Vietnam is not an ‘easy’ country, geographically speaking. The majority of its land is inhospitable hill and mountain areas where little will grow and access is difficult. The Mekong and Red River Deltas are highly fertile and pancake flat, but their cultivation is a continual battle with the annual floodwater as the bloated rivers burst their banks and inundate large areas. In the autumn, tropical storms batter the central coast: in the spring, the sun bakes the central highlands creating prolonged droughts.
Although all this makes life difficult for most of the 70% of the population that still work the land, it has great benefits for visitors in the form of a wide variety of landscapes. Lush green paddy patchworks, vertiginous mountain terracing, tea and coffee plantations, pepper and pineapple fields, salt pans, flood dykes and drainage canals: the ways in which the people have adapted the land to agriculture vie with the beauty of the natural landscapes for the photographers’ attention.
For a relatively small country, about the size of Italy, Vietnam’s geography is remarkably varied and complex. It has a sizeable mountain range in the northwest (an offshoot of the Himalayas), heavily forested uplands, extensive limestone scenery with several areas of mature ‘Karst’ landscape, an elevated central plateau, two large river deltas and thousands of offshore islands.
From a visitor’s point of view, such geographical diversity is part of Vietnam’s attraction. Icy mountain streams and boiling hot mineral springs, sheer cliffs to challenge even the best rock climber, deep caves and underground rivers, many unexplored, serene freshwater lakes, white sand beaches – Vietnam has all this, and much more.
Vietnam’s wide range of fauna, flora and marine species places it in the top ten countries for the variety of its bio-diversity. Large National Parks, forests and marine coastal zones are home to some of the most endangered species in the world, and are often unique to Vietnam. Elephants, tigers, rhinoceros, black bears, leopards, wild buffalo, primates, pythons and crocodiles are some of the larger species still living in remote areas.
Several of Vietnam's forests and wetlands are rich in birdlife, with many rare species.
Aquatic and semi-aquatic species include large pelagic fish and mammals, such as dolphins, sharks, rays and the occasional whale. Turtles and dugongs visit some of the more remote islands in the south. Corals and marginal plant species such as mangroves and sea-grasses can be seen in many locations.
Plant life varies from rhododendrons and deciduous trees in the mountainous north, cactus plants and pines in the dry central areas, dripping vines, exotic orchids and ancient trees in the primitive forests, and lush palms and fruits in the tropical south.
Vietnam is gradually being ‘tamed’. Flooding is being brought under control, remote areas are being opened up and its inhabitants provided with access to electricity and telephones. Virgin forests, mountain areas and caves are being surveyed and recorded. For the people who live in such areas, this is all to the good.
However, it's a slow process. It will be a very long time before Vietnam loses its unexplored, undeveloped and untamed qualities, and its considerable power to surprise, charm, challenge and excite its many visitors!