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Vietnam's principal physiographic features are the Annamese Cordillera (French: Chaîne Annamitique; Vietnamese: Nui Truong Son), extending from north to south in central Vietnam and dominating the interior, and two extensive alluvial deltas formed by the Red (Hong) River in the north and the Mekong (Cuu Long) River in the south. Between these two deltas is a long, relatively narrow coastal plain.
From north to south the uplands of northern Vietnam can be divided into two distinct regions--the region north of the Red River and the massif that extends south of the Red River into neighboring Laos. The Red River forms a deep, relatively wide valley that runs in a straight northwest-southeast direction for much of its course from the Chinese border to the edge of its delta. North of the Red River the relief is moderate, with the highest elevations occurring between the Red and Lo (Clear) rivers; there is a marked depression from Cao Bang to the sea. In the Red River delta and in the valleys of the region's other major rivers are found wide limestone terraces, extensive alluvial plains, and low hills. The northeast coast is dotted with hundreds of islands composed mostly of limestone.
Compared with the area north of the Red River, the vast massif extending southwest across Laos to the Mekong River is of considerably higher elevation. Among its outstanding topographic features is Fan Si Peak, which at 10,312 feet (3,143 metres) is the highest peak in Vietnam. South of the Black (Da) River are the Ta P'ing, Son La, and Moc Chau plateaus, which are separated by deep valleys.
In central Vietnam the Annamese Cordillera runs parallel to the coast, with several peaks rising to elevations of more than 6,000 feet. Several spurs jut into the South China Sea, forming sections of the coast isolated from one another. Communication across the central ranges is difficult. The southern portion of the Annamese Cordillera has two identifiable regions. One consists of plateaus of approximately 1,700 feet in elevation that have experienced little erosion, as in the Dac Lac Plateau near Buon Me Thuot. The second region is characterized by heavily eroded plateaus: in the vicinity of Pleiku, the Kontum Plateau is about 2,500 feet above sea level, and, in the Da Lat area, the Di Linh Plateau is about 4,900 feet.
Below the northern uplands is the Red River delta. Roughly triangular in shape, it extends some 150 miles inland and measures 75 miles along the Gulf of Tonkin. The delta can be divided into four subregions. The northwestern section has the highest and most broken terrain, and its extensive natural levees invite settlement despite frequent flooding. The low-lying eastern portion has benchmarks of less than seven feet above sea level in the vicinity of Bac Ninh. Rivers there form small valleys only slightly lower than the general surface level, and they are subject to flooding by the area's unusually high tides. The third and fourth subregions consist, respectively, of the poorly drained lowlands in the west and the coastal area, which is marked by the remains of former beach ridges left by the continuous expansion of the delta.
The Annamese Cordillera forms a drainage divide, with rivers to the east flowing to the South China Sea and those to the west to the Mekong River. South of the mountain range there is an identifiable terrace region that gives way to the Mekong River delta. The terrace region includes the alluvial plains along the Saigon and Dong Nai rivers. The lowlands of southern Vietnam are dominated by alluvial plains, the most extensive of which is the Mekong River delta, covering an area of 15,400 square miles in Vietnam. Smaller deltaic plains also occur along the south-central coast of the South China Sea
In northern Vietnam the heavy monsoonal rains wash away rich humus from the highlands, leaving slow-dissolving alumina and iron oxides that give the soil its characteristic reddish colour. The soils of the Red River delta vary: some are fertile and suitable to intense cultivation, while others lack soluble bases. Nonetheless, the delta soils are easily worked. The diking of the Red River to prevent flooding deprives the delta's rice fields of enriching silts, necessitating the use of chemical fertilizers.
There are some two dozen soil associations, but certain soil types predominate. Among these are red and yellow podzolic soils (i.e., soils that are heavily leached in their upper layers, with a resulting accumulation of materials in the lower layers), which occupy nearly half of the land area, and lateritic soils (reddish brown, leached tropical soils), which constitute about 10 percent. These soil types dominate the central highlands. Alluvial soils account for about one-fourth of the land in the south and are concentrated in the Mekong River delta, as are peat and muck soils. Gray podzolic soils are found in parts of the central highlands and in old terraces along the Mekong River, while regurs (rich black loams) and lateritic soils occur in both the central highlands and the terrace zone. Along the coast of central Vietnam are regosols (soft, undeveloped soils) and noncalcic brown soils.
The northern part of Vietnam is on the edge of the tropical climatic zone. During January, the coldest month of the year, Hanoi has a mean temperature of 63º F (17º C), while the annual average temperature is 74º F (23º C). Farther south, the average annual temperature in Hue is 77º F (25º C) and in Ho Chi Minh City is 81º F (27º C); in the highland city of Da Lat, it drops to 70º F (21º C). The winter season in northern Vietnam lasts from November to April; from early February to the end of March there is a persistent drizzling rain, and March and April sometimes are considered to be a transitional period. The summer in northern Vietnam lasts from April or May to October and is characterized by heat, heavy rain, and occasional typhoons. In central and southern Vietnam the southwest monsoon winds between June and November bring rains and occasional typhoons to the eastern slopes of the mountains and the lowland plains. Between December and April there is a drier period that is characterized by winds of the northeast monsoon and, in the south, by high temperatures.
