Vietnam, a one-party Communist state, has one of south-east Asia's fastest-growing economies and has set its sights on becoming a developed nation by 2020.
It became a unified country once more in 1975 when the armed forces of the Communist north seized the south.
This followed three decades of bitter wars, in which the Communists fought first against the colonial power France, then against South Vietnam and its US backers. In its latter stages, the conflict held the attention of the world.
The US joined the hostilities in order to stem the "domino effect" of successive countries falling to Communism.
The jungle war produced heavy casualties on both sides, atrocities against civilians, and the indiscriminate destruction and contamination of much of the landscape.
A visit to Vietnam by US President Bill Clinton in November 2000 was presented as the culmination of American efforts to normalise relations with the former enemy.
Vietnam struggled to find its feet after unification and tried at first to organise the agricultural economy along strict collectivist lines.
But elements of market forces and private enterprise were introduced from the late 1980s and a stock exchange opened in 2000.
Foreign investment has grown and the US is Vietnam's main trading partner. In the cities, the consumer market is fuelled by the appetite of a young, middle class for electronic and luxury goods. After 12 years of negotiations the country joined the World Trade Organization in January 2007.
But the disparity in wealth between urban and rural Vietnam is wide and some Communist Party leaders worry that too much economic liberalisation will weaken their power base.
Vietnam has also struggled to restrain its trade and budget deficits. Its inflation rate reached double digits at the start of 2010 and approached 20 per cent by the end of 2011, as food prices doubled.
Despite pursuing economic reform, the ruling Communist Party shows little willingness to give up its monopoly on political power.
Vietnam has been accused of suppressing political dissent and religious freedom. Rights groups have singled out Hanoi's treatment of ethnic minority hill tribe people, collectively known as Montagnards.
* Full name: Socialist Republic of Vietnam
* Population: 89 million (UN, 2010)
* Capital: Hanoi
* Largest city: Ho Chi Minh City
* Area: 329,247 sq km (127,123 sq miles)
* Major language: Vietnamese
* Major religion: Buddhism
* Life expectancy: 73 years (men), 77 years (women) (UN)
* Monetary unit: 1 dong = 100 xu
* Main exports: Petroleum, rice, coffee, clothing, fish
* GNI per capita: US $2,760 (World Bank, 2010)
* Internet domain: .vn
* International dialling code: +84
Parliament confirmed the Communist Party's nomination of Nguyen Minh Triet, the party chief in Ho Chi Minh City, as president in June 2006. He was reconfirmed in the office in January 2011.
A native of that city, and therefore a rare southerner in the Communist leadership, he acquired a reputation for fighting corruption as local party chief especially in the case of gangster Nam Cam.
He is seen as an advocate of continuing economic reform.
Secretary-general of the Communist Party: Nguyen Phu Trong
The Communist Party holds the real power in Vietnam. It appointed Nguyen Phu Trong as its secretary-general in January 2011, replacing Nong Duc Manh, who retired after 10 years in the post.
He took over as Vietnam faced mounting economic problems, including rising inflation, a growing trade deficit and a weakening currency.
For the previous five years Mr Nguyen had been head of the National Assembly, using the post to raise the profile of the parliament, traditionally a rubber-stamp body. Born in 1944, he also previously served the Communist Party's chief political theorist.
Mr Nguyen is seen as a conservative, and as favouring close ties with China.
Analyst say he was promoted as a compromise candidate and is expected to play the role of consensus-builder rather than drive policy.
Mr Nguyen's predecessor, Nong Duc Manh, was seen as a moderniser, and sought to speed up economic reforms and to tackle bureaucracy and deep-rooted corruption.
The Communist Party leadership recommends candidates for the posts of president and prime minister.
From : BBC News