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Vietnam Overview

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A Vietnam cruise offers a look into a diverse country, in terms of wildlife, landscape, climate, cuisine, and culture. From the northern mountain regions to the central highlands to the deltas along the vast coast, Vietnam is a country of color and beauty. Wildcats and small primates make their homes in the forests, while crocodiles swim the rivers. The monsoon seasons bring vast amounts of rain, making much of the country lush and green.

Vietnam has a long history of conquest and independence, and thus a long history of mixed influences from Chinese to Western. From 111 B.C. to 938 A.D. Vietnam was under Chinese control, but the Vietnamese gained sovereignty from the Chinese at last and have enjoyed nearly a millennium of independence. The French invaded the country in the latter half of the 19th century, and only relinquished control in 1954. But it took nearly two more decades and long years of war for Vietnam to become truly autonomous once again. Vietnam is currently a Communist state, though it has implemented necessary economic reforms in recent years, and is also allowing for a growing private sector.

The country is home to over 84 million people, with an increasing number migrating from north to south, from highland to lowland, and from rural to urban centers. Hanoi, the capital city, is located along the Red River in the north, while Ho Chi Minh City along the Mekong River delta in the south is Vietnam’s main cultural and economic center. During your Vietnam cruise, be sure to include a visit to Ho Chi Mihn. A tour of Ho Chi Minh City offers a source of myriad delights, from the sweet southern food to the theatre and opera productions.

Many of the peoples of the central highlands retain their indigenous cultures; many still live in tight-woven clans. The men and women engage in creating their local handicrafts, from intricately woven baskets and handmade blankets to the unique clothing of each different clan. Be sure to sample the local cuisine during your tour of Vietnam. The food is unique from region to region—Northern, Central, and Southern cuisines all have distinct flavors.

The Ancient History of Vietnam

Before you begin your Vietnam tour, learning a bit more about the history of the location can help enhance your experience within the country. Vietnam’s ancient history begins with a legend of sorts, that tells the tale of the origins of the Vietnamese people. Legend states that the Vietnamese people came to be when a Chinese divinity, King De Minh, wooed an immortal mountain fairy; their union produced Kinh Duong, who in turn married the daughter of the Dragon Lord of the Sea. Their son, Lac Long Quan, is considered to be the first king of Vietnam. He married Au Co, a Chinese immortal, to keep peace between the two countries, and their son was the founder of the first Vietnamese dynasty, the Hung dynasty. The descendants of the immortals peopled the country, then called Van Lang, from the pristine beauty of the high northern peaks to the plateaus of the central highlands, to the verdant, spreading river valleys and the unbroken stretches of shoreline curving along the sinuous length of the country.

Vietnamese legend goes on to tell that the Hung dynasty lasted through 18 rulers, who each ruled for 150 years. The final Hung king was conquered around 258 B.C. by Thuc Phan, who annexed Van Lang to his own kingdom and ruled it until 207 B.C. This new country was then conquered by a neighboring warrior, a Chinese named Trieu Da. Trieu Da severed his ties with China, named his kingdom Nam Viet, and ruled his non-Chinese empire autonomously. In 111 B.C., nearly a century later, the Chinese overthrew Trieu Da’s successors and began a millennium-long reign of present-day Vietnam.

To solidify their control over the conquered country, the Chinese built roads, harbors, and waterways. They brought in ways to improve agriculture, from irrigation methods to better tools. While for the first few centuries the Chinese political rule was somewhat laissez-faire, by the first century A.D. the Chinese began to force their conquered people to become in all things Chinese—language, customs, fashion. As you will certainly witness during your Vietnam tour, the local people hold their traditions sacred. With the Chinese influence pressuring to overtake the Vietnamese culture, several rebellions sprang up over the centuries, but none were ever able to overthrow the rock-solid Chinese rule. None, that is, until the uprisings led by Ngo Quyen in the early 10th century which led to Vietnamese independence in 939 A.D.

For the next millennium, the Vietnamese people enjoyed independence and the subsequent development of their own unique culture. During this time Vietnam had several struggles against Chinese imperialism, but China was never again able to conquer a people who had become very protective of their culture, their way of life, and their autonomy. The Vietnamese did some conquering of their own between the 15th and 18th centuries, spreading their territory southward to access the rich lands of the river deltas. A Vietnam tour will likely include a visit to the region once known as Saigon (present-day Ho Chi Minh City). This region was conquered around 1700, and the land around it soon followed; save for the Soc Trang province, the Vietnam you tour today had established its current borders by 1757.

