Vietnam's founding myth tells of a sea dragon, Lac Long Quan, who fell in love with the mountain fairy Au Co. Together the pair had one hundred sons, half of whom followed their father to the coast and half of whom joined their mother in the highlands. These magical children are held as the forefathers of the Vietnamese people.

This myth holds a clue to Vietnam's landscape and cultural identity. A long, skinny country curled around the South China Sea, Vietnam has 3,450km of coastline and a central spine of mountains, including the highest peak in mainland Southeast Asia, Mount Fansipan.

Vietnam's shape is often compared to two rice baskets on a shoulder pole. The narrow band of lowland deserts and steep mountains in the centre give way to broad expanses of river deltas in the north and south. Having begun its journey in Tibet, the Mekong River divides into nine tributaries in Vietnam's Mekong Delta, giving this fertile region its Vietnamese name of Cuu Long, or 'Nine Dragons'. The northern Red River Delta, meanwhile, is the cradle of Vietnamese culture, and villages in this area retain their traditional architecture and traditions.

Visitors are astonished by the Vietnam's geographic diversity. You'll find remote mountain markets frequented by ethnic minority peoples, vibrant cafes and art galleries in the cities, serene views of emerald paddy fields in the lowlands, and endless stretches of unspoilt beaches.

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