Vietnam is a long, narrow country located on the eastern side of the Indochinese peninsula, in southeast Asia. China lies to the north, Laos to the west and Cambodia to the southwest. Vietnam's eastern coastline curves from the northeast to southwest for more than 1,600 kilometres along the South China Sea.
Vietnam consists of three distinct regions: the north, the centre and the south. The north and south are river deltas where a great deal of rice is grown; the centre is a thin strip of mangrove swamp and highland forest. Most of the country is mountainous or hilly, with the highest peak being Fansipan (3,143 metres) in the northwest.
The northern region contains the Red River Delta (Song Coi), the most densely populated agricultural area in the world. The lowlands are used for rice farming, while the mountainous, tree-covered regions are mined for coal, iron and other minerals. The highlands in the northwest are covered with forest. The national capital, Hanoi, is located in the north; many northerners find government and military employment.
Central Vietnam consists of a narrow coastal strip that rises to the Truong Son mountains. Covered with dense rainforests, these mountains are home to many rare plants and animals. This most sparsely populated area of Vietnam is home to ethnic groups collectively called the Montagnards.
In the south lies the Mekong Delta, known for its lush green rice paddies. The fertile soil makes it easy to grow a variety of foods here. Areas not cultivated for agriculture are covered with palm trees, grass and mangrove, a short tree that grows along the coast and near other waterways. South Vietnam has been the country's economic powerhouse and is home to the city of Ho Chi Minh Ville (formerly Saigon).
Vietnam's varied terrain is home to rich wildlife, though animal population has been declining rapidly due to deforestation, destructive agricultural practices and hunting. The government has introduced programs to protect the remaining forest and animals such as the elephant, rhinoceros, tiger, crocodile and black bear; however, the programs have been only moderately successful.
Although Vietnam lies in a tropical zone, the north is affected by Siberian weather patterns. Winter temperatures can drop to almost freezing in alpine regions and hover around 16°C in Hanoi. Summers are generally hot everywhere, averaging 27°C in the south. Each area of the country experiences a rainy season and is vulnerable to monsoons.