Geography and Nature
Vietnam is over 1,000 miles long from north to south, and only 33 miles wide at it’s narrowest point about halfway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. It’s population of 95 million is concentrated in Hanoi, HCMC, the Mekong and Red River Deltas, but also in coastal towns such as Hue, Da Nang, and Nha Trang. Mountain ranges proliferate throughout the length of the country but are sparsely populated. Central Vietnam is also known as Annam as well as the Bamboo Pole” of the country. It is a narrow chain of mountains 559 miles long parallel to the South China Sea. Rain forest, mangrove forest, dry forest as well as the very rich fauna can be found throughout the country but vary greatly depending on altitude and latitude.
Throughout its history Vietnam has been subjected to invasions and intrusions from other countries, most noticeably in recent times by the Chinese, French, Japanese, and Americans. Vietnamese resiliency and a fierce desire for independence ultimately prevailed when the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was founded in 1976. Initially the economy almost collapsed under the new communist regime, but it has slowly recovered with Vietnam becoming a major global exporter of rice and coffee. It is now shifting from an agricultural base into a service economy where tourism plays a significant role.
Vietnam is one of the most populated countries in SE Asia. It is also a very young and very diversified population with 54 minority ethnic groups comprising 15% of the population and creating a colorful mix in terms of appearance, traditions, religion, and way of life.
The Chinese (Hoa Hoa) are the largest minority. The Cham live in the lowlands and descend from the mighty kingdom of Champa, today part of Cambodia. The Khmer live in the Mekong Delta. The Hill Tribes are very diversified, each still wearing traditional costumes.
Rice cultivation and rice export lead the way of the Vietnamese economy as the country is the number one exporter of rice. Coffee and black pepper are also among the top exports. As you travel you can experience the country life and the beautiful sceneries of the rice fields.
Due to the meeting and conflict point of various civilizations most of the world religions have left a mark on Vietnam. Spiritual diversity prevails with Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Confucianism, Taoism and Christianity all practiced to varying degrees. This contrasts with its bordering neighbors, which are mostly of Buddhist faith.
Art and Culture
Different architecture styles are evident everywhere, from the bamboo and thatched small houses, to the large colonial mansions, palaces, temples, pagodas, and impressive contemporary buildings. Sculptures proliferate and are used to decorate mostly religious buildings and burial sites. Music and songs are part of many religious ceremonies. Classical or folk music will vary greatly just like classical and folk theatre does with the various ethnic groups. Films of all kinds from Hollywood or Vietnamese directors are mostly focused on the war, but can also be romantic such as “The Lover”. Arts and crafts are so numerous and attractive that the main problem is the space left in your luggage to bring them home. Lacquerware, ceramics, porcelain, wood carving, silk embroideries, silk painting, bamboo or wicker works, black pearls, textiles, conical hats, puppets will be seen in abundance, but careful, the quality may not always be the same!
Where to go?
The choices are many, but one possibility is structuring a tour that will take you through three principal regions from North to South of the country:.
The northern part includes Hanoi, then Hung Temple, Thac Ba Lake and Sa Pa and Hai Phong, Unesco-listed Halong Bay well worth a 2 day cruise, and Cat Ba Island.
From Hanoi you will pass beautiful landscape, attractive beaches lined with palm trees, historical sites, colonial and imperial cities. Places not to be missed are Nha Trang, My Son, Hoi An, Da Nang, Hue, Dong Hoi, Vinh.
Then on to Ho Chi Minh City (still called Saigon by the locals) and the Mekong Delta with its floating markets, fruit orchards, fish farmers, rice paper producers, temples and pagodas. Besides Saigon of course, My Tho, Can Tho, Chau Doc or Phu Quoc are places worth a visit.