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A tropical Eden

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A tropical Eden

Located at the crossroads of southern and eastern Asia, on the trade routes between Europe and the Far East, Vietnam hugs the coastline of the South China Sea like a long winding snake. It stretches for 1 650km from north to south while its width varies from 540km at the Red River Delta to just 50km around the town of Da Nang. With a surface area of 331 000km2, equivalent to that of Malaysia, Vietnam ranks among the region’s middle-weights, compared to heavy-weights such as Thailand, Burma, Indonesia and above all China, a powerful neighbour with whom it shares 1 281km of border. Only its two western neighbours, Laos (1 555km border) and Cambodia (982km border) are smaller in size. Wounded by its recent past and subjected to severe demographic pressure, the country is now facing the new challenge of successfully administering its territory and natural resources.


Recently achieved geographical unity

The creation of the Vietnam we know today was the result of a long historical process which began when the Viet of the Red River Delta broke free of Chinese dominance. From the 11C, they embarked upon a slow March southwards (Nam Tien), absorbing the Cham, whose kingdom extended as far as the centre of the country and then the Khmer who controlled the Mekong Delta. The nation’s current boundaries date more or less from the 18C, even if some territories continue to be contested. This was the case at the Cambodian frontier, where skirmishes with the Pol Pot regime in the late 1970s were essentially motivated by boundary disagreements. The issue of ownership of Phu Quoc Island and its territorial waters is no longer disputed but a definitive treaty has yet to be signed. The status of the Paracel and Spratly Islands is even more complex.


An unusual geology

From a geological point of view, the karstic formations which occur from one end of the country to the other, are one of Vietnam’s distinctive features. They are eroded limestone massifs through which seeping water has, over time, created a network of caves and caverns linked by underground rivers. The most famous is undeniably that of Halong Bay, a former plateau flooded by water from the South China Sea, dotted with a number of small, almost artificial looking, islets. Further north, the Bay of Bai Tu Long reveals the same characteristics, while “Halong Bay without the water” at Tam Coc, has remained above ground. Other similar examples of such karstic formations can be found in the Mekong Delta, near Ha Tien, Chau Doc and Tay Ninh, as well as at Da Nang, where the famous Marble Mountains are located.

However, most of the country along the coast, particularly the Hai Van Pass, is formed of granite. In the Central Highlands (near Buon Ma Thuot and Pleiku) and to the north of Ho Chi Minh City (near Dinh Quan), small extinct volcanoes can be seen dotted around the countryside to the delight of the peasants who farm the particularly fertile surrounding land. Vietnam is nonetheless a country which is relatively undisturbed by volcanic activity, although minor earthquakes do occasionally occur.


Mountains and water

The country is divided into three distinct geographical zones, Bac Bo (north), Trung Bo (centre) and Nam Bo (south). These zones roughly correspond to the administrative division set up by the French during the colonial period (Tonkin, Annam and Cochinchina) and together make up an extraordinarily varied landscape.

On the shores of the South China Sea

Stretching for over 3 260km, the country’s coastline mostly overlooks the South China Sea, but the Mekong Delta also drains into the Gulf of Thailand. Despite this extensive coast, the country possesses relatively few large islands, with the exception of Phu Quoc, the archipelago of Con Dao, Bamboo (Hon Tre) Island (near Nha Trang) and those of Cat Ba, Van Don and Ban Sen in the area of Halong Bay.

The deltas

The majority of the country’s population and wealth is concentrated in two vast and fertile basins. To the north, the Red River Delta (15 000km2), the cradle of Vietnamese civilisation, encroaches year by year into the South China Sea thanks to the sediments left by the river’s waters. An identical phenomenon occurs to the south in the Mekong Delta (60 000km2), parts of which are extending seawards by up to 80m a year. Silt has also raised the level of the two rivers which flow in the neighbouring plains. This led to the canalisation of the Red River by thousands of kilometres of dikes, the target of US bomb attacks during the war. During the monsoon season, torrential rainfall regularly causes flooding and terrible hardship. In November 2000, flooding in the Mekong Delta was responsible for hundreds of deaths and forced several thousand peasants to flee their homes. Such heavily-popu­lated, low-altitude tropical zones are felt to be particularly at risk by the rise in the sea level due to global warming.

Mountains and rivers

Two-thirds of Vietnam is covered by hills and mountains, but its highest peak, Fan Si Pan, near Sapa, only rises to 3 143m. It is part of the Hoang Lien Son Range of mountains which runs along almost the entire length of the Chinese border. The other major mountain range is the Truong Son Cordillera (previously known as the Annamese Cordillera) which stretches for 1 200km from Laos in the north as far as the Central Highlands. It is a medium-altitude range, which begins in fact in the foothills of ­Tibet and whose highest peak is Mt Ngoc Linh (2 598m).

