Our family value

Faultless guide, companion, destinations, food, tailors

By Bella English
Globe Staff / April 17, 2011

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P HU QUOC, Vietnam — The young man hacked one green coconut from the bunch, cut a hole in it, added a jigger of rum, inserted a straw, and handed it to me: my first rum-and-coconut water. The sky was turning a dusky rose and gentle waves were nudging the shore. “Life doesn’t get much better than this,’’ I said to my husband and daughter.

I had spoken too soon.

A young woman approached and asked if we wanted massages on the beach: $3 each for an hour. We did. As I lay on a cot under a makeshift awning, her hands on my aching shoulders, she said: “You need a manicure, too.’’

OK, I murmured. A second woman approached and began working on my hands.

Afterward, we picked out a nearby beach restaurant and watched the cooks tend to a recent catch over an oil drum grill. Soon delicious snapper, tuna, and tiger prawns with noodles and veggies were dished up. Then we went and lay in the ham mocks outside our bungalow.

I don’t often return to a place: “Go somewhere new’’ is always on my list of New Year’s resolutions. But I am ready now to return to Phu Quoc, off the southwest coast of Vietnam. Much of this island in the Gulf of Thailand is protected national park, which makes for unspoiled beaches.

Over the years, our family has traveled a lot, the trips always planned by us parents. This time was different: We would spend a week in Vietnam and a week in Thailand, all of it planned by our daughter, Megan, who had been living in Hanoi, the capital, for six months. I set only two rules: “Don’t go too expensive, and don’t go too cheap.’’

It was January in blizzardy Boston but January in Vietnam means daytime temperatures in the 70s, cooling at night.

On Phu Quoc, which is an hour’s flight from Ho Chi Minh City, we took a daylong boat trip with a small group to the Turtle Islands, where we snorkeled and swam to a secluded beach. Back on the boat, we fished while the crew, who had caught several sea urchins, prepared them for lunch. They may look hideous, but they taste delicious.

Another day, we rented scooters from the motel and took off for the west coast of the island. There were few signs, lots of dirt roads through tiny settlements, rickety wooden bridges over streams, and cows lazing by the roadside. We stopped once for lunch and once to swim at a deserted beach.

Our motel on Phu Quoc fell under the “too cheap’’ rule. It was $30 a night and on the beach. Before we arrived, I asked Megan, who had stayed there before, if the place was clean. “It’s clean-ish,’’ she replied.

Despite a funky bathroom and the loud backpackers who filled the place, we ended up having a good stay. “It was fine-ish,’’ I told her as we left.

My daughter’s favorite place in Vietnam is Hoi An, a city on the South China Sea known for its chockablock seamstress shops, good beaches, and restaurants. Here’s how the custom tailoring works: Enter one of the hundreds of small storefronts, peruse the books containing all manner of fashions, choose what you like, and hand those pictures to the tailors who will take your measurements. Then you select fabric for each item from hundreds of bolts. Easier still, bring magazine pictures from home, or your favorite outfit, and they will copy them.

Megan was having three dresses and a skirt made for $108. I opted for a herring-bone wool blazer, two dresses, and a pair of linen pants, for $140. Despite a plethora of shops catering to men, my husband firmly said no and went in search of a beer. It was early afternoon when we left the store; our clothes would be ready the next morning.

Lunch was shrimp dumplings with gossamer-thin skins, rice flour crepes stuffed with pork and shrimp, and wontons filled with crabmeat. Several restaurants in the old part of town offer cooking classes. We signed up for a “street food’’ class at Sakura.

Street food is big in Vietnam: huge vats of pho, or soup, are a common sight on corners, as well as noodle bowls and carts offering egg rolls and skewers of meat. Our teacher, Lam Vo, is a chef at Sakura. Later, as we ate the egg rolls, fried rice paper with shrimp and pork, and “special noodles’’ we had helped make, we realized how labor-intensive Asian food is. But our first effort was pretty darn good, and lots of fun.

The next morning, our custom-made clothes were ready to be tried on. We loved them. A missing button hole and belt, as well as a slit in a dress would all be fixed within hours.

By this time, it had been two days since a massage, so we wandered into Palma Rosa spa, whose brochure we had picked up at lunch. Ladies came over, seated us on a cushioned bench while we soaked our feet in lemongrass water and sipped cups of ginger tea. Background music played softly. Needless to say, the massages here were more expert and more expensive than those on the beach: a whopping $16.

During our trip, we flew out of Da Nang airport, where we saw Mekong Airline planes. Our cab driver pointed out China Beach and we traveled during Tet, the lunar new year. With all of these war-era reminders, not to mention the 7 million tons of bombs, the napalm, the Agent Orange the United States military dropped, we were impressed by how welcoming the Vietnamese were.

Driven by government support and private investment, tourism has become an important part of Vietnam’s developing economy. Its long coastline, reasonable prices, great food — and friendly populace — are all big draws.

Too soon, it was time for Thailand. Megan had booked us into a hotel in Chiang Mai, the northern capital, for much of the time. To get around the 700-year-old city, we took a tuk tuk, or “moto cab,’’ an open-air, three-wheeled vehicle.