Once Vietnamese territory had spread to the south, divisions between the two halves of this narrow country were inevitable. Hanoi, the capital, was located in the north, but the northern rulers often had difficulty controlling the southern half of the country. The first division occurred in the mid-16th century, while the second, longer division began around 1620. At this time, the Nguyen family, who had long governed the southern provinces, rebelled against the Trinh family, who governed from northern Hanoi. The rift between north and south was open for nearly 200 years, lasting through military campaigns, a 100-year truce, and in the late 18th century, 30 years of chaos, revolution, and civil war. In 1802, with the help of the French military, Nguyen Anh (a southern ruler) finally defeated the northerners and set up himself as emperor of a once-again united Vietnam.

However, the French were not content merely to help the Vietnamese. Napoleon III decided to invade Vietnam in 1857—France decided she needed a bigger share in overseas colonialism, and though the Vietnamese resisted fiercely, the French conquered the country, province by province. By 1867, several southern territories were under French rule, and the area was named Cochinchina. By 1883 the French had reached Hanoi and the Red River delta, and both north and central Vietnam became French protectorates. The French rule, over the following decades, kept civil liberties only in the hands of the French—and far from the Vietnamese population. On the same scale, the French were exclusively involved in industry and business, which kept a middle-class Vietnamese population from developing.

Discover Local Culture on a Vietnam Trip

Despite long years of foreign occupation, Vietnam has developed a rich and unique culture, a combination of historical Chinese and modern Western influences. Eighty-six percent of Vietnam’s 84 million people are ethnically Kinh (or Viet), while other ethnicities such as Tay, Thai, Muong, Khome, Hoa, Nun, and Hmong make up the other fourteen percent. During your Vietnam trip you are likely to hear a variety of languages and dialects. While the official language is Vietnamese (kinh), the country’s many ethnic minorities speak dozens of different languages. English is becoming an increasingly popular second language, along with Chinese, French, and Russian and several mountain-area languages.

Many of the ethnic groups that make their home in the central highlands and mountains still live very traditional lifestyles, with kin groups and small communities as a central focus. Vietnamese culture tends to value clan over family, though most clan members are related by blood. In rural areas, a clan will often live together in one house, with three or four generations sometimes sharing one dwelling.

The indigenous people of the central highlands also produce lovely folk art. Hardwood from the forests is carved into crossbows and figures. The men weave baskets and mats, while the women weave blankets and clothing. Each Vietnamese ethnic group has a unique style of clothing; when you tour the area you will likely notice that many people still wear the traditional clothing of their area on special occasions such as festivals. Most traditional wear has been replaced by Western clothing for daily use. One exception is the ao dai, perhaps the most well-known Vietnamese costume, which is a long gown with a slit on either side, worn over flowing silk pants. Ao dai has become something of a national symbol, and you will see it throughout the country during a trip to Vietnam. It is mandatory in many high schools, some colleges, and for women in certain jobs (such as secretaries and tour guides) as well.

Vietnam’s literary history has seen several shifts. Up to the 13th century, Vietnamese poetry was written in Chinese, but 200 years later a uniquely Vietnamese script was developed. The most famous piece of Vietnamese literature is the long narrative poem Kim Van Kieu (The Tale of Kieu) by Nguyen Du, written in the 18th century. Today, Vietnamese literature is written in the romanticized script developed by Portuguese missionaries. Theatre is also popular in the country, and a unique experience to enjoy during a Vietnam trip. Satirical musical comedies, called cai luong, are often performed, as are modern plays. Some groups perform traditional Chinese opera, traditional operettas, or Vietnamese water puppetry, which takes place on a pool or pond.

Though more than two-thirds of the population does not claim a religion, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism have long had their impacts on the philosophies and belief systems of the Vietnamese people. Over the years these religions were simplified and twisted together to form a Vietnamese folk religion—Tam Giáo—that was shared by most of the population. Christianity also had its influence following the introduction of Roman Catholicism in the 1500s and Protestantism in the early 1900s. All foreign clergy were forced to leave Vietnam after North Vietnam conquered the South, leaving only native priests and pastors. The current constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but that freedom in reality is slow in coming.

Vietnam’s Distinct Environment

Vietnam’s long, narrow shape encompasses a variety of climates, landforms, and geological features. The variety of landscapes provides for a corresponding diversity of plant and animal life. About half the country is covered with forests, savannahs, and bamboo. Most of the forests are made up of a combination of evergreen and deciduous trees, though there are a few small areas of rain forest and coastal mangrove forest. On a Vietnam tour you will likely notice that the central highlands are home to valuable evergreens and semi-evergreens, some of which are undisturbed old-growth trees. When forests are logged, plants like bamboo, other tall grasses, and weeds spring up in the open space, and quite often former forest land becomes grassy savannah. In the Mekong River delta in the south, grass and sedge swamps are common.

