If there were a single photograph that encapsulated Vietnam's remarkable economic renaissance, it would show an aerial view of Ho Chi Minh City's harbor. The capital city (which locals still refer to as Saigon) sits astride the Saigon River, some 50 miles inland from the South China Sea. Nearly all of Vietnam's exports and imports come through this deep-water riverway, and it's already filled to capacity.

With container traffic growing at 20 percent per year, cargo ships often have to wait for a space among the limited berths. To reduce congestion, the country is developing four new additional port projects, the first of which is opening sometime next year.

So, besides fish, what's in all those shipping containers? Many of those leaving the port are carrying rice. Vietnam is the world's second-largest exporter of rice (the predominant crop in nearly every region) and this year possibly the largest single producer of cashew nuts. The country also exports significant amounts of pepper, coffee, tea, clothing, furniture, oil, rubber, and high-tech products.

"China tends to flood markets with [lower-end] goods, your dollar-store variety, if you will. Vietnam has focused more on niche areas that tend to be on the higher end," says Robert K. Brigham, a Vietnam scholar and a professor of history and international relations at Vassar College.

"Ford, General Electric, Nike, and other big U.S. manufacturing concerns have joined European and Japanese and South Korean companies in making Vietnam a high-end, high-tech manufacturer," Brigham adds. "Some of the more advanced technology plants in Asia are now in Vietnam."

One such plant, currently under construction at Saigon Hi-Tech Park, north of Ho Chi Minh City, is destined to be a whopper. Intel has announced that it's investing $1 billion in the new 500,000-square-foot test-and-assembly chip facility, which will eventually employ 4,000 people. Canon Electronics has embraced Vietnam, too, and has built three manufacturing plants there, including the world's largest ink-jet printer factory, capable of producing four million printers a month.

All of this seems even more astonishing when you realize that in 1990, Vietnam was ranked one of the poorest countries in the world.

Following the end of the Vietnam War, the nation's economy basically collapsed. Food and even bicycles were rationed. A government program to collectivize farms and factories limped along for the next 10 years but suffered from a variety of problems that ranged from corruption to economic restrictions and embargoes. Onetime Vietnam-based journalist David Lamb has called the period of 1975 to 1985 the dark years, a time of widespread famine, when Vietnam was basically shut off from the rest of the world.