But we spent most of our time in the surrounding mountainous region. An hour north, we did an elephant trek on forested trails, feeding our big guy bananas and sugar cane whenever he raised his trunk. At one point, he took us into the water while our “driver,’’ sitting atop his head, chatted on his cellphone.

We were told that an elephant had been born 12 hours earlier and were led to a small clearing where mother and infant were. The tottering baby didn’t mind posing for photos under mom’s watchful eye. There must have been a full moon — we also saw a litter of puppies born the night before, and some newborn kittens.

Our daylong package included a hike to a beautiful waterfall in the jungle, and a white-water raft trip that thankfully included little white water when we were there. We walked through villages and saw how some of the more isolated tribes live.

Another day, we visited Tiger Kingdom, which sounds like a tourist trap but is actually a small nonprofit dedicated to preserving the endangered Indo-Chinese species. You can spend time with “smallest,’’ “medium,’’ and “large’’ tigers. We went with the smallest, including an 8-week-old cub, so downy and sweet.

We noticed a sign for a “fish spa,’’ signed up, and soon were sitting on a bench, calf-deep in a water tank filled with hundreds of tiny fish that swarmed our feet. The idea is that they nibble off the dead skin and leave your feet exfoliated and soft. It’s crazy ticklish and we were giggling — as were the gawkers watching us.

Temples abound in Thailand, and they welcome visitors, including dogs who wander in at will. At one temple, we went to a “monk chat.’’ The orange-robed monks want to practice their English, and we wanted to learn more about their lives and Buddhism. We sat at a table with a monk who explained that, like many of his brethren, he had left home at age 10 and become a novice monk to get an education.

We hated to leave Chiang Mai but had to see Bangkok before flying home. We were there on a weekend, so we visited Chatuchak Market, which covers 35 acres, has 5,000 stalls and sections for animals, amulets, crafts, clothes, spices, and much more.

We also saw the Grand Palace and Wat Pho, home to the incredible reclining gold-plated Buddha, which is more than 140 feet long and 50 feet high.

After one last bowl of noodles and big hugs for Megan, we left Thailand to return home. I rated the two-week vacation an A, with an A-plus for our wonderful trip planner.

As we stepped off the plane at Logan, one of the first things I spotted was Starbucks, where a cup of coffee is $3, the same as a massage on Phu Quoc.

Bella English can be reached at

If You Go

Hu Quoc, Vietnam
What to do
The easiest thing is to ask your lodging for brochures and to book a reservation for you. Here is one excursion we did, through our motel:
Sunny Boat Trip
Snorkeling and fishing. They will pick you up and drop you off. North Island trip includes lunch and snorkeling equipment; $17.
Where to eat
May’s, a casual beach place adjacent to our motel, had wonderful fresh seafood with a choice of sauces, great egg rolls. Dinner around $6.
Where to stay
There’s everything from fine resorts to backpacker havens. We stayed at the latter, which I would not recommend for those over 25. Rooms $25-$35.
Hoi An
What to do
Thong Phi, Vietnam
28 Le loi St. 011-0510-3861-145
Custom-made clothes.
Sakura Restaurant
119-121 Nguyen Thai Hoc
Variety of cooking classes; $18 for street food class.
Palma Rosa Spa
Massages $9-$25.
Where to stay
Villa Hoa Su-Frangipani Village Resort
Village 5, Cam Thanh Commune
Lovely place set in a beautiful frangipani garden; $90 a night includes breakfast.
Where to eat
(see above) Located in heart of old town, Vietnamese and international specials. From $6.
Morning Glory Street Food Restaurant
106 Nguyen Thai Hoc St.
Based in the old quarter, specializes in local Hoi An food and offers cooking classes. Chiang Mai, Thailand
Baanchang Elephant Park
www.baanchangelephantpark .com
Offers various day or multiday excursions. One-day package with elephants, forest trek to waterfall, rafting from $30. Best to book through your lodging.
Tiger Kingdom
About $17 to spend time with smallest tigers.
Monk chats
Many temples, as well as Buddhist University, offer monk chats. Free, but donations welcome. Check times posted at temples.
Where to stay
Rimping Village Hotel
Lovely spot, with Wi-Fi, saltwater pool, and bar. From $100 a night.
Where to eat
Rimping Village
(See above) Has a good restaurant with seafood dishes, from $15.
The Good View Restaurant
13 Charoen Rajd
Get an outdoor table with a river view and enjoy soups, salads, entrees of all kinds, $4-$12.
What to do
The Grand Palace
Na Phra Lan Road Tickets from $7.
The Reclining Buddha
Wat Pho Chetuphon Road Admission $2.
Chatuchak Market
Weekends only; said to be the world’s largest outdoor market. Take skytrain to Mo Chit station.
Where to stay
55/8-14 Sol Charoenkrung
Large, modern hotel, well located, great spa. Rooms from $70. Where to eat Several companies offer dinner cruises on the river, which include traditional music and a show. Average cost $40; book through hotel.