Viet Nam is located on the Indochina peninsula in Southeast Asia. It has a long land border of 4,550 km, bordering China to the North, Laos and Cambodia to the West, and Eastern Sea (South China Sea) of Pacific Ocean to the East. On the map, Viet Nam is an S-shaped strip of land, stretching from 23°23’ to 8°27’ North latitude. The country’s total length is 1,650 km from the northernmost point to the southernmost point. Its width, from the Eastern coast to the Western border, is about 500 km at the widest part and about 50 km at the narrowest part.
The country’s diverse topography consists of hills, mountains, deltas, coastline and continental shelf, reflecting the long history of geology and topography formation in a monsoon, humid climate and strong weather exposure. The topography is lower from the Northwest to the Southeast, which can be clearly observed in the flows of major rivers.
Three quarters of Viet Nam’s territory are made up of low mountains and hilly regions. Regions with elevation lower than 1,000 meters above sea level make up 85% of the territory. Mountainous regions over 2,000 meters above sea level account for only 1%. Hills and mountain ranges form a large bow, 1,400 km in length from the Northwest to the Southeast, heading towards the Eastern Sea. The highest mountain ranges are all located in the West and Northwest with the peak of Fansipan (3,143 meters), the highest in Indochina. Nearer to the Eastern Sea, the mountain ranges lower and usually end with a coastal strip of lowland. From Hai Van Pass to the South, the topography is simpler. Long limestone mountain ranges are replaced by large granite mountains followed by a vast plateau known as the Central Highlands behind Truong Son Range to the East.
Only one-fourth of the Vietnamese territory is covered by deltas, separated into regions by mountains and hills. There are two major deltas with fertile arable land in Viet Nam, the 16,700 sq km Red River Delta, locally known as the Northern Delta, and the 40,000 sq km Mekong River Delta, or the Southern Delta. Between these two major deltas is a chain of small and narrow deltas along the Central coast from the Ma River basin in Thanh Hoa Province to Phan Thiet with the total area of 15,000 sq km.
Viet Nam faces the Eastern Sea to the East and the Gulf of Thailand to the South and Southwest. The country has a long coastline of 3,260 km running from Mong Cai in the North to Ha Tien in the Southwest. Viet Nam’s territorial waters in the Eastern Sea extend to the East and Southeast, including the continental shelf, islands and archipelagoes. There is a group of around 3,000 islets belonging to Viet Nam in the Tonkin Gulf, including Ha Long Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay, Cat Hai, Cat Ba and Bach Long Vi Island. Farther in the Eastern Sea are Hoang Sa Archipelago (Paracel Islands) and Truong Sa Archipelago (Spratly Islands). To the West and the Southwest, there are groups of islands including Con Son, Phu Quoc and Tho Chu.
Viet Nam is located in the tropical zone. Its climate is characterized by high temperature and humidity all year round. The Northern part, under the impact of the Chinese mainland, has more or less mainland climate. In addition, the Eastern Sea greatly affects the country’s tropical monsoon climate. As the monsoon climate does not spread evenly, there are different regions with different climates all over the Vietnamese territory. Viet Nam’s climate changes by seasons and by regions from the lowland to the highland, from North to South and from East to West. Given the strong influence of the Northeast monsoon, the average temperature in Viet Nam is lower than that of many other Asian countries of the same latitude.
There are two major climate regions in Viet Nam: (1) Northern Viet Nam (from Hai Van Pass northwards) has a highly humid tropical monsoon climate with four distinguishable seasons (spring, summer, autumn and winter) and is influenced by the Northeast and Southeast monsoon. (2) Southern Viet Nam (from Hai Van Pass southwards) has a rather moderate tropical climate given the weak influence of monsoon and is characterized by dry and rainy seasons and warm weather all year round.
In addition, given its topographical structure, Viet Nam also has some sub-climate regions including temperate climate regions, such as Sa Pa (Lao Cai Province) and Da Lat (Lam Dong Province), and mainland climate regions, such as Lai Chau and Son La, all of which are ideal places for tourism.
The average temperature in Viet Nam varies between 21°C and 27°C and gradually increases from the North to the South. In the summer, the average temperature is 25°C (Hanoi 23°C, Hue 25°C, Ho Chi Minh City 26°C). In the winter, the temperature in the North reaches the lowest in December and January. In Northern mountainous regions like Sa Pa, Tam Dao and Hoang Lien Son, the temperature sometimes reaches 0°C with snow.
