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 , Correspondent

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

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.

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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

Driving in a jeep left over from the war, Okuley cruises down newly paved streets flooded with vehicles filled with young people to whom the war is as remote as it is to most Americans. These days, the cars are edging out the motorcycles on widening avenues and new bridges across the Saigon River – and, in the delta to the south, across the branches of the Mekong as well.

“About 65 percent of the population is under 30,” says Okuley, echoing government statistics. “The only connection they have with the war is through one of their relatives. These kids, the majority of them, have no interest. Their interest is making money and helping their families.”

Okuley prefers to take advantage of all the country has to offer without dwelling much on its tragic past.

“People in the South were living off sweet potatoes and rice,” he says, harking back to when he was here as an airman more than 40 years ago. “When the government puts up a sign that says, '35 years of peace and prosperity’ since 1975, people say, ‘Why rock the boat?’ This generation essentially is a pretty happy bunch.”

Okuley has a special reason to be happy. While in the United States, he met his wife, Nicole, whose family had fled the North Vietnamese port city of Haiphong after the communist victory over the French in 1954.

Born in South Vietnam in 1963, the family, including six sisters, fled again, this time in 1968 after the offensive in early February during the Tet holiday. They ended up in Paris but moved 12 years later to Alexandria, Va.

Nicole had a lot to do with setting up the exercise center, called Nutri-Fort, which opened in shining new facilities in December 2008 and is now a magnet for foreigners as well as well-to-do Vietnamese.

Growing number of visitors

In 2000, Vietnam issued 150,000 visas for people in the United States to visit, according to Mark Sidel, a law professor at the University of Iowa. In 2007, the English-language newspaper Viet Nam News cited the official number of expats in Ho Chih Minh City alone at 50,000, and projected that 100,000 expatriates would be living in the southern metropolis by 2008.

For Okuley, the numbers add up to more clients for his center while certain nuisances diminish. “There was a time, they were asking for a handout,” he says. “If you’re doing everything correctly, there’s no need to participate in bribery.”

A travel-guide writer, Tom Harack, stopping by to chat, is amazed by the profusion of golf courses – and construction of luxury hotels. “It’s weird to think there would be two golf courses in Danang,” he says after visiting the central coast city where US Marines once had their headquarters.

“The biggest business in Vietnam is tourism,” says Okuley. “High-end residential stuff is exploding.” He likes to ask visitors their favorite country. “It’s crazy,” he says. “Without exception people include Vietnam as one of their favorite places.”

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