The founder and operator of travel guide Rusty Compass, Mark Bowyer, has been working in the travel business in South East Asia for more than two decades. He talks to Brett Davis about the evolution of his website and the ups and downs of the local travel industry. Photo by Vinh Dao.
Before Rusty Compass, you founded and ran a small-group travel company Travel Indochina, what were the most important things you learnt about the region during those years?
From my first visit to Vietnam in 1990, it was pretty clear that Vietnam was at the beginning of an incredible new journey. And I was very excited about the prospect of watching the new Vietnam and a new South East Asia taking shape. I was swept off my feet by the place. I wanted to be here.
So while the travel industry was completely unknown to me, starting a travel company seemed like a pretty good idea. And it was.
Your website started as a blog about your travels, when did you realise it could grow into something more?
I think I always intended to try and transition from a conventional blog into more of an independent travel guide with independent recommendations as well as galleries and videos, and with navigation that make sense to travellers. Two or three years ago, things started to come together and the traffic to the site started to grow. This year we’ll receive around 350 thousand unique visitors.
You have a fairly strict policy of independence about the places you list on Rusty Compass, why is that?
One of the annoying things about most travel information online is, it’s simply advertising parading as reviews and recommendations. So travellers are wary and looking for information they can trust.
I’m trying to provide the kind of trusted recommendations and insights you’d seek from a friend who lives in a place you’re visiting. Readers can sense that too. It doesn’t mean you’re always right and it doesn’t always endear you to the places you write about, but at least we’re trying to cultivate trust and it seems to be striking a chord.
You recently took issue with some of TripAdvisor’s recommendations, about Hanoi particularly. Why was that?
TripAdvisor’s a wonderful concept. But it would have been much better in an integrity focused Wikipedia style culture, rather than a business and sales focused corporate culture. There are so many problems with its Vietnam and Cambodia recommendations. Hotels and restaurants constantly complain to me that scamming is rife.
The blog pieces you refer to, focused on the improbably high placement of a handful of Hanoi hotels in TripAdvisor’s listings. According to the TripAdvisor list, Hanoi is home to five of the world’s best 25 and to seven of Asia’s best 10 hotels for service. When you consider how many fantastic hotels there are in the world, in Asia and elsewhere in Vietnam, these lists aren’t credible.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg?
Rusty Compass covers Vietnam and Cambodia, but you have plans to expand to other countries in the region?
Yes, I’m working on Laos right now. Have spent a couple of wonderful months reacquainting myself with Laos this year and last and will start publishing material in the coming months. Burma will follow from there.
With so much changing so quickly in the region, how do you manage to keep up with creating all the content for the site?
Basically I’m constantly travelling which I still love, even after so many years. The big places like Hanoi, Saigon, Hoi An and Siem Reap need several visits each year. Some of the smaller places naturally get less attention.
It’s impossible to be perfectly up to date, especially if you visit everywhere first hand. But we try pretty damned hard. And we’re in the midst of a comprehensive refresh of Vietnam information right now.
What have been some of the most eye-opening or unique places you have visited in Vietnam over the years?
Vietnam’s far north around Ha Giang has some of the most dramatic landscapes anywhere in Asia. The ethnic minority cultures are also fascinating. And tourism is still in its infancy so it’s a very special area to visit.
But I also delight in the small stuff, chatting with locals, watching the changes and local life. Everybody in Vietnam has a story. I’d rate those encounters as the things that keep me most absorbed when I travel here.
What do you think makes for a very special travel experience, something more than just the everyday tourist encounters?
It sounds boring, but nothing beats a bit of reading before you go to add life to your travels. A little historical and cultural insight adds so much to any experience of a new place.
Once you’re on the ground, how you get around is key. Walking is the best way to experience a place. I love a long day of walking in a new place. It’s the way you get a sense of real character. Cycling comes in second. Motorbikes are third, I think you get the picture. I’d love to see Vietnam make a more serious effort to enable safe walking and cycling for tourists.