Viet Nam has a considerable amount of solar radiation with the number of sunny hours varying between 1,400 and 3,000 per year. The annual average rainfall stands between 1,500 mm and 2,000 mm. Air humidity is around 80%. Given the influence of monsoon and complex topography, Viet Nam is prone to natural disasters like typhoons, floods and droughts.
Viet Nam has a dense network of rivers and streams (2,360 rivers longer than 10 km), flowing in two main directions: Northwest-Southeast and bow shape. The Red River and the Mekong River, the two largest rivers in Viet Nam, create two vast and fertile deltas. Each year, the rivers and streams are supplied with 310 billion cubic meters of water. The water supply for rivers and streams depends on the flood and drought seasons. 70%-80% of the annual water volume is provided in the flood season.
Land, Flora and Fauna:
Viet Nam’s soil is diverse with high fertility, thus providing favorable conditions for the development of agriculture and forestry. Viet Nam is also endowed with abundant and diverse flora of around 14,600 plant species. Viet Nam’s flora is mainly covered by tropical forests with plants and trees adapted to strong sunlight, high temperature and humidity.
The fauna in Viet Nam is also abundant and diverse with various precious species listed in the World Red Book. 275 species of mammals, 800 species of birds, 180 species of reptiles, 80 species of amphibians, 2,400 species of fish and 5,000 species of insects have been identified so far. (Dense forests, limestone mountain forests, and multi-canopied forests provide habitat to different species of monkey, languor, gibbon and wild cat. Vietnamese typical languor species include white-headed languor, delacours languor and black languor. Likewise, there are valuable bird species like pheasant and pheinardia ocellata. The high mountains in the North have many wild furred animals like selenarto, small bear, big black squirrel, fox, otter and civet).
There are national parks of high bio-diversity such as Hoang Lien Son National Park (Fansipan Mountain area, Lao Cai Province), Cat Ba National Park (Quang Ninh Province), Cuc Phuong National Park (Ninh Binh Province), Pu Mat National Park and Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park (Quang Binh Province), Bach Ma National Park (Thua Thien Hue Province), Con Dao National Park (Con Son Island in Ba Ria – Vung Tau Province), and Cat Tien National Park (Dong Nai Province), etc. These parks are ideal places for Vietnamese and foreign scientists to conduct research and also eco-tourism attractions. Additionally, UNESCO designates 8 World Biosphere Reserves in Viet Nam, including Can Gio, Cat Tien, Cat Ba, Red River Delta, Cu Lao Cham, Mui Ca Mau, etc.
People and Language
With 85,789,573 people (as of 1 April 2009), Viet Nam ranks 13th among the most populous countries in the world. 30% live in urban areas and 70% in rural areas. People aged 15 to 60 account for 60% of the country’s population. Total work force in all economic sectors is around 45 million people (2008 figure). Ho Chi Minh City (7.1 million people) and Ha Noi (6.44 million people) are the most populous cities. Given urbanization trend, urban population is expected to rapidly grow in the coming years.
Viet Nam has over 8 million people aged over 60 or 9.45% of the total population. Average life expectancy is 73 and tends to increase due to improved living conditions and healthcare.
Viet Nam is a multi-ethnic country with 54 ethnic groups coexisting peacefully, among which Kinh people account for 86% of the population. Among ethnic minorities, the most populous are Tay, Nung, Thai, Muong, and Khmer with population of around 1 million people, while the least populous are Brau and Odu with several hundred people. Kinh people spread out all over the country but mainly inhabit in the lowland and river deltas. They are the owner of the wet rice civilization. The majority of the other 53 ethnic groups are scattered over mountainous areas and the midland from the North to the South. Most ethnic minorities coexist in the same regions, particularly ones in Northern and Northern Central region.
Ethnic minorities have uneven development levels. In the Northern midland and mountainous regions, ethnic groups like Muong, Thai, Tay, and Nung engage in paddy farming techniques, grow upland rice and raise cattle and poultry. Some go hunting and collecting while others make rather sophisticated traditional handicrafts. Ethnic minorities in the South are more secluded. Except for the Cham, Hoa and Khmer people living in the Central and Southern coast with higher development level, most Central Highlands ethnic minorities inhabit in clusters of hamlets and are self-sufficient, living mainly on nature. All ethnic groups have their own unique cultures. Their beliefs and religions are also diverse.
