Vietnam is the most dynamic of the old French colonies of Indochina. Having successfully repelled three major aggressors last century, the mood in the country is bullish. Morale is high and the innate vitality and charm of the Vietnamese is re-awakening a truly entrepreneurial spirit throughout the country.
The population of 85 million is roughly 15 times that of its neighbour Laos, and overcrowding lends urgency to the government's ambitions to beat malnutrition and poverty.
The long snake-like form of Vietnam is moulded by mountains to the north and west at its borders with Laos and China.
High rainfall, the lattice of channels and verdant paddies of the Mekong Delta, and an incredible 1400 Km of coastline on the South China Sea, make water one of the pervading images.
Vietnam is a country of cyclos in Hanoi, friends made on the Reunification express, old men doing Tai Chi at dawn on the beach, bustling river traffic, claustrophobic wartime tunnel systems, sheer crags of islands rising abruptly from the mist on Halong Bay, and remote hilltribes who were never even aware of a war with America.
Vietnam takes the shape of an elongated "S" and stretches over 1,600 km -- in some areas it is only 50 km wide. The country cover equatorial lowlands through to high temperate plateau and chilly mountain peaks.
Three quarters of Vietnam is mountainous -- the north has the highest mountain, Fan Si Pan, at 3,143m, in the Hoang Lien Mountains, close to the old French hill station of Sapa.
The Truong Son Mountains (on the Annamite Cordillera) form the Central Highlands and run almost the whole length of the country. Both north and south are home to large rivers, the Red River and Mekong River respectively.
Generally the best time to visit is between November and March, although you may encounter heavy rain storms in some areas.
Ho Chi Minh Trail
The Ho Chi Minh Trail was not originally a single track but a complex system of jungle paths winding down through the eastern mountains of Laos, frequently looping over the border with Cambodia.
It was used by the indigenous peoples through the centuries for trade in gold and opium with China, but became infamous during the struggle for independence with the French and then during the Vietnamese War.
Arms and personnel were infiltrated from north to south Vietnam along this route, which was heavily bombed by the Americans, only to be re-built at night.