Vietnam by the Book - 15 days - Old Compass Travel Book Club

Join Mark Bowyer on an unforgettable journey through the history, culture and unique beauty of Vietnam, using the works of three authors to help us along our way.

Our journey will take us to Hanoi, Dien Bien Phu, Sapa, Hue, My Son, Hoi An and Saigon.

Tour dates:
20 October 2018 to 3 November 2018

$3950US per person twin share
$1190USD single supplement

Group size:
Maximum 14



About the books

Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, Duong Van Mai Elliott’s Sacred Willow and Nguyen Qui Duc’s Where the Ashes Are, tell three different tales of Vietnam’s modern history. The insights of these authors will give context to this unique travel experience. This is not a “literary” tour.  Our shared reading will help to tell the stories of the places we visit. We’ll travel and read beyond these books too.

“I chose these books because they provide unique opportunities for exploring Vietnam’s modern history. They’ll bring life to the places we visit. Two of the three books are written by Vietnamese authors and are very personal stories. Graham Greene’s classic gives us a completely different angle”.  Mark Bowyer.

Written in the 1950s, during the final bloody years of French colonial rule, Greene’s novel travels from Saigon in the south, where he lived in the Continental Hotel, to Hanoi in the north, where he travelled to Ninh Binh province to see first hand, France’s brutal efforts to hold on to empire.

Duong Van Mai Elliott’s book The Sacred Willow traces her family’s story across four generations. Beginning in the north, the family moved to Saigon at the end of colonial rule in 1954, before moving again to the US in 1975. The Sacred Willow provides a view into family life, Vietnam’s pre-war history, and the splits that occurred between families as battle lines were drawn for war.

Where the Ashes Are by Nguyen Qui Duc tells another harrowing family story that begins in Hue in central Vietnam. During Tet 1968, Duc’s father, a senior official in the South Vietnamese Government, was captured by Communist forces.

Duc’s memoir also covers his experience growing up in the US after a traumatic departure from Vietnam in 1975 as a teenager.



Itinerary brief – Vietnam by the Book


Almost three decades after opening up to the world, Hanoi remains one of Asia’s most beguiling and visually exciting cities. The clash between old and new is on in earnest. But Hanoi’s character is proving resilient.

Ninh Binh

Ninh Binh’s dramatic karst mountain landscapes may be its most obvious draw. But when Graham Greene travelled here during the First Indochina War against the French, he visited the distinctive Phat Diem Church to witness the bloody French efforts to hold on to power. Ninh Binh and Nam Dinh provinces are where Catholicism first took root in Vietnam.

Dien Bien Phu – Sapa

The spectacular mountains landscapes of Vietnam’s far north are highlights of a visit to Vietnam. In 1954, the remote outpost at Dien Bien Phu became the site of a decisive showdown between Ho Chi Minh’s communists and French forces that ended almost one hundred years of French colonisation. We’ll travel stunning mountain roads from Dien Bien Phu on the Lao border, to Sapa along the Chinese border.

Hue and My Son and Hoi An

Hue is a centre of so much of Vietnam’s tragic modern history – The Nguyen Dynasty, Buddhism, colonialism, Catholicism and bloody battles have all left marks.

From Hue head south to explore the Champa empire, the civilisation that ruled much of southern and central Vietnam for centuries, before travelling to the trading town of Hoi An.


There’s no missing Vietnam’s extraordinary story of progress and recovery in Saigon. The former capital of the US-backed South Vietnamese government endured rigid communist control after the war, and has spent three decades making up for lost time. There are too many motorbikes, too many cars, a booming population and a growing signs of a city facing liveability pressures. But its youthful energy, spirit and entrepreneurial culture make it a magnet people from all over Vietnam seeking opportunity.

My Son Cham temples© Mark Bowyer


About Mark Bowyer

Mark, our tour designer and tour leader, has explored Vietnam like few outsiders. He first visited in 1990 when the country was opening up to the world after decades of war and hard-line communism. He loved the place so much he started a successful travel company based in Saigon in 1993. He’s been travelling, writing about and photographing Vietnam ever since.

From history, culture, language, down to every day experiences with people he has encountered, few foreigners have Mark’s knowledge and insights.

2018 will mark 25 years since Mark first led a tour through Vietnam in March 1993.

Mark was born in Sydney Australia and studied English Literature, History and Communications. He was profiled by the New York Times here and has been a speaker for Lindblad National Geographic Tours, Smithsonian, Tauck Tours and others. He is the owner of Rusty Compass and co-owns Old Compass Travel and the Old Compass Cafe and event space in Ho Chi Minh City.

You can read a New York Times profile on Mark here.

To find out more about Mark, check or his YouTube channel here.

How we travel

Our groups are small – maximum 14 travellers. This gives us flexibility, mobility and allows us to interact with the country in a less imposing way. Single travellers are welcome.

We spend as much time as possible on foot. It’s the best way to experience a place. We’ve designed the tour for walking. Expect to spend 2 – 4 hours  walking most days at a leisurely pace. We take plenty of breaks too.

We stay in well located, comfortable three and four star hotels in most places with some special stops to begin and end with in Hanoi and Saigon.

My Son Cham temples© Mark Bowyer


Our travellers

You’ll be a curious, energetic traveller with an interest in history, culture, food, architecture and more. You’ll enjoy walking, some casual cycling, and getting amongst a place your visiting, including dabbling in local food and local experiences. And of course, you’re the kind of person who’s happy to do some reading before you travel. You’ll view an experience of Vietnam as the most important reason for travelling – but you’ll expect tasteful, quality accommodation and great food experiences too.

Interested to know more? Contact us at

Tour dates:
20 October 2018 to 3 November 2018

$3950US per person twin share
$1190USD single supplement

For a detailed itinerary and other queries, contact us at

Pa Khoang Lake not far from General Vo Nguyen Giap’s wartime bunker.© Mark Bowyer

Book Tour