so a bond is often formed. “There’s an intimate side to it. There’s a side you could almost say that’s confessional, that people share when getting to their underlying problems… I need to show them that a lot of the underlying problems are based off today’s society where everyone tends to want to control their worlds.”

“People pay more attention to productivity and efficiency in today’s society,” he opines, delving into a philosophical mood. “People quantify everything. Time is perceived as money. Everybody tends to think in those terms, rather than thinking about inner values. For me, massage can function as a bridge that brings out these values. It’s not just about the exterior of the body, but it reaches inside—into someone’s energy. By doing that, I believe it can bring out the essence and kindness of human beings. It’s very different from the capitalistic approach that most people maintain in their daily lives.”

He is, to say the least, not your typical masseuse in Saigon. A session with Antoine (Tel: 094 568 4053; can last anywhere from two hours to over four—however long it takes, because healing is not quantified in time. What’s clear talking with him is that he has chosen this path because he truly believes in its power to help people, though he remains open to exploring different treatment techniques.

“I don’t know if I will continue doing this work forever. I might learn another form of medicine at some point,” he speculates on the future. “Continuing to learn is extremely important. You have to always be willing to learn and keep an open mind to new thoughts and ideas.”


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