Things began to brighten economically in the mid-1980s as the Communist blocs throughout Europe began to crumble.

"There is no doubt that Vietnam's current economic growth is attributed to changes made at the 1986 Sixth Party Congress of the Communist Party," says Brigham. "At that meeting, party officials agreed to liberalize Vietnam's economy through a series of reforms known as doi moi, or renovation. They established liberal rules for trade and investment, [which opened] Vietnam up to the outside world."

In a reversal of policy, Vietnam's Communist government encouraged private ownership within industries, agriculture, and commerce. President Clinton lifted the United States embargo in 1994, and the following year, two decades after the fall of Saigon, a new era of normalized relations began between the two nations.

In 1995, Vietnam took another step forward by joining the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a group that promotes economic growth, cultural progress, and peace and stability in the region.

"The fact that Vietnam is part of the ASEAN network is very important," says W.J. Morgan, a University of Nottingham professor and the UNESCO chair of the Political Economy of Education. Morgan also attributes the economic boom to the changing demographic of the Vietnamese people.

"There's a good level of basic education among the population - a young and vigorous population of which a high percentage is under age 25. Many Vietnamese [speak] English and other European languages."

Of this eager, young workforce, rooted in tradition yet impatient for the future, an estimated 1.5 million enter the job market every year. When a national stock market debuted in 2000, the floodgates of investing opened not just for other nations but also for the Vietnamese themselves, who sit in Internet cafés and trade stocks online.

As with any emerging economy that has a population willing to pursue a capitalistic lifestyle, Vietnam has reached the next logical step in development: a growing middle class. Although the average income is still less than $700 a year, more and more people now have money to spend.

The streets of Ho Chi Minh City are filled with waves of motorcycles, luxury items that were once unattainable to everyone but the wealthy. Shopping malls boast the latest from Gucci and Prada. Club kids gather in swanky hotel bars, guzzling $7 cocktails and talking on cell phones. The Hanoi Sofitel Plaza Hotel hosts Vietnam Fashion Week each year, during which models parade the latest couture designs of raw silk, which cost the equivalent of hundreds of U.S. dollars.