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Americans flock to do business in Vietnam - Asia's next economic tiger?

American Jim Okuley is one of many who have recently opened a business in Vietnam not far from where Viet Cong guerrillas once fired rockets.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / October 6, 2010

A vendor carries baskets of seafood while walking in the sea from a fishing port in Cam Pha, in Vietnam's northeast Quang Ninh Province, 124 miles from Hanoi, Sept. 21.



Ho Chi Mihn, City, Vietnam

Jim Okuley has seen Vietnam in war and peace, and he says times have never been better than now.

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Mr. Okuley, one of thousands of American businessmen searching for opportunity in the new Vietnam, views this nation through the prism of the Vietnam War – and the recent renaissance of free enterprise in a socialist society. He mingles memories old and new from an elaborate exercise center that he and his Vietnamese wife opened in a district where guerrillas once fired rockets into the downtown of old Saigon.

Foreign businessmen are increasingly coming to Vietnam, setting up offices and factories, playing on the golf courses, hitting the beaches, and dining at great but inexpensive restaurants. During the first nine months of this year, the number of foreign visitors to Vietnam increased 34.2 percent over the same period in 2009, according to the General Statistics Office of Vietnam.

Foreign investment is following. In an industrial zone north of Ho Chi Mihn City, Intel is investing $1 billion in a plant that includes a testing facility and an assembly line spewing out semiconductors.

Read up: Asia's next economic tiger? Hint, it's not China or India

War time

“My involvement with Vietnam goes back to when I got drafted and joined the Air Force to avoid going to Vietnam,” says Okuley, relaxing in a small restaurant in one corner of his establishment. “The first place they sent me was Vietnam.”

A crew chief on a C130 transport plane, Okuley was 19 when he got to Vietnam, but he had one advantage over most other lonely and apprehensive GIs.

Okuley’s older brother, Bert, was running the Saigon bureau of United Press International. In between flights in and out of Tansonnhut Air Base on the northern edge of the city, Jim would drop by to see Bert. The Melody Bar next door to the newspaper was a favorite hangout as military vehicles vied with motorbikes and small, French-built taxicabs on nearby Tu Do, the fabled avenue of bars, shops, and restaurants running to the Saigon River.

The war was still raging when Okuley left in 1971. His brother stayed on for another few years to cover the fall of the US-backed regime before moving to Hong Kong, where he later passed away. Jim pursued college in Michigan, his native state, and a law degree in California before returning in 2002 to a city and a country fast outgrowing its tragic past.

Kids these days