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

Vietnam by the Book 2020 – Introduction

Join Mark Bowyer on an unforgettable 15 day journey through the history, culture, cuisine and unique beauty of Vietnam, using the works of three authors to help us along our way. 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 stories of Vietnam’s modern history. The insights of the authors will guide this unique travel experience.  Our shared reading will help bring insights to the places we visit. We’ll travel and read beyond these books too.

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

Tour dates:
3 October – 17 October 2020

$3250US per person twin share
$890USD 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 the authors will give context to this unique travel experience. 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 personal stories. Graham Greene’s classic novel gives us a completely different angle”.  Mark Bowyer.

Written in the 1950s, during the final bloody years of French colonial rule, Greene’s The Quiet American 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 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 frequently occurred between families as battle lines were drawn.

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 as a teenager in 1975.

Saigon motorcycle taxi rider delicately balanced and catching up on the news© Mark Bowyer


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. 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 mountain 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.

The far north is where many of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minorities live. We’ll visit a number of villages during our travels.

Hue, My Son and Hoi An

Hue is a centre of so much of Vietnam’s 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 city facing the liveability pressures of rapid development. But youthful energy, spirit and entrepreneurial culture make Saigon a magnet for 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 his mid-twenties 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 1993.

Mark was born in Sydney Australia and studied English Literature, History and Communications. He was profiled by the New York Times here.

Mark is frequently quoted in international media and has been a speaker for Lindblad National Geographic Expeditions, 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.

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’ll also take a couple of casual cycles along country lanes. We take plenty of breaks too.

We stay in well located, tasteful and 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 you’re visiting, including dabbling in local food and local experiences. And of course, you’re the kind of person who likes to do some reading when 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 .

Interested to know more? Contact us at

Tour dates:
3 October – 17 October 2020

$3250US per person twin share
$890USD single supplement

Single traveller and will to share?
Single travellers can opt to share with another traveller of the same sex and pay the same price as TWN / DBLs. If we can’t match you with another traveller, we’ll cover it.

What’s included?
* All accommodation in well located 4 star hotels
* All breakfasts
* All lunches (except on free days).
* Some dinners – both fancy and local
* All admission fees
* All domestic flights
* Local guides throughout
* Mark Bowyer will lead the tour throughout.

What’s not included?
* International flights
* Comprehensive travel insurance (mandatory).

Visit Halong Bay before the tour?
Contact us if you’d like to visit Halong Bay before your tour. We can organise a 2 day or 3 day tour prior to the commencement of Vietnam by the Book in Hanoi.

We can also arrange onward travel to Cambodia if required.

For a detailed itinerary and other queries, contact us at

For travel agent enquiries, contact us at


Making a booking

To hold a place on Vietnam by the Book, travellers are required to pay  non refundable* deposit of 10% at time of booking following receipt of an invoice from Old Compass Travel. Full payment is required 60 days prior to departure when tour details are finalised.

Old Compass Travel guarantees the operation of Vietnam by the Book subject to external conditions such as extreme weather, terrorism political conditions or other force majeure events.

The tour is guaranteed to operate with a minimum of two travellers however Mark Bowyer’s participation in the tour requires a minimum of five travellers. For groups of less than 5, the tour will be guided by expert local guides.

Deposit is refundable in the event that –

i) Old Compass Travel cancels the tour for any reason (see below)
ii) The tour does not meet minimum numbers for Mark Bowyer to join the tour and clients elect to cancel arrangements.

In the unlikely event that illness or some other external event prevents Mark Bowyer from participating in a group of more than 5 travellers, an expert local guide or local guides will be appointed to replace him and compensation to a maximum of 15% of the tour price (not including air) will be provided to travellers.

Contact us at

Travel Insurance

Travellers on Vietnam by the Book are required to hold comprehensive travel insurance to cover medical or other emergencies. Insurance details will be collected prior to the commencement of the tour.

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

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