Listed as one of the Next Eleven countries to watch for investment opportunities and accepted into the World Trade Organization, Vietnam has been dubbed the New Asian Tiger. But can it live up to the world's expectations?
It's a three-hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City to the catfish-farming area of the Mekong Delta. As you leave the city, the urban topography falls away and is replaced by a lush green landscape dotted with workers in rice fields who are wearing the familiar conical hats.
Vietnam is still a Communist country, one of a handful remaining in the world. And so, along the road, loudspeakers blare a series of motivational messages.
"'Everyone needs to rise up and be productive and be for the betterment of the Vietnamese country,'" repeats Tom Frese. "It's like a pep rally every day."
An aquaculture consultant based in Florida, Frese came here to observe Vietnam's ancient business of raising fish - because it's changing the way the world eats seafood.
"Vietnam's aquaculture went from essentially zero in the 1950s to its current production, which is 1.15 billion metric tons," says Frese. "It's been on a steady climb, and it's expected to grow." Recent figures say Vietnam fisheries now export more than $2 billion worth of goods, destined for 65 countries. It's now the nation's third-largest industry.
Most aquaculture farms raise fish in giant standing ponds, but the Vietnamese have cultivated a unique and ingenious method: The fish are grown in cages beneath floating homes on the Mekong River. These dual-purpose structures are stationed up and down the river, with one person living inside each home and managing the fish 24 hours a day.
The Mekong's strong current and the volume of water that flushes through the cages allow farmers to put more fish inside each cage and to group the floating homes close together, so that they're almost like little villages. "It's also one of the reasons why the Vietnam catfish has a pretty good flavor," explains Frese. "You don't get the off-flavor of pond-raised fish."
When the fish reach an acceptable size, fishermen haul them onto a boat and head toward a processing plant. Certain species are shipped fresh; the rest are frozen and exported across the ocean. A plate of fish and chips at a pub in London may well have had its beginnings in a floating fish cage in the Mekong Delta.
It's not just the fish that's putting Vietnam back on the global map, though. The country has experienced an extraordinary surge in international trade, affecting everything from product exports to the construction of new factories. Gross domestic product growth has nearly doubled every decade in the past 20 years, and it consistently hovers at about 8 percent - the second highest in the world, behind China. Goldman Sachs has listed Vietnam among its Next Eleven countries to watch for investment potential. And in late 2006, the New Asian Tiger was accepted into the World Trade Organization, guaranteeing the nation a solid financial foundation for the future.