30 years exploring Vietnam - Rusty Compass travel blog

30 years exploring Vietnam

| 13 Sep 2023
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13 Sep 2023

2023 marks 30 years since I led my first tour through Vietnam. It was August 1993. After decades of war and economic hardship, a long-awaited optimism was taking root across the country. For me it was the beginning of an education and a fascination that continues to this day.

If you told someone in 1993 that you were quitting your job to start a travel company focused on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, you’d get very strange looks. The assumption in Australia was that these countries had been ravaged by war and poverty and that they would be very unlikely to offer a warm welcome to people from countries that participated in their long war misery.

At one level it was a fair assessment. Vietnam was among the poorest countries in the world. Damage from the war was still visible throughout its provinces. A United States economic embargo still deepened the suffering of the people. Hardline central planning further stifled economic prospects.

This video is a look back at the privilege of three decades exploring Vietnam.


Back in 2013, on the twentieth anniversary,  I penned this blog about Vietnam in the 1990s and our first tours.  Check it out.

Despite the visibility of poverty and hardship, the experience of being in Vietnam wasn’t bleak. Vietnam - especially Saigon - was bursting with optimism. And the people were incredibly friendly and welcoming. Add to that our discovery of the extraordinary beauty of the country, unknown to most of the world, and we were confident our instincts were right.

One of the greatest lessons of living and working in Vietnam is the lesson of recovery. The Vietnamese determination to improve has been a profound thing to witness. Over the past three decades, that determination has produced a staggering national transformation. The seeds of the transformation were in the forward-looking optimism of the early 1990s. Anyone who visited Vietnam at that time was struck by it.

A shift in Communist Party policy in 1986 provided the initial impetus for the new era . From that year, a gradual liberalisation of the economy began to produce extraordinary results. People knew it. You could feel it. Young Vietnamese became some of the most hopeful people on the planet.

Vietnam’s accomplishments over three decades are remarkable. But Vietnam in the early 1990s was also very special. It was not an easy place to live by many measures. Access to normal western comforts was limited. International phone calls cost $4USD a minute. The internet was still years away. Tourism and all other infrastructure was basic in the extreme.

On our first tours, we carried a selection of books about Vietnam. In those days, nearly everything written about Vietnam in English focused on the Vietnam War - in particular, Americans in the Vietnam War. Notwithstanding that limitation, the books were helpful in giving us a sense of what Vietnam had been through as we travelled. And I devoured books about Vietnam for a couple of decades.

Every day was an adventure. We met loads of interesting people. We learned. We ate well and we partied. It was a beautiful experience.

Thirty years later, I'm back on the road again leading tours with a book focus. Our Vietnam by the Book  tour is a unique experience of the country. For more info on Vietnam by the Book, head over to our Old Compass Travel website here.


To check out our catalogue of Vietnam and other travel videos, head over to our video page here.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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