Hear it roar: Vietnam's economy keeps churning

Since 1989, only China and Equitorial Guinea have grown faster. This year, Vietnam may finally become a WTO member.

Tran Anh Tuan, a Soviet-trained engineer turned entrepreneur, knows how it feels to hit a brick wall.

After losing his job at a state-owned construction company in the early 1990s, he decided to make his own way in Vietnam's "socialist-oriented market economy." With two partners and $7,000 in savings, Mr. Tuan founded an advertising company.

At first, he found few takers. Knocking on hundreds of doors and being told Vietnamese companies had no need to advertise "felt like taking a cold bath," he recalls.

But foreign firms taking their first steps needed their brands on billboards, so Tuan began printing posters and leasing space. Suddenly, advertising was hot, and everyone wanted in.

"Even if you're going bust, you need to advertise to show you're still functioning," says Tuan, whose business is now worth $2 million. "This is a market economy."

Fueled by local entrepreneurship, reformist policies, and foreign capital, Vietnam's economy has roared:

• In the past decade, incomes have almost doubled and poverty rates have fallen below 20 percent.

• A trade agreement with the US has boosted two-way trade to $7.6 billion in 2005 from $5.9 billion in 2003.

• And since 1989, only China and oil-rich Equatorial Guinea have grown faster than Vietnam. Last year alone, its economy expanded by 8.4 percent.

Joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) would quicken that pace by allowing in more foreign competitors and tightening laws to protect investors. US trade negotiators emerged upbeat from bilateral talks last week in Hanoi on WTO membership, raising hopes that Vietnam may join in 2006 after 10 years of trying.

However, Vietnamese officials say they are being asked to make more concessions than China offered when it joined in 2001.

Observers say that China's failure to protect intellectual property - as evidenced by its thriving counterfeit industry - has made European and US trade negotiators leery of accepting Vietnam for WTO membership, since piracy is also rife here.

"It's unfortunate, really, but the bar keeps getting raised for those at the back of the queue to join (the WTO)," acknowledges a senior Western diplomat.

Unions are illegal; strikes unreported

In addition, a series of wildcat strikes this month at foreign-owned factories in southern Vietnam has rattled investors and raised concerns of further unrest. The unofficial strikes, which at their peak involved tens of thousands of workers at dozens of factories, mostly ended after the government raised the minimum wage by nearly 40 percent, effective Feb. 1.

In the Song Than industrial zone, a low-rise sprawl of mostly Taiwanese factories about 9 miles from the colonial villas of Ho Chi Minh City, the unrest spread quickly as workers dropped tools and joined angry protests. Some smashed windows and attacked machines, spurred on by ringleaders who distributed handwritten messages urging action against low pay and poor conditions, say factory owners.

"People are wondering what's going on and what's next. We want the Vietnam government to do whatever they can to stop this, or it could escalate," says John Hsu, a Taiwanese businessman who runs a jeans factory at Song Than.

Independent worker unions are illegal in China and Vietnam, and strikes are rarely reported in the media. Some observers were surprised by the failure of authorities to suppress the strikes - police on the scene stood by idly.

Tensions between haves and have-nots

As in neighboring China, the rush to embrace capitalism has created tensions over labor conditions in foreign-owned factories and corruption by government and party officials. How Vietnam handles these flash points in the next few years will be crucial to its social stability, say officials, but most argue the ruling Communist Party is unlikely to reverse recent reforms.

"Vietnam won't turn back. It will continue to reform. The problem is the pace ... we're at a more difficult stage now," says Vo Tri Thanh, an economist at the Ministry of Planning and Investment.

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