The Vietnamese government pursues a policy of equal development rights for ethnic groups in all aspects. That policy is to link economic growth with social welfare, improve material and spiritual life, reduce poverty and enhance education, and preserve and promote cultural identities and fine traditions of all ethnic groups in Viet Nam.
In addition to their unique cultures, 54 ethnic groups in Viet Nam have different languages. 24 ethnic groups have their own scripts, including Thai, H’Mong, Tay, Nung, Khmer, Gia Rai, Ede, Hoa and Cham, etc; some are used in school.
The Vietnamese language has been selected as the common language for all ethnic groups in Viet Nam. It is the universal language, an instrument to transfer knowledge in Viet Nam’s education system from pre-school to higher education, and a means of communication and state management for all ethnic groups in Viet Nam.
The Vietnamese script today has its origin dated back to the 17th century when a group of European missionaries, most notably Alexandre de Rhodes, introduced in Viet Nam a system of Latin-based script. Since then, the Vietnamese script has evolved into a complete writing system and become the official script of Viet Nam since the early 20th century.
Religion and Belief
Viet Nam is a multi-religion and multi-belief country. The Vietnamese people have a time-honored tradition of practicing their beliefs. Different ethnic groups in Viet Nam have different beliefs linked to their own economic and spiritual life.
With the perception that every object has a soul, since the ancient time, the Vietnamese people have worshiped a large number of gods, especially those related to agriculture such as sun, moon, land, mountain, river and forest, etc. Each ethnic minority in Viet Nam has its own way of practicing its traditional beliefs, most noticeably those maintained by some ethnic groups such as Tay-Thai, Hmong-Dao, Hoa-San Diu-Ngai, Cham-Ede-Gia Rai, Mon-Khmer.
In addition, the most popular and time-honored custom of the Vietnamese people, including some ethnic minorities, is ancestor worship and commemoration of death anniversaries. Every Vietnamese family has an altar to worship their ancestors and attaches importance to the commemoration of death anniversaries of the predecessors. Beside ancestor worship in each family and each clan, many villages have a communal house or a temple to worship the Village Deity. The custom of worshiping the Village Deity is a unique feature of Vietnamese villages. The Village Deity worshiped in the village’s temple and communal house can be a god or an outstanding figure that rendered great service such as the forefather of a traditional handicraft or a national hero who greatly contributed to the cause of national building and fighting foreign invaders. The Vietnamese people also worship other gods like the Kitchen God and God of the Soil.
Viet Nam has six major religions, namely Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Muslim, Caodaism and Hoa Hao Buddhism.
Buddhism: Buddhism was first introduced in Viet Nam in the early years A.D. From the 10th to the 15th century, Buddhism developed rapidly in Viet Nam after Viet Nam had gained independence. Buddhism reached its extreme popularity under the Ly-Tran Dynasty (from the early 11th century to the late 14th century). King Tran Nhan Tong was the founder of the unique Truc Lam Yen Tu School of Zen, characterized by creativity, harmony and integration. Theravada Buddhism was first introduced in southern Viet Nam in the 4th century. Most Theravada Buddhist followers are Khmer people living in the Mekong Delta, thus called Khmer Theravada Buddhism. At present, there are 10 million Buddhist followers, 17,000 pagodas, 40,000 Buddhist monks, and 36 schools for Buddhism training in Viet Nam.
Catholicism: Historians believe that Catholicism was first introduced in Viet Nam in 1533. From 1533 to 1614, priests of Portuguese Order of St.Francis and Spanish Order of Preachers accompanied merchant ships to Viet Nam. From 1615 to 1665, priests of Portuguese Society of Jesus entered Viet Nam from Macau (China), both in Dang Trong (south of Gianh River) and Dang Ngoai (north of Gianh River). At present, Viet Nam Catholic Church has 26 dioceses, 6 million followers, 6,270 churches, 19,000 dignitaries, 6 grand seminaries, and 2 training schools.
Protestantism: Protestantism was first introduced in Viet Nam in the late 19th and early 20th century by the Christian and Missionary Alliance – CMA, later than other religions. 1911 is recognized as the beginning year when Protestantism was introduced into Viet Nam. At present, there are over one million Protestants, 500 dignitaries, 300 Protestant churches, and 01 biblical theology institute in Viet Nam.