The vegetation of Vietnam is rich and diversified, reflecting the great range of climate, topography, and soils and the varying effects of human habitation. The forests of Vietnam can be divided into two broad categories: evergreen forests, which include conifers, and deciduous forests. There are more than 1,500 species of woody plants in Vietnam, ranging from hardwoods such as ebony and teak to palms, mangroves, and bamboos. There also are numerous species of woody vines (lianas) and herbaceous plants. In the aggregate, the dense and open forests, savannas, brushland, and bamboo cover approximately half of the total area of Vietnam.
In most areas the forests are mixed, containing a great variety of species within a given area. Rain forests are relatively limited, and pure stands are few. The nearest to pure forest types are the pines--the three-needled Pinus khasya and the two-needled P. merkusii found in the uplands--and the mangrove forests of the coastal areas. In the mountainous regions are subtropical species from such genuses as Quercus, Castanopsis, Pinus, and Podocarpus. Brushwood, bamboo, weeds, and tall grasses invade logged areas and grow around settlements and along arterial highways and railroads. Between the logged areas and the upland forests are other mixtures of forest types.
A large part of the forest in the central highlands is dense and rich in broad-leaved evergreens and semievergreens, some of which produce valuable timbers. Some of this region still is composed of undisturbed (primary) forests. Other types of forests there include secondary forests; open forests, which typically have trees of the Dipterocarpaceae family and species from the genus Lagerstroemia (crape myrtle); mangrove forests; and barren lands of sand dunes with eucalyptus and small, thorny deciduous trees and species from the Casuarina genus of flowering plants. Cogon grass (Imperata cylindrica) is commonly found in the open forests, and savannas occupy large areas formerly covered by forests. Grass and sedge swamps are characteristic of the Thap Muoi Plain (Plain of Reeds), a depression in the Mekong River delta.
During the Vietnam War, herbicides were used by the U.S. Army to defoliate large areas of forest in southern Vietnam. Most of these forests have been regenerating, however, and resettlement programs and illegal logging appear to have created longer-lasting damage.
The most common domesticated animals in Vietnam are water buffalo, cattle, dogs, cats, pigs, goats, ducks, and chickens. Wild game in the central highlands includes elephants and tapirs; rhinoceroses once roamed there, but none have been seen since the early 1940s. Also found in the forests are large cats, including tigers, leopards, and ounces (snow leopards); several kinds of wild oxen, including gaurs and koupreys; and various types of bears, among them black bears and sun bears (honey bears). Deer are plentiful and include the small musk deer and barking deer. Other common wild animals are wild boars, porcupines, jackals, otters, mongooses, hares, skunks, and squirrels, including flying squirrels.
There are many different kinds of small wildcats and three types of civets--Malagasy civets, binturongs, and palm civets. Primates such as the langur, macaque, gibbon, and rhesus monkey live in the forests. Crocodiles are found on the edges of some lakes and along riverbanks; other reptiles include several kinds of lizards, pythons, and cobras. Of the wide variety of land and water birds, some 600 species have been identified in southern Vietnam alone.
Diverse cultural traditions, geographic variations, and historical events have created distinct traditional regions within the country. The general topographic dichotomy of highland and lowland regions also has ethnolinguistic significance: the lowlands generally have been occupied by ethnic Vietnamese, while the highlands have been the home of numerous smaller ethnic groups that differ culturally and linguistically from the Vietnamese. The highland peoples can be divided into the northern ethnic groups, with affinities to peoples in southern China, and the southern highland populations, with ties to the Mon-Khmer and Austronesian peoples of Cambodia, Indonesia, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. A north-south variation also evolved among the ethnic Vietnamese as they expanded southward from the Red River delta along the coastal plain and into the Mekong River delta. After the mid-19th century, Vietnam was divided by the French into Tonkin in the north, Annam in the center, and Cochinchina in the south. The Vietnamese themselves have long made a distinction between the northern region, with Hanoi as its cultural center; the central region, with the traditional royal capital of Hue; and the southern region, with Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) as its urban center.
There are several distinct rural settlement patterns in Vietnam. Especially in northern and central Vietnam, geomantic principles influenced the traditional internal orientation of houses and community buildings; in central Vietnam, buildings often faced the sea. In the densely populated Red River delta, villages often are tightly nucleated settlements, usually enclosed by a bamboo hedge or an earthen wall. Those along rivers, canals, or roads often abut each other, forming a single elongated settlement. Lowland Vietnamese villages on the central coastal plain are characteristically close-knit, small clusters of farmsteads near watercourses. Fishing villages often are situated in sheltered inlets. In the Mekong delta many settlements are strung out along waterways and roads; most are loose-knit clusters of farmsteads, with some farmsteads scattered about the rice fields. The pattern of settlements of the Cham and Khmer minorities closely resembles that of the Vietnamese. Most highland peoples build their houses on pilings.
Vietnam's traditional major cities are Hanoi, Hue, and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Throughout Vietnamese history the Hanoi area has been important and was the site of several early capitals. Hanoi also served as the French capital of Indochina from 1902 until 1954, and the city retains the architecture of that heritage. The city's port of Haiphong was developed by the French in the late 19th century as a trade and banking center. Hue was the seat of the Nguyen family, which controlled central and southern Vietnam from the late 17th to the late 19th century. Located on the Huong (Perfume) River, it was laid out in the early 19th century as a political and religious center, and its economic functions were ancillary. Saigon was built largely by the French in the second half of the 19th century as the administrative capital and principal port of Cochinchina. The city's architecture recalls towns and cities in southern France. The adjoining city of Cholon long has been a major center for ethnic Chinese.
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