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Vietnam, officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, country located on the eastern coast of the Indochinese Peninsula. Vietnam is bordered on the north by China, on the west by Laos and Cambodia, and on the south and east by the South China Sea. Hanoi is the capital, and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is the largest city.
Vietnam is relatively long and narrow, with a varied terrain. The far north and much of central Vietnam are hilly to mountainous. In the north, the highlands slope gradually toward the eastern coast, forming broad plains intersected by numerous streams. The plains are intensely cultivated, and over centuries the Vietnamese have built many dikes and canals to irrigate crops and control flooding. In central Vietnam, the narrowest part of the country, the mountains and highlands extend nearer to the coast, in a few places jutting into the sea and elsewhere dropping sharply to a narrow coastal plain. Southern Vietnam is very low lying, containing the broad, fertile delta of the Mekong River. Like the northern plains, much of the Mekong Delta is cultivated, and there are vast tracts of rice paddies.
Vietnam developed as an agricultural society, and the population is still predominantly rural. In 2005, 27 percent of the population lived in urban areas. People are increasingly migrating to cities, however, swelling the populations of Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and other places.
Vietnam has about 50 ethnic and language groups, but ethnic Vietnamese, or Viets, constitute the vast majority of the population. The original homeland of the Vietnamese people was in the valley of the Red River, a river that originates in southern China and flows through northern Vietnam before entering the Gulf of Tonkin. China conquered the region in the 2nd century bc, but the Vietnamese successfully restored their independence in ad 939. During the next 1,000 years, Vietnam became one of the most dynamic civilizations in Southeast Asia and expanded southward along the coast.
France invaded Vietnam in the late 19th century. The French divided the country into three separate regions; joined the regions with Cambodia and Laos into the Indochinese Union, known as French Indochina; and exploited Vietnamese resources to benefit France. After World War II (1939-1945), anticolonial groups led by the Indochinese Communist Party revolted against French rule. In 1954, after Vietnamese forces defeated the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam was temporarily divided into two zones: North Vietnam, led by a Communist government, and South Vietnam, headed by anti-Communists. For the next 20 years the government in the South, supported by the United States, sought to defeat a growing insurgent movement led by the North to unify the country (see Vietnam War). The United States withdrew its combat troops in 1973, and South Vietnam fell to a Communist offensive two years later. In 1976 a unified Communist state was established with its capital at Hanoi. Although Vietnam remains under Communist rule, its leadership has begun implementing aspects of a market economy in order to promote economic development.
Shaped like an enormous letter S, Vietnam extends more than 1,500 km (1,000 mi) from China in the north to the Gulf of Thailand in the south. At its narrowest, just north of the port city of Da Nang, the distance between the sea and the country’s western border is less than 50 km (30 mi). Vietnam’s total area is 331,690 sq km (128,066 sq mi).
Vietnam has four major geographic regions. The country’s northernmost section consists of a tangled mass of rugged and heavily forested mountains that extend into Vietnam from China’s Yunnan Plateau. In Vietnam, these mountains attain a maximum elevation of 3,143 m (10,312 ft) at Fan Si Pan, the country’s highest point. To the east and southeast of these mountainous highlands is the Red River Delta, a triangular-shaped alluvial plain that stretches along the Gulf of Tonkin, an arm of the South China Sea. The Truong Son (Annam Highlands) lies to the south of the delta and forms the backbone of Vietnam. Also in this region are the Central Highlands, a vast upland plateau situated between the Cambodian border and the South China Sea. Vietnam’s fourth and southernmost region is the Mekong Delta. This region is a fertile area of marshy flatland that stretches from the southern edge of the Central Highlands in the north to the mangrove swamps of the Ca Mau peninsula in the south.
Vietnam’s two major rivers are the Red River in the north and the Mekong River in the south, both of which are navigable for their entire lengths within Vietnam. The Red River flows almost directly southeast from southern China into Vietnam’s northwestern highlands. The Mekong follows an irregular path across Southeast Asia to its mouth at the South China Sea. Farming in much of the Mekong Delta was once impossible because salt water from the South China Sea would periodically cover the low-lying land. To combat this problem, the French installed dikes during the 20th century. Today, an intricate system of dikes and canals helps prevent flooding of the Mekong and Red River deltas. Among Vietnam’s noteworthy smaller rivers are the Huong River (Perfume River) at Hue and the Ka Long O River near Vinh.
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