Vietnam and the Mercator projection

OK, I will begin with confession time. I knew of the movement against the Mercator projection due to the fact that it distorts the size of countries the further you get from the equator (the Mercator’s chief advantage being that it keeps longitudes and latitude lines straight, but I always assumed that no one actually used it as a basis to compare areas when travelling around the world (I know, I know), as I personally would rely on physical distances between point A and point B and maps of just the region when I travel. Well, this assumption was all shattered a few years ago when I met a Portuguese guy travelling through Vietnam who complained that he couldn’t cross the entire country quickly in one week; when I told him that travel speeds are most likely much lower in Vietnam, he told me he had taken that into account and thought that the length of Vietnam was similar to the length of Portugal. This is actually very far from the case – from Viana do Castelo (near the Spanish border) to Faro (on the southern coast of Portugal) is 622 km (386 miles) by road; by comparison, from Lang Son (near the Chinese border, but not the northernmost point) to Ca Mau (near the southern tip of Vietnam) is 2154 km (1338 miles) by road; a 3.5-fold difference. So I will add to the endless Internet posts already in existence comparing country sizes and show the true size of Vietnam superimposed on various regions around the world.

To start, this is Vietnam on a Mercator projection; the area of Vietnam is 331,213 km2 (127,882 mi2), which makes it the 66th largest country in the world, between Finland and Malaysia, but is very long and narrow.

As I will be matching the distance between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), which is 1723 km (1071 miles), here is a map of Vietnam showing the relative locations of the two cities.

I’ll start with Europe, as Europe is further from the equator and is more distorted; for comparison’s sake, Vietnam is similar in size to Finland or Germany.

Here, you can see that the distance between Hanoi and Saigon is similar to that from Rome to Berlin, and the difference in length compared to Portugal is apparent. If you shift Vietnam further west, you can see that Hanoi and Saigon also approximate London and Barcelona.

Shifting to the US, the state with the closest area to Vietnam is New Mexico; however, as Vietnam is long and narrow, distances are much greater between the two ends of the country. Here’s Vietnam on the West Coast of the US.

In this case, Hanoi and Saigon approximate Portland, OR and Los Angeles, CA (or maybe closer to San Luis Obispo). Vietnam superimposed on the Eastern US also gives similarly interesting results.

Here, Hanoi to Saigon is just short of Chicago to New Orleans. If you shift the map northward to Canada and match Saigon to Toronto, Hanoi will be in the middle of Hudson Bay.

Onward to Australia, which isn’t all that distorted on a Mercator projection in the grand scheme of things, Hanoi to Saigon stretches from Melbourne all the way up into Queensland.

Compared to New Zealand, Hanoi to Saigon is similar to Auckland to Invercargill.

Compared to Korea and Japan, Hanoi to Saigon would map to Vladivostok to Fukuoka.

Of course, even though Vietnam is long and narrow, it is still but a dwarf compared to the champion, Chile, where Hanoi to Saigon is only Antofagasta to Santiago.

And last but not least, no Mercator projection comparison is complete without Greenland. Surprise, surprise, Vietnam is still tiny compared to Greenland.

All that to say, I take back my scepticism of the significance of the importance of people judging countries’ sizes based on Mercator projection maps, and hope that these comparison will help both foreigners and Vietnamese get a sense of the relative size of Vietnam.

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