Originally Vietnam was virtually covered in forest, from vast mangrove swamps fringing the coast to dense rainforest in the mountainous regions. Over millennia the forests have progressively been pushed back: first by the gradual clearing of land for the cultivation of rice and other crops, and then by a rapidly expanding population and the ravages of war.
Much has been said about the human and economic devastation wrought by the American War, but it was also the most intensive attempt to destroy a country's natural environment - 'ecocide' (see the 'Ecocide' boxed text in the Around Ho Chi Minh City chapter). US forces sprayed 72 million litres of herbicides, known as Agents Orange, White and Blue (after the colour of the canisters they came in), over 16% of South Vietnam to destroy natural cover for Viet Cong (VC) troops.
Although the scars of war can still be seen and much of the damage is irreversible, re-forestation programs have been implemented and today the landscape is showing signs of recovery. Natural forests at higher elevations, such as in the north-west, feature wild rhododendrons, dwarf bamboo and many varieties of orchids; the central coast is drier and features stands of pines; while the river deltas support mangrove forests, which are valuable nurseries for fish and crustaceans as well as feeding sites for many bird species.
Rare and little-known birds previously thought to be extinct are turning up and no doubt more wait, particularly in the extensive forests of the Lao border region. For example, Edwards' pheasant, a species previously thought to be extinct in the wild, was recently rediscovered; other rare and endangered species recently spotted by scientific expeditions include the white-winged wood duck and white-shouldered ibis.
Even a casual visitor will notice a few birds: swallows and swifts flying over fields and along watercourses; flocks of finches at roadsides and in paddies; and bulbuls and mynas in gardens and patches of forest. Vietnam is on the East Asian Flyway and is an important stopover for migratory waders en route from Siberian breeding grounds to their Australian winter quarters. A coastal reserve has been established at the Red River mouth for the protection of these birds, including rare species such as the spoon-billed sandpiper and Nordmann's greenshank. Zoologists have recently seen previously unknown species of large mammals in Vietnam. In 1992 John MacKinnon, who was working for the World Wildlife Fund (now the World Wide Fund for Nature) sighted a large ox at Vu Quang in northern Vietnam. This ox was only the fourth large land mammal to be discovered in the 20th century. In 1994 a hitherto unknown species of muntjac deer was seen near the same site. It is believed that both animals occur in border areas with Laos and Cambodia, from Nghe An to Dak Lak.
The scientific and conservation interest of these recent discoveries has not been lost on authorities, and the Vietnam government recently expanded the reserve from 16,000 to 60,000 hectares and banned logging within its boundaries. Scientists are only beginning to catalogue the country's flora and fauna visitors are most likely to encounter macaques, rhesus monkey and tree squirrels - however, as research continues, more rare and previously undocumented species should be discovered.