Vanuatu - a string of more than 80 islands once known as the New Hebrides - achieved independence from France and Britain in 1980.
Most of the islands are inhabited; some have active volcanoes.
Vanuatu is mountainous and much of it is covered with tropical rainforests. Like most of the area, it is prone to earthquakes and tidal waves. In 2015 it was hit by Cyclone Pam which caused widespread damage.
Most of the people live in rural areas and practise subsistence agriculture.
Local traditions are strong. Women, for example, generally have lower social standing than men and have fewer educational opportunities.
The island of Pentecost is home to land diving, a precursor to bungee jumping, which is still practised.
Republic of Vanuatu
Area 12,190 sq km (4,707 sq miles)
Major languages Bislama, French, English
Major religions Christianity
Life expectancy 70 years (men), 74 years (women)
President: Tallis Obed Moses
Tallis Obed Moses was sworn in in July 2017 after being chosen by parliament.
He succeeded Baldwin Lonsdale, who died in office.
Mr Moses, aged 63 at the time of his swearing-in, is a long-serving pastor and former leader of the Presbyterian Church in Vanuatu.
The presidency is considered to be a mainly ceremonial post.
The single TV channel on Vanuatu was established with the help of Radio France Overseas (RFO) and broadcasts in French and English.
Some key events in Vanuatu's history:
550BC - First inhabited by Melanesian people.
1606 - Explorer Pedro Fernandez de Quiros leads an expedition to the islands naming them Terra Austrialis del Espiritu Santo.
1774 - British explorer Captain Cook charts the islands calling them the New Hebrides.
1800s - Thousands of ni-Vanuatu are kidnapped and forced to work on sugar and cotton plantations in Fiji and Australia in a practice known as "blackbirding".
1906 - Britain and France make the country a Condominium, under joint administration.
1938 - Emergence of the John Frum cargo cult. Believers say goods owned by American and European visitors to the island are really meant for them but are intercepted by the foreigners. They believe that their ancestors will one day return with "cargo" for them. The British outlaw any mention of John Frum.
1956 - John Frum is recognised as a religion by the Anglo-French Condominium.
1980 - Independence.
2015 - Cyclone Pam causes widespread devastation.