Besides the abundant forests, Vietnam’s natural resources include minerals such as phosphates, coal, manganese, bauxite, chromate, tin, iron ore, gold, zinc, and offshore oil and gas deposits in the South China Sea; the many rivers also make the country a good source of hydropower. Agriculturally, Vietnam’s climate is suited to such crops as rice, coffee, tea, rubber, corn, cassava, cotton, pepper, soybeans, cashews, peanuts, and sugar cane. During a Vietnam tour you are also likely to see orchards of bananas, mangos, and oranges growing, while the South China Sea also makes the country a rich source of fish and other seafood such as shrimp, squid, crab, and lobster.

Environmental issues that are of current concern in Vietnam include deforestation, some of which dates back to the U.S. herbicide use during the Vietnam War, but most of which has been caused by resettlement programs, logging, and slash-and-burn agricultural practices. While forests covered 43% of the land surface in 1943, that percentage has now dropped to less than 30%, and in the Mekong River delta, forest cover dropped from 23% in 1943 to a mere five percent today.

Taste What a Vietnam Tour has to Offer!

As in many other Southeast Asian countries, rice is a staple in Vietnamese cooking. The food of Vietnam combines influences from China and other nearby countries. Some quintessential dishes to sample during a Vietnam tour include noodle soup with beef or chicken broth, spring rolls, and a special fermented fish sauce used for dipping and seasoning. The most basic meals consist of white rice combined with various vegetables, fish, meat, and spicy sauces. Fruit is also a common addition to meals—during your trip try some of Vietnam’s unique varieties that include jujube, pomelo, three-seed cherry, and green dragon fruit.

Just as the geography of Vietnam is divided into three distinct areas, so is its cuisine: North, Central, and South. The Northern cuisine is quite complicated, with many steps required to prepare each meal, from eel soup to sizzling fried fish. Southern cuisine uses a variety of vegetables, fish, and other seafood. Sweet flavors from coconut milk, pineapple, and lemongrass also make up southern flavors. Central cuisine is perhaps most distinct. It is far spicier than either Northern or Southern foods, and is extremely colorful as well.

Vietnamese cooking generally uses basic ingredients—beef, chicken, or fish—but some delicacies require exotic meats such as dog, turtle, and snake. Vietnam provides a myriad of possibilities for the adventurous eater to taste during their tour of the country.

Geographical Discover on a Vietnam Tour

Vietnam is a narrow, comma-shaped country that curves around Laos and Cambodia on the west, borders China in the north, and laps against the waters of the South China Sea on the east and south. Vietnam has a land area of 329,560 sq. km, making it approximately the size of New Mexico. The land slopes from hills and mountains in the northwest to low, spreading deltas along the north and south coasts, with central highlands between. Despite its more than 2,000 miles of coastline, three-fourths of the country consists of mountains and hilly regions. Fan Si Pan, near the Chinese border, is the highest mountain at 3,144 meters, while the lowest point is the coastline of the South China Sea (at 0 meters). A favorite visit for many travelers on a tour of this region is the Mekong River. The river is the 12th longest in the world, and meanders through southeast Asia to meet the sea at Vietnam’s southernmost tip.

Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital and home to 3 million people, is located in the north on the bank of the Red River. Ho Chi Minh City (formerly called Saigon), however, is the largest metropolitan area, and many consider it to be the ‘heart and soul’ of the country and a popular destination for travelers during their Vietnam tour; it is Vietnam’s New York, with its 6 million people, economic power, and cultural vivacity. It is located in the south, near the beautiful Mekong River delta.

Vietnam’s Modern History

Vietnam travel allows a close look at the modern history of the country and its influence on the present day. The Vietnamese people resisted French colonialism from its inception, but it was not until the 20th century that they were successful in regaining their independence. After World War I the Vietnamese people tried to collaborate with the French, but were unable to obtain any political concessions. This failure spurred on underground revolutionary groups, including the Indochinese Communist Party begun by Ho Chi Minh, an exiled revolutionary. During World War II, Japan invaded Vietnam and occupied the country. Once the war was over, France attempted to reestablish its power, but the Vietnamese were equally determined to establish their independence. While France had control of the south, the Communists had seized power in the north, and from 1946 to 1954 the Vietnamese fought to gain the real independence they had declared in September of 1945. In 1954, France finally admitted defeat and signed the Geneva Accords, which provided for a cease-fire.

