Vietnam by the Book

A tour of history and stunning places designed around three books

Vietnam by the Book

Vietnam by the Book

Join us on an unforgettable 16 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 enrich our travels. We’ll travel and read beyond these books too.

Our journey will take us to Hanoi, Ninh Binh, Dien Bien Phu, Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park, DMZ, Hue, My Son, Hoi An and Saigon. 

We only run this tour twice a year so we can meet remarkable people and curate unique experiences. Our tours are led by our founder, Mark Bowyer and our team of local experts.

Tour dates:
Saturday 22 February 2025 – Sunday 9 March 2025
Saturday 15 March 2025 – Sunday 30 March 2025

$4990USD per person twin share
$1490USD single traveller supplement – we warmly welcome our single travellers

Group size:
Maximum 12

To sign up for this tour, please send us an email at [email protected]. We’ll get right back to you with a full tour dossier.

To receive our regular updates or join a meetup to hear more about our Vietnam by the Book small group tours, sign up for our newsletter focused on by the Book tours.

Old Hanoi, © Mark Bowyer
Old Hanoi, © Mark Bowyer

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.

Hoi An smiles
Hoi An smiles ©Mark Bowyer

“I’m excited by this itinerary. It’s fresh and mixes little-visited locations with better-known highlights – a uniquely insightful experience of Vietnam. And we’ll connect with some very special people”


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. Vietnam’s story begins in the Red River Delta – a perfect region for the beginning of our journey.

Hanoi streets
Hanoi generations © Mark Bowyer

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 in the 1950s, he visited the distinctive Phat Diem Church to witness brutal French efforts to hold on to colonial power. Ninh Binh and Nam Dinh provinces are where Catholicism first took root in Vietnam and church influence has reverberated throughout the country for during colonisation and until the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. It’s beautiful and captivating country.

Ninh Binh landscapes
Magical landscapes of Ninh Binh © Mark Bowyer

Dien Bien Phu

The spectacular mountain landscapes of Vietnam’s far northwest are highlights of any visit. Ethnic Thai, Lao and Hmong villages and extraordinary history collide in these terraced landscapes. In 1954, the French outpost at Dien Bien Phu became the site of a decisive showdown between Ho Chi Minh’s communists and French forces. We’ll travel stunning mountain roads from Dien Bien Phu on the Lao border, through small villages and some of Vietnam’s most dramatic scenery.

Ethnic Lao village, Dien Bien Phu
Ethnic Lao village, Dien Bien Phu © Mark Bowyer

Phong Nha

The spectacular caves of the Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park have given these karst mountains some prominence in recent years. This is also the location of key sections of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. A small quiet place, we’ll explore this magnificent park before heading south through the old DMZ towards Hue.

The entrance to Phong Nha cave © Mark Bowyer

The DMZ and Hue

Hue is a centre for so much of Vietnam’s modern history – The Nguyen Dynasty, Buddhism, colonialism, Catholicism and bloody battles have all left marks. We’ll explore all of it and also take time out in our historic riverside hotel to catch our breath after some magnificent travel days.

Hue Citadel
Nguyen Dynasty Tomb, Hue ©Mark Bowyer

My Son and Champa, Hoi An

From Hue we head south to explore the Champa empire. The Cham civilisation ruled much of southern and central Vietnam for centuries. We then travel on to the World Heritage Listed former merchant town of Hoi An.

Hoi An's World Heritage listed streets
Hoi An’s World Heritage listed streets © Mark Bowyer


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.

Saigon motorcycle taxi rider @ Mark Bowyer
Saigon motorcycle taxi rider delicately balanced and catching up on the news © 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 co-founded a successful travel company based in Saigon in 1993. He’s been exploring, photographing and writing about 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.

Mark was born in Sydney Australia and studied English Literature, History and Communications at Sydney University and UTS. He was profiled in 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.

Saigon alley
Spiritual moment in a Saigon alley. © Mark Bowyer


Our groups are small – maximum 12 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 four and five star hotels in most places with some special stops to begin and end with in Hanoi and Saigon.

Bui Bien Saigon
Beer St buzz – Saigon © Mark Bowyer


You’ll be a curious, energetic traveller with an interest in history, culture, food, architecture and more. You’ll enjoy walking, some casual cycling (cycling is optional and for experienced casual cyclists), 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.

Saigon cyclos
Cyclo survivors, Saigon © Mark Bowyer


What’s included?
* All accommodation in well located 4 – 5 star hotels
* All breakfasts
* Lunches (lunches on full touring days).
* Some dinners – both fancy and local
* All admission fees
* All domestic flights (an Angkor extension flight between Ho Chi Minh and Siem Reap also included)
* Local guides throughout
* Mark Bowyer will lead the tour throughout.
* Special touches – talks and meetups with our friends across the country.

What’s not included?
* International flights (except Angkor extension)
* Comprehensive travel insurance (mandatory for all tour participants – this is a requirement for final tour registration).


There is an option to travel on to Cambodia at the end of the tour. Angkor ranks as one of the humankind’s truly remarkable creations.  Our Angkor insights gained over decades enable us to arrange a uniquely inspiring visit. Join us!

For more on our Angkor extension, read on.

Angkor temple with Monk
In awe of Angkor © Mark Bowyer

The Temples of Angkor – 4 days 3 nights – brief

Our Temples of Angkor extension is designed as a companion to the Vietnam by the Book tour. Its pace acknowledges we’re at the end of a long and active journey. We don’t rush things and we take time to relax. There are two accommodation choices and price points. Our luxury option stays at a stunning heritage hotel – Raffles Grand d’Angkor. Our deluxe guests stay at the cool Viroth’s Hotel. Both are excellent places to enjoy the simple charms of Siem Reap town.

The temples of Angkor are among the most spectacular places on earth – you’ll have no difficulty summoning some extra energy for them.

Our exploration will include visits to the best known temples – Angkor Wat, The Bayon and Ta Prohm. We’ll also visit lesser known temples – all at a comfortable speed over three days. See pricing below.

Raffles option – (Luxury)
Cost per person
TWN / DBL – $1680US per person
SGL – $2520US

Viroth’s option – (Deluxe)
Cost per person TWN / DBL
$1270US per person
SGL – $1665US per person

  • Angkor extension price includes international flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap and all airport transfers (Saigon and Siem Reap) all touring, breakfasts and admission fees. 

For a detailed itinerary and other queries, contact us at [email protected]

The Bayon Temple, Angkor
The Bayon Temple, Angkor © Mark Bowyer


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.

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
Ha Long Bay with Old Compass Travel © Mark Bowyer


You can put your own tour group together. We can also tailor a walk to your interests. Special discounts apply to private tours of more than 5. We also run specialised walks for High Schools and Universities.


For a full dossier including tour booking terms and conditions, contact us at [email protected]

Tour Brief

  • 16 days from north to south commencing in Hanoi
  • $4990USD per person twin share / $1490USD single traveller supplement
  • Focused on 3 books and including Hanoi, Dien Bien Phu, Phong Nha, DMZ, Hue, Hoi An and Saigon
  • Led by Mark Bowyer our founder – 2 dates per year February / March

Popular Blogs

Cultural travel ideas from our travel guides over at Rusty Compass. Our videos feature museums, walks, cycling, architecture and more. Check out our blog on Sydney beyond the harbour.


In this video and blog post, on the back of our recent Vietnam by the Book tour, I think aloud about three decades of change I’ve witnessed in Vietnam, from its opening to the world in 1990, to its current status as a regional economic and geopolitical powerhouse.