After the end of the American War in 1975, Vietnam was hidden from the world for about 20 years. Opening up began in the mid-80s and at the beginning of 2007, Vietnam became the 150th full member of the World Trade Organization.
A remarkable 32-year-journey that has reminded the world, the Vietnamese people are resilient, determined and proud. There's always a flip-side and they can also be stubborn, too proud to accept external influences and very traditional in thinking and practices. Being traditional is a positive factor for tourism, but a negative one when engaging with the modern, international business world.
Work by the Government of Vietnam isn't completed yet, the recent meeting between the prime minister and the Pope at the Vatican was one of the most significant events. It goes a long way to counter accusations, especially from the American conservative right, that Vietnam practices religious intolerance. If Vietnam is to be appointed as Asia's representative to the United Nations Security Council in 2008, the Vietnamese Government and people can be very proud.
My involvement with Vietnam began in 1994, when I first visited this mysterious country. Having lived and worked in Vietnam for the past five years,
I can say that I have a good understanding of the psyche. There are parts of Vietnam that will always remain a mystery to a foreigner, even if they've married a Vietnamese lady.
It's a country with which I have a love-hate relationship and reminds me of my early days in Hong Kong, the city where I was born and lived for 30 years. I'm not sure how long I'll live in Vietnam, but at least for the next 10 years.
The new slogan adopted by the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT) - 'Vietnam - The Hidden Charm' is very apt. During my travels all over Vietnam to look for locations to establish hotels, I've found that there are hidden charms in every part of the
country and in the people, one just has to find them.
Emerging onto the world stage hasn't been an easy task. It's been necessary to change attitudes and ways of doing things. Whilst some of these transformations have been successful, there's room for improvement. Vietnam will be judged now, on how it implements the requirements of the global trading club and how it presents itself to the international community.
The investment-protection guarantees required of WTO members and recent anti-foreign investment signals from Thailand will accelerate FDI flows away from other Southeast Asian countries toward Vietnam. Vietnam's comparatively cheap, but industrious, labour is also attractive.
Investment into tourism has been strong in the past and recent announcements by global players, such as Intercontinental and Kingdom, to establish their brand in Vietnam is further encouragement. There's no doubt that tourism could be a key economic driver, perhaps the most important driver.
Vietnam's tourism sector has attracted 190 foreign-invested projects with total registered capital of $4.64bil and the sector currently employs more than 234,000 people directly and 510,000 indirectly, according to official statistics.
Tourist arrivals have grown on average 20% per year over the past 15 years, shooting up from 250,000 in 1990 to 3.6mil last year. Some industry analysts optimistically estimate tourist arrivals will double to 8mil by 2010.
Although long popular on the backpacker trail, Vietnam is aiming to cater for higher-spending travelers. Compared with regional neighbours such as Thailand, Vietnam's tourism infrastructure is still antiquated but many travelers prefer Vietnam's less commercialised, mass-market experience. The challenge will be striking a balance between preserving old-world charms while introducing more modern creature comforts.
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), in the APEC region, tourism and travel accounts for more than 100mil jobs.
By 2010, it's expected to increase by more than 25%, creating an additional 30mil new jobs. WTTC forecasts that one-quarter of international visitors will visit the region and one-third of global visitor expenditure will be spent regionally.
Vietnam has the opportunity to grab a major slice of the action because it's a new destination. The traveling public has already visited Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia and they are looking for the next Phuket, Langkawi or Bali. Vietnam has a number of resort locations that could, with foreign investment and know-how, be 'the next destination'.
Because of historical and cultural reasons, Vietnam is not as advanced or open as its regional competitors. Tourists like to visit a country to see its landscape, the people and to experience the culture and food. The more unique offerings that a country has, increases its appeal and Vietnam has a lot to offer.
In order for Vietnam to benefit from tourism, it needs to compete with its regional neighbours. A five-year plan announced by the VNAT aims for 10 to 20% annual growth in foreign arrivals to more than six million in 2010 and doubling tourism revenues to $5bil in 2010. The government said it would spend $7.6mil from its state budget on the five-year programme.
I doubt how VNAT can effectively carry out their plans with such a modest fund, when the amount allocated is what Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia would probably spend in one year.
Vietnam is competing on the world stage and if the government wants to make tourism a 'key driver', they need to invest the dollars now, not after they get income from the tourists.
Karl D John is chief executive officer of the TCK Group, a Vietnam-based investment consulting group. He has more than a decade of involvement with Vietnam and lives in Hanoi.