The country is thus heavily partitioned in comparison with its neighbours and split into a multitude of little valleys through which rivers run. To the north, the Song Da (Black River) and the Song Bach Dang (Clear River), which flow into the Red River, open up the way into China, while to the south, the source of the Song Ma lies in Laos. Central Vietnam also has its fair share of waterways, including the Song Ca, which finishes at Vinh, the Song Xe Pon which enters Laos near the Lao Bao Pass and the Da Rang which descends from around Pleiku towards Tuy Hoa. Finally, to the south, the Dong Nai rises near Da Lat before emptying into the River Saigon which supplies the sprawling southern metropolis.


A lavish but capricious climate

Although Mother Nature may have endowed Vietnam with particularly rich alluvial soils and a dense hydrographical network, such generosity is tempered by regular storms and severe flooding.

Vietnam is located in a region with a tropical and a subtropical climate and is exposed to the monsoons of eastern Asia, which bring with them high rates of rain and sunshine. The country lies between 8° and 23° north of the equator, but is host to a wide variety of climates, further exaggerated by its topography. Nothing could be further from the freezing temperatures some northern mountain villages experience in the winter, than the torrid year-long heat of the Mekong Delta. Although Hanoi enjoys an average yearly temperature of 23°C, summer highs of 35°C and winter lows of 11°C are quite common, while in Ho Chi Minh City, the thermometer only rarely climbs higher than 26°C.

To the north of Da Nang there are two quite distinct seasons. From November to April, the northeastern monsoon makes the winters mild (16°C on average), even cold up in the mountains, where daily drizzles are frequent. Sudden bursts of sunshine sometimes light up the monotonous cloudy skies in February and March. After a transition period, summer arrives and lasts from July to November, accompanied by torrential downpours. The average temperature is over 30°C from June to August. Towards late summer, violent typhoons occasionally wreak havoc in the region.

The centre of the country enjoys an intermediate climate, with frequent rainfall all year long even during the brief dry season from February to April, particularly around Hue, where the nation’s highest rainfall is recorded (3 250mm per annum).

In the south, the seasons vary more in terms of rainfall than in temperature. From April-May to October the southwestern monsoon brings winds laden with rain, with maximum monthly rainfall of over 400mm from July to September. The driest season lasts from December to April. Temperatures range from 27 to 31°C, with peaks of 35°C from March to May. Typhoons sometimes swoop over the coast of the South China Sea in November.

In comparison the Highlands are favoured with a temperate climate and temperatures rarely rise above 26°C, but are much lower in the winter from October to March, when they have been known to drop below 4°C.


A rich but ravaged nature

Despite the ravages of the war and rampant deforestation, Vietnam still has some extraordinary primeval forests which shelter an exceptional wildlife.

Primeval forests the size of a handkerchief

Vietnam was originally almost entirely covered in forests, from the northern temperate mountains to its southern subtropical plains. Deforestation, a phenomenon as old as humankind itself, moved into top gear at the time of the colonial period and continued apace after 1945, even increasing after 1975. Heavy demographic pressure has led central government to encourage the population to migrate towards the sparsely inhabited regions of the Highlands, where tea, coffee and cocoa plantations are gradually eating away the natural forests. Crops grown on slash-and-burn land and trees felled for fuel further accentuate the phenomenon. A project adopted in April 2000, which is designed to reafforest some 5 million hectares by 2010, should increase the percentage of forest from 30 % to 43 %, at an estimated cost of US$4.5 billion.

Endangered wildlife

Vietnam nonetheless remains a remarkable sanctuary and possesses a great many species of birds (770), mammals (280), reptiles (130), amphibians (80) and fish (2 500). Even more astounding is the fact that scientists have recently discovered as yet unknown mammals in a region bordering Laos, such as the saola (or Vu Quang buffalo) and the giant muntjac (a deer of Southeast Asia), together with a number of species of birds.

However, numerous species are threatened with extinction, partly by poachers seeking to supply the traditional pharmacopoeia, but most of them suffer from the disappearance of their natural habitat. Although the tapir would already appear to have become extinct, the rare ­Java rhinoceros, previously only sighted in western Java, has been seen in the National Park of Nam Cat Tien, together with specimens of kouprey. In 1994, Vietnam signed an international convention outlawing trade in endangered species, including animals such as the elephant, tiger, leopard, black bear, stag, rhesus monkey, banteng buffalo, royal cobra, tortoises and crocodiles. Birds have suffered less than mammals from war and deforestation, with the notable exception of the Mekong crane, which was reintroduced after the war. In all, 87 nature ­reserves, covering 3.3 % of the country, have been established, many along the frontier with Laos.

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