Vietnam is located north of the equator, stretching 1700 kms to the north. The southern part is tropical, the North is cool in winter, hot in summer. We were in January in Hanoi in the North, and the temperature fell below 10 degrees Celsius. At any time of the year, probably it is raining somewhere.

Total area 332.690 sq km, roughly 10 times the Netherlands (not counting water surface). Population more than 90 million.

History (source: Wikitravel.org, but modified)

Vietnam's history is one of war, colonization and rebellion. Occupied by China no fewer than four times,(once 1000 years) the Vietnamese managed to fight off the invaders just as often. Even during the periods in history when Vietnam was independent, it was mostly a tributary state to China until the French colonization. Vietnam's last emperors were the Nguyễn Dynasty, who ruled from their capital at Hue from 1802 to 1945, although France exploited the succession crisis after the fall of Tự Đức to de facto colonize Vietnam after 1884. Both the Chinese occupation and French colonization have left a lasting impact on Vietnamese culture, with Confucianism forming the basis of Vietnamese social etiquette, and the French leaving a lasting imprint on Vietnamese cuisine.

After a brief Japanese occupation in World War II, the Communist Viet Minh under the leadership of Hồ Ch Minh continued the insurgency against the French, with the last Emperor Bao Dai abdicating in 1945 and a proclamation of independence following soon after. The majority of French had left by 1945, but in 1946 they returned to continue the fight until their decisive defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The French lost there 14.000 man, the Vietnamese 25.000. The Geneva Conference partitioned the country into two at 17th parallel, with a Communist-led North and Ngo Dinh Diem declaring himself President of the Republic of Vietnam in the South.

The tank that ended the war, Ho Chi Minh City

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The tank that ended the war, Ho Chi Minh City

US economic and military aid to South Vietnam grew through the 1960s in an attempt to bolster the Southern Vietnam government, escalating into the dispatch of 500,000 American troops in 1966 and what became known as the Vietnam War - although the Vietnamese refer to it as the American War. What was supposed to be a quick and decisive action soon degenerated into a quagmire, and U.S. armed forces were withdrawn following a cease-fire agreement in 1973. Two years later, on April 30, 1975, a North Vietnamese tank drove into the South's Presidential Palace in Ho Chi Minh City and the war ended. Over 55,000 Americans and an estimated 3 million Vietnamese were killed. The background was that the USA feared the domino theory, that subsequent countries would fall victim to communism. Then at Vietnam, the USA thought it was rational to stop that by supporting the South Vietnamese government.

The American Vietnamese war was only one of many that the Vietnamese have fought, but it was the most brutal in its history. Over two thirds of the current population was born after 1975. American tourists will receive a particularly friendly welcome in Vietnam, as many young Vietnamese aspire to American culture.

[edit] Politics

Vietnam is a one party authoritarian state, with the President as the Head of State, and the Prime Minister as the Head of Government. The Vietnamese legislature is the unicameral National Assembly, from which the Prime Minister is selected. In practice, the President's position is only ceremonial, with the Prime Minister wielding the most authority in government.

[edit

] Economy

Bustling central Hanoi

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Bustling central Hanoi

Economic reconstruction of the reunited country has proven difficult. After the failures of the state-run economy started to become apparent, the country launched a program of đổi mới (renovation), introducing elements of capitalism. The policy has proved highly successful, with Vietnam recording near 10% growth yearly (except for a brief interruption during the Asian economic crisis of 1997). The economy is much stronger than those of Cambodia, Laos, and other neighboring developing countries. Like most Communist countries around the world, there is a fine balance between allowing foreign investors and opening up the market.

There are extreme restrictions on foreigners owning property or attempting to sell. It is very difficult for them to trade without negotiating 'fees'. Business can be done via local partnerships with all the attendant risks.

Power and services is another issue. There are often 'rolling blackouts' when there is not enough electricity at times. For this reason, many shops have portable generators.

According to government estimates Vietnam sees 3.3m tourist arrivals each year. Vietnam has a return rate of just 5% compared to Thailands whopping 50%.

[edit] People

Most people in Vietnam are ethnic Vietnamese (Kinh), though there is a sizable ethnic Chinese community in Ho Chi Minh City, most who are descended from migrants from Guangdong province and are hence bilingual in Cantonese or other Chinese dialects and Vietnamese. There are also numerous other ethnic groups who occupy the mountainous parts of the country, such as the Hmong, Muong and Dao people. Theres also a minority ethnic group in the lowlands near the border with Cambodia known as the Khmer Krom.

Buddhism is the single largest religion in Vietnam, with over 85% of Vietnamese people identifying themselves as Buddhist. Catholicism is the second largest religion, followed by the local Cao Dai religion. Other Christian denominations, Islam, and local religions also share small followings throughout the southern and central areas.

[edit] Culture

Due to its long history as a tributary state of China, as well as several periods of Chinese occupations, Vietnamese culture is heavily influenced by that of Southern China, with Confucianism forming the basis of Vietnamese society. The Vietnamese language also contains many loan words from Chinese, though the two languages are unrelated. Buddhism remains the single largest religion in Vietnam, though like in China but unlike in the rest of northern Southeast Asia, the dominant school of Buddhism in Vietnam is the Mahayana School.

Nevertheless, Vietnamese culture remains distinct from Chinese culture as it has also absorbed cultural elements from neighboring Hindu civilizations such as the Champa and the Khmer empires. The French colonization has also left a lasting impact on Vietnamese society, with baguettes and coffee remaining popular among locals.

[edit] Climate

Vietnam is large enough to have several distinct climate zones.

*   The South has three somewhat distinct seasons: hot and dry from March to May/June; rainy from June/July to November; and cool and dry from December to February. April is the hottest month, with mid-day temperatures of 33C (91F) or more most days. During the rainy season, downpours can happen every afternoon, and occasional street flooding occurs. Temperatures range from stifling hot before a rainstorm to pleasantly cool afterward. Mosquitoes are most numerous in the rainy season. December to February is the most pleasant time to visit, with cool evenings down to around 20C (68F).

*  The North has four distinct seasons, with a comparatively chilly winter (temperatures can dip below 15C/59F in Hanoi), a hot and wet summer and pleasant spring (March-April) and autumn (October-December) seasons. However, in the Highlands both extremes are amplified, with occasional snow in the winter and temperatures hitting 40C (104F) in the summer.

*  In the Central regions the Hai Van pass separates two different weather patterns of the North starting in Langco (which is hotter in summer and cooler in winter) from the milder conditions South starting in Danang. North East Monsoon conditions September - February with often strong winds, large sea swells and rain make this a miserable and difficult time to travel through Central Vietnam. Normally summers are hot and dry.