Although many westerners still imagine Vietnam through the lens of war, it is in reality a country filled with captivating natural beauty and tranquil village life. Its highlands and rainforest regions, far from being devastated, continue to yield new species and team with exotic wildlife. Its islands and beaches are among the finest in all of Southeast Asia, and its cuisine is very possibly the most delicious you will ever find. Over two decades have passed since Vietnam was officially united, and in that time it has done a remarkable job of healing its wounds. Today, this gracious and graceful country is an outstanding travel destination.
Shaped like an elongated S, Vietnam stretches the length of the Indochinese Peninsula and covers a surface area of 128,000 square miles - making it roughly the size of Italy or, in the U.S., New Mexico. China lies to the north, Laos and Cambodia to the west, and the Vietnam Sea to the east.
Topographically, Vietnam is a verdant tapestry of soaring mountains, fertile deltas, primeval forests inhabited by exotic fauna, sinuous rivers, mysterious caves, otherworldly rock formations, and heavenly waterfalls and beaches. Beyond nature, the curious and open-minded visitor will find in Vietnam a feast of culture and history.
For convenience, the country can be thought of as comprising three unique areas: north, central, and south. The north is known for its alpine peaks, the Red River Delta, the plains of Cao Bang and Vinh Yen, enchanting Halong Bay, and historic Hanoi, as well as for the diversity of its ethno linguistic minorities.
Central Vietnam, also home to many ethnic minorities, is characterized by high temperate plateaus rich in volcanic soil and by spectacular beaches, dunes, and lagoons. It is also the location of the ancient imperial city of Hue. In the South, visitors encounter modern life in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and the fertile alluvial delta of the Mekong River. Vietnam's territory also encompasses a large continental shelf and thousands of archipelagic islands.
Vietnam's climate is as complex as its topography. Although the country lies entirely within the tropics, its diverse range of latitude, altitude, and weather patterns produces enormous climatic variation. North Vietnam, like China, has two basic seasons: a cold, humid winter from November to April, and a warm, wet summer for the remainder of the year. Summer temperatures average around 70 degrees Fahrenheit (about 22 C), with occasional typhoons to keep things exciting. The northern provinces of Central Vietnam share the climate of the North, while the southern provinces share the tropical weather of the South. South Vietnam is generally warm, the hottest months being March through May, when temperatures rise into the mid-90's (low-30's C). This is also the dry season in the south, followed by the April-October monsoon season.