Muslim: In Viet Nam, Muslim followers are mostly Cham people. According to historical records, the Cham were first introduced to Muslim in the 10th and 11th century. There are two schools of Muslim in Viet Nam: the older one (Cham Ba Ni) with followers in Binh Thuan and Ninh Thuan Provinces; and the newer one (Cham Islam) with followers in Chau Doc (An Giang Province), Ho Chi Minh City, Tay Ninh and Dong Nai Province. At present, there are 79 mosques, 72,000 Muslim followers and 700 dignitaries in Viet Nam.
Caodaism: Caodaism is an indigenous religion, officially established in Go Ken Pagoda, Tay Ninh Province in mid November 1926. At present, there are 2.4 million Cao Dai followers, 31,700 dignitaries and over 100 churches in Viet Nam.
Hoa Hao Buddhism: Hoa Hao Buddhism is another indigenous religion created by Huynh Phu So on July 4th May 1939 in Hoa Hao Village, An Giang Province. At present, there are 1.3 million Hoa Hao Buddhist followers, over 1,700 monks and 1,200 pagodas in Viet Nam.
Freedom of Belief and Religion: The right to freedom of belief and religion of all Vietnamese citizens is provided by the Constitution and ensured in practice. Article 70 of the Vietnamese 1992 Constitution stipulates: “Citizens have the right to freedom of belief and religion, and may practice or not practice any religion. All religions are equal before the law. Public places of religious worship are protected by law. No one has the right to infringe on the freedom of belief and religion or to take advantage of the latter to violate State laws and policies.”
The right to freedom of belief and religion is reflected in various legal documents. The Ordinance on Belief and Religion coming into force on 15 November 2004 has institutionalized state guidelines and policies on belief and religion and ensured the exercise of the right to freedom of belief and religion. All citizens, regardless of their belief and religion, are equal before the law, entitled to follow or not to follow a religion, entitled to express their beliefs, exercise worship rituals, pray and participate in religious activities and in the study of religious theories and ethics. All religious organizations are equal before the law. The State guarantees the right to freedom of belief and religion, protection of the facilities and assets of religious establishments such as pagodas, churches, mosques, oratories, sanctuaries, temples and headquarters of religious organizations, religious schools, bibles and worshiping objects. On 1 March 2005, the Government issued Decree 22/2005/ND-CP guiding the implementation of the Ordinance on Belief and Religion.
Religious Practice: At present, there are about 20 million followers of 12 religions and 30 religious organizations recognized by the State, 83,368 dignitaries and monks, 25,331 religious establishments and many traditional worshiping places in Viet Nam.
Religious followers are free to practice religious ceremonies, express and exercise their religious beliefs. Religious dignitaries and monks are free to exercise religious activities in accordance with religious rules. The ordainment, appointment and reshuffle of dignitaries are carried out in accordance with church rules. Over the last years, religious organizations recognized by the State have developed in the number of establishments, followers, dignitaries, monks, worshiping places, prayer book publications and activities provided by its charter, statute, rules and laws. Dignitaries and monks enjoy the right to study and train at home or abroad, and participate in religious activities abroad. Many foreign religious organizations have come to Viet Nam for exchanges with local religious organizations.
Viet Nam successfully hosted the United Nations Day for Vesak 2008 from 13 May to 17 May 2008 in Ha Noi. Vesak Day was participated by almost 4,000 official delegates, including around 2,000 foreign delegates from 74 countries and territories and over 200 overseas Vietnamese delegates. Viet Nam will host the 6th World Buddhist Summit in 2010 in Ha Noi.
Religious Publications: The printing of prayer books and other religious publications are conducted regularly to meet the demand of religious activities in Viet Nam. In 2008, Religion Publishing House published 1,768,000 copies of 613 books and 297,200 copies of other 251 religious publications. Religious organizations also have their own publications like Buddhism Research Magazine, Giac Ngo Newspaper (Buddhism); Hiep Thong Review, Vietnamese Catholic Newspaper, Catholicism and the Nation Newspaper (Catholicism); Huong Sen Review (Hoa Hao Buddhism); Pastoral Bulletin and Spiritual Communication Bulletin (Protestantism).