The Geneva Accords also divided the country into two zones at the 17th parallel—the Communist North and the non-Communist South. The North was supported by China and the Soviet Union, while the South was supported by the United States, who provided the financial support to build up Southern military and security forces. But many Vietnamese longed for a reunited country, and in 1963 the communist-led forces—the Viet Cong—attempted to overthrow the Southern government. This insurgency was the catalyst to increased U.S. involvement: In early 1965 the U.S. began bombing North Vietnam, beginning the Vietnam War. U.S. troops would pour into the South a month later. Many who travel to Vietnam today are easily reminded of this recent war and the political implications it had, not only in Vietnam, but in the United States as well. By 1968 more than 500,000 American troops had been deployed in Vietnam, despite widespread opposition to the war.

The three long years of bombing and fighting seemed to strengthen rather than weaken the resolve of the Viet Cong and their allies, whose power became particularly evident during the Tet Offensive of January 1968. President Johnson restricted bombing in the North, and negotiations between the U.S. and Hanoi began. Five years later, in January of 1973, a peace treaty was finally signed by the U.S. and the Vietnamese parties. U.S. troops pulled out in March, but the fighting between Northern and Southern Vietnamese troops did not halt until 1975, when the North defeated the South and entered Saigon. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam was officially declared on July 2, 1976.

Vietnam’s first years as a united and independent nation were full of unrest and political upheaval. The new government formed alliances with Laos and Cambodia; Vietnam’s involvement in Cambodia resulted in an invasion of that country and the installation of a pro-Vietnamese government. China reacted violently to Vietnam’s actions, invading Vietnam and destroying towns along the border in early 1979. The United States and most other Western countries expressed their disapproval of Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia through a strict trade embargo. In 1986 the Vietnamese government responded to outside and inside pressures and implemented a number of reforms in an attempt to improve the economy. This new policy was called “doi moi” (renovation). The U.S. lifted the trade embargo in 1994, and diplomatic relations between the two nations were re-established in 1995. Vietnam travel today offers a new look at the country. In recent years, the Vietnamese government has reiterated its commitment to restructuring economic policies and moving into the international sphere; Vietnam hopes to become a member of the WTO in 2006.

Vietnam Politics: What You Should Know Before You Travel

Vietnam is a one-party state ruled by the Communist Party of Vietnam. The Party was founded in the 1920s by Ho Chi Minh and other Vietnamese exiles living in China. Over the next few decades the Party went through various names and restructuring, and came to its current nomenclature in 1976 after the end of the Vietnam War. The Communist Party of Vietnam holds to a Marxist-Leninist and Ho Chi Minh ideology, though in recent years it has moved toward market reforms in the economy (doi moi) and has allowed a place for a private sector.

The Politburo determines government policy and is the supreme leading body, and is headed by the Secretary-General. The 14-member Politburo is elected by the 160-member Central Committee, which is in turn elected by the National Congress. The National Congress is held in Hanoi every five years, with the 10th and most recent Congress held in April of 2006. If you are planning your Vietnam travel soon, today’s leader is Nong Duc Manh. He the current Secretary-General; he was elected in 2001 and has just been re-elected for his second term.

The Weather in Vietnam

In order to get the best out of your Vietnam cruise, be sure you are familiar with the local weather and the best seasons to travel. Due to the narrow length of the country, Vietnam’s weather varies greatly from one area to another. When one part of the country is too hot or too humid or too dry, another part is certain to be lovely and pleasant. Two monsoon seasons influence Vietnam’s climate. The winter monsoon, between October and March, comes from the northeast, and brings rain and cold to the north while providing warmth and dryness in the south. The summer monsoon, between April and October, sweeps in from the southwest, bringing warm wet weather and heavy rainfall to most of the country, save the areas protected by mountains. Typhoon season is between July and November, and these storms generally affect northern and central Vietnam.

Temperatures are generally hot and humid, often averaging in the high 80s, but the northwest highlands can be much cooler than other areas of the country, with temperatures sometimes dropping below freezing. The coastal areas tend to cool down by January, making it a prime month for a pleasant cruise. Rainfall averages between 45 and 120 inches per year.

Wildlife Discovery on a Vietnam Cruise

From the elephants and tapirs that roam the central highlands to the crocodiles that lurk in lakes and rivers, Vietnam is home to a great diversity of wildlife. The forests are home to tigers, snow leopards, black bears, sun bears, various species of deer and wild oxen, and small creatures like porcupines, otters, mongooses, skunks, and flying squirrels. Many varieties of small wildcats and civets also live in Vietnamese forests, along with primates such as langurs, macaques, gibbons, and rhesus monkeys. Reptiles like lizards, pythons, and cobras can also be found in Vietnam, along with a fantastic number of bird species. If you have the time to do a little birding during your Vietnam cruise, the country offers over 600 species of land and water birds found in just the southern part of Vietnam. Domesticated animals include water buffalo, cattle, pigs, goats, ducks, chickens, dogs, and cats.

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Scenic rice field in Vietnam


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