HANOI -- On this, my seventh business trip to Vietnam, I finally did what many Westerners do on their first: I made the pilgrimage to the infamous Hao Lo Prison.
To Americans, it is known as "Hanoi Hilton." To the Vietnamese, the American Navy pilots incarcerated there, of which Senator John McCain is the most famous, had much better food and treatment than their captors. This jail, built by the French in 1896 and called "Maison Centrale," personifies the centuries of brutal occupation and ruthless exploitation by foreign powers of the Vietnamese people. That is the real significance of Hoa Lo for the Vietnamese, which today is a museum.
After the fall of Saigon and the end of the "American War," the United States orchestrated Vietnam's decade of isolation. The ravages of the war destroyed 95 per cent of the country's infrastructure, but did not break the spirit of this resilient people.
To his enduring credit, Bill Clinton visited Vietnam in 1998, the first U.S. president to do so in 30 years. He championed Vietnam's entry into the World Trade Organization, which finally happened in 2007 with the support of President George W. Bush and the U.S. Congress.
Since then, Vietnam has become one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It is known as the new Asian Tiger.
The country has a robust and dynamic merchant class and a thriving emerging middle class. Roughly the size of New Mexico, Vietnam has a population of over 90 million people where the average age is 27 years old. This is no longer a "peasant" economy and the country is rapidly transforming into a consumer society determined to improve the quality of life.
The government is liberalizing the economy at an accelerated rate to keep pace with a more educated and consumer-oriented population intent on enhancing their standard of living. The result is significant stresses on the system. Vietnamese authorities are strongly encouraging of the growing entrepreneurial class, like my friend, Hoai Bac Nguyen, Chairman of Daison Investment Corporation.
Bac was a refugee to Canada and returned in the late 1990s to participate in Vietnam's growth. Today, his various companies employ almost 4,000 people in textiles, real estate, rubber plantations, a high school and a vocational training school.
Growing pains are a natural outgrowth of the aggressive modernization program underway in Vietnam and the government has opened its doors to foreign investment. U.S., Japanese, European, Chinese, and South Korean governments and enterprises are all increasingly active here and have been welcomed with open arms.
Up until now, however, Canadian firms have been noticeably absent. We should change that. The Vietnamese admire and respect Canada and the opportunity for us to contribute to the building of this emerging economic powerhouse is very substantial. The country needs much of what we can offer, including telecommunications, power, and infrastructure of all kinds. The problem is not the Canadian government; it is the natural conservatism and risk-adverse mindset of Canadian business.
This is a huge untapped market for Canada. It is up to us to seize it. Doing so will not only be of great benefit to our respective economies, but also forge stronger ties in a region of the world where we are largely absent, and push above our weight class to contribute to peace and security in a vital and strategic region.