Vietnam squeezes a wide diversity of landscapes into its relatively compact area. High green mountains dominate the northern and western border areas, covered in forests and coffee plantations. Sandy beaches line the eastern seaboard, flanked at either end by extensive flooded deltas. Ethnic Vietnamese, Chinese and Khmer inhabit the coastal port cities, beaches and deltas, and sizeable populations of ethnic minorities live in the rugged highlands.
In today’s Vietnam the remnants of war have become tourist attractions rather than eyesores. The scars and memorials are now a part of the country’s tourism pull, whether you’re burrowing into the depths of the Cu Chi tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) or viewing the rusting heaps of wartime hardware at Hanoi’s Military History Museum. The vestiges of a more remote past, from Champa ruins and Hue’s imperial city to the elegant colonial streets of Hanoi, are a major lure, as are the glorious natural attractions – from a coastline of powder-soft beaches to the impressive forested mountains.
Northern Vietnam’s signature city is Hanoi, an appealing place full of the old villas and facades of the French colonial era which give it a unique ambience. The surrounding, pancake-flat Red River Delta is bordered on the east by the Gulf of Tonkin, within which is the fabled limestone seascape of Halong Bay. Beyond the delta’s plains, cooler mountain regions, populated by hill tribes, ascend towards Laos in the the west and China to the north.
Heading south, the country narrows through a chain of increasingly tropical provinces washed by the warm waters of the East Sea (South China Sea). In the old Imperial City of Hue, a sense of the past pervades, carried over into the nearby town of Hoi An. In the lands of the ancient Champa kingdom further south are decaying temples that testify to the conquest by the Viet people from the north. And all along the serpentine coast are stretches of white beach lapped by aquamarine waters.
Beyond the resort of Dalat in the picturesque southern highlands is Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s vibrant commercial centre. The far south is dominated by the Mekong Delta, an extensive area of farms and orchards and numerous waterways best explored by boat. Offshore are the newly touristed islands of Phu Quoc and, further east, the Con Dao archipelago.