Vietnam, in Southeast Asia, stretches 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) north to south, but is only about 40 kilometers (25 miles) wide at its narrowest point near the country's center. The Red River delta lowlands in the north are separated from the huge Mekong Delta in the south by long, narrow coastal plains backed by the forested Annam highlands. Hanoi, the capital, is the main city on the Red River and Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, is the main city on the Mekong.
Independent for almost a thousand years, Vietnam fell prey to French colonialism in the mid-19th century. During Japanese occupation in World War II, communist leader Ho Chi Minh formed the Vietminh, an alliance of communist and noncommunist nationalist groups. Armed struggle won independence in 1954 and led to the partition of Vietnam.
For two decades noncommunist South Vietnam, aided by the U.S., fought North Vietnam, backed by China and the Soviet Union. American troops withdrew in 1973, and two years later South Vietnam fell. In 1976 the country was reunified under a communist regime.
To replace support lost when the U.S.S.R. dissolved, economic policy encouraged a free-market system as well as trade with the West. Vietnam saw dramatic economic progress throughout most of the 1990s. In 1995 the U.S. resumed diplomatic relations. Economic growth stalled, however, with the Asian financial crisis. A stock exchange was launched in 2000, and Vietnam has seen increasing levels of foreign investment.1