The nouveau riche head for a four-star resort at the Mui Ne beach, nicknamed the Hamptons of Vietnam. Children are now enrolling in international schools that formerly catered only to expatriates. Families shop for groceries in bulk at supermarket chains owned by French and German companies. Cemeteries are boasting larger and more elaborate monuments atop graves. And a guaranteed indicator of affluence: Sales of ice cream continue to grow.

Vietnam's tourism bureau has picked up the baton, and the country anticipates four million visitors this year. Whereas 20 years ago, there was little or no tourism, today, cruise ships packed with Europeans and Americans pour into the harbors, and international flights arrive from cities like Moscow and Paris.

Even when faced with momentary downturns, the Vietnamese are not deterred. A particularly tense situation occurred in 2002, when catfish exports to the United States were so pervasive that they threatened the U.S. domestic catfish industry. Pressured by lobbying from catfish farmers, the International Trade Commission imposed stiff tariffs on Vietnamese catfish - of as much as 64 percent - effectively pricing Vietnam out of the U.S. market.

The impact was felt throughout Vietnam's economy and, more specifically, by the 400,000 people whose income relied on the catfish industry. Farmers and processors were stimulated to seek new markets, and as a result, they restructured their industry to produce different species and expanded exports to Japan and Europe.

"They seem happy; they don't complain," says Frese. "The Vietnamese people are truly amazing. I've never seen a work ethic [like theirs]."

It's exactly this determination and willingness to work, some say, that is the key to Vietnam's attractiveness for investment. "Chinese work five-day weeks, but Vietnamese work six," says one Taiwanese businessman. "That's a 52-day difference every year."

Experts feel that this strong work ethic, combined with foreign investment and an ever-improving infrastructure, will sustain Vietnam's economic boom for some time. "Vietnam has been experiencing steady growth now for over a decade," adds Brigham. "I think it is safe to say that the economy, with its new stock market and new banking system, is poised for more growth."

However, Adam McCarty, chief economist for Hanoi's Mekong Economics, cautions that this economy is very young and that time is still needed. "Vietnam is an emerging Asian Tiger, but we need to remember that it's still decades behind the level of development of regional neighbors like Thailand, China, and even Indonesia."

Nor does Vietnam’s new emergence as an economic and cultural presence come without a few caveats. The Communist government still exercises strict control over ­freedom of speech and expression of religion. But Vietnam can’t turn back now — the momentum has been established. Perhaps in a future generation, with a population ever curious about the rest of the world, the freedom we know in the West will be part of everyday life in Vietnam.