High mountains, flat plains and most other landforms in between
Vietnam is mainly hills and densely forested mountains. Most of its population lives on the 20% that is level ground: 40% of its 331,688 square kilometres is mountainous, and the remaining 40% is hills. Approximately 25% of land is under cultivation.
Once, forests covered 75% of our country, but deforestation by the US Army during the war reduced that figure to 23% in 1980. A programme to replace 5m hectares was launched in 1998 - so far, about 0.6m ha have been reforested.
Topographically, Vietnam has five main land regions. The North consists of the Northern Highlands and the Red River Delta, and the South is made up of the Annamite Mountain Range, the Coastal Lowlands, and the Mekong Delta.
The Northern Highlands
The towering peaks of the northwest mountains are, geologically speaking, very recent. An eastern extension of the Himalayas, the Hoang Lien Son range was created about a hundred million years ago.
Three peaks dominate Sapa, a small town perched high in the mountains - Lung Cung (2,918m), Pu Luong (2,985m) and Vietnam’s highest mountain, Mt. Fansipan (3,143m). Amateurs can scale all three, but it's a gruelling three-day trek to Fansipan’s summit, requiring high levels of fitness and plenty of stamina.
The northwest area is rocky, mountainous terrain. Much of it is inaccessible, but that which can be reached is often spectacularly beautiful. There are many rivers, including the intermediate levels of the Red River and its major tributary, the Black River: lakes, both natural and reservoirs, waterfalls and caves are abundant. These features, and the presence of many different ethnic minority groups, make it desirable area to visit.
The north-eastern mountains are lower and mainly composed of limestone. At its western extremity, it borders on the Red River Delta, and with China to the north and east. It is more remote and less visited that the northwest. Consequently, the ethnic groups living in the mountains along the border are unaccustomed to meeting tourists.
The Red River Delta
The wide fertile plain of the Red River Delta has been the favoured entry point for invaders the North over the centuries. To the south, separated by a narrow coastal plain and an archipelago of rocky 'karst' limestone islands, lies the Gulf of Tonkin and the East Sea. The coastline is mostly muddy in the delta area and rocky around Ha Long, but there are a few reasonable beaches, such as those on Cat Ba Island, near Hai Phong, and at Tra Co, close to Mong Cai and the Chinese border.
There are several other areas of karst limestone in the north central area of Vietnam, notably in Tam Coc and Hoa Lu, and the area further south inland Dong Hoi that contains the remarkable Phong Nha Caves. Not yet fully explored, Phong Nha extends over at least 35km of underground passages: during June, 2003, the caves and the area around them became Vietnam’s fifth World Heritage Area.
The Coastal Lowlands
The northern extremity of the coastal lowland area is marked by granite mountains carrying the Hai Van Pass that descends to Danang. Also in the Danang area are the famous Marble Mountains, a further example of karst limestone formations. South of Danang, the usable area is a strip of flat land of varying width running the length of thecoast, broken only by a mountainous area around Nha Trang and ending at the northern edge of the Mekong Delta.
Most of central Vietnam’s population lives on the coastal lowlands in towns and villages linked by the railway and Highway 1.
The Annamite Range
Further inland, the Annamite Cordilleras is a ridge of mountains running north to south rising to heights of around 1,500m in places. Behind the peaks is Giai Truong Son, a series of plateaux at elevations between 500 and 750m with red, highly fertile volcanic soil.
The plateaux extend Dak Lak Lake 400km northwards to Dak To. The highland area is long, thin and very varied in its climate, topography, history and ethnicity. It shares a border with Laos and, further south, with Cambodia. The largest centre of population is the mountain town of Dalat.
The Mekong Delta
The extreme south of Vietnam is a plain stretching south-east to the vast Mekong Delta. Almost the entire area is near sea-level, but there are outcrops of limestone karst formations in and around Ha Tien, close to the border with Cambodia, and limestone islands near the coast. Further away in the Gulf of Thailand, Phu Quoc is a large granite island with a mountainous forested area to the north.