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Last Updated: Monday, 27 November 2006, 01:00 GMT
Young Vietnamese look to future
Vietnam is shaking off the vestiges of its war-wracked past, and achieving rapid economic growth. In the first of a series of reports, the BBC's Kate McGeown meets a new generation of young, outward-looking Vietnamese.

Thirty-year-old Alan Duong owns a chain of shops in central Hanoi, selling up-market clothes and furnishings.

Fashion designer Alan Duong
Alan Duong specialises in putting a modern twist on traditional styles

A professional fashion designer, she speaks fluent English, travels to trade fairs around the world and is part of Vietnam's new generation of modern, successful entrepreneurs.

Like 60% of the country's 83 million people, Alan was born after the Vietnam War. And she shows little sign of being adversely affected by her nation's turbulent past.

"Vietnam has a really bright future," she said. "It's a great place to do business, and it's an exciting place to live and work right now."

That sense of change is borne out by the statistics. The economy has grown by nearly 8% a year in the past five years, a feat only rivalled in Asia by China.

In 1993, 58% of the population was classified as being under the internationally-accepted poverty line, but that figure had fallen to less than 20% by 2004.

"It's like a completely different country from when I was here in the mid-1990s," said World Bank economist Carrie Turk.

When she first arrived in Vietnam, Ms Turk had to fly to Bangkok for items such as toiletries. But now Hanoi is home to luxury boutiques, wi-fi cafes and world-class restaurants.

Hanoi street scene

"It's an extraordinary growth by global standards - and it's quite rare to find anyone in Vietnam who will say they're not better off now than they were 10 years ago," she said.

That includes poorer Vietnamese people, like Nguyen Thi Ha, who lives with her husband in a village 30km away from Hanoi.

She comes into the centre every few weeks to sell the papayas and bananas she grows on her land, earning about 400,000 dong ($25) from each trip.

"I feel hopeful about the future," she said. "I still have a hard life, but it's much better than it was in the past."

"We now have a TV, and the next thing I want to get is a telephone."

State to private transition

Vietnam's hosting of a recent Asia-Pacific summit in Hanoi, and its acceptance as a member of the World Trade Organization, have put the spotlight on this growing prosperity - and brought the country out of the shadow of its huge Chinese neighbour.

Nguyen Thi Ha carrying her wares
Nguyen Thi Ha wants to buy a mobile phone

But Vietnam has actually been transforming itself for the past 20 years - gradually at first and now much more rapidly.

Nguyen Vinh Tien, a 33-year-old architect, has watched these changes closely.

A few decades ago, everything was owned by the state. Even when Tien first started his job in the mid 1990s, he had to work predominantly for the government because there were few opportunities in the private sector.

"Now the private market is just as powerful," he said, describing some of the hotels, factories and industrial zones that his business is helping to build.

Vietnam is not just changing economically, though. It is also changing socially, with traditionally conservative attitudes gradually breaking down.

Alan Duong's fashion business would have been impossible 20 or 30 years ago. "Being a model used to be seen by a lot of older Vietnamese as almost as bad as selling your body," she said.

Ambitions are changing too. "Until recently, parents wanted their children to work for government companies, but now young people want to work for dynamic international businesses," said Nguyen Vinh Tien.

Talk of political change, though, does not seem to be on most young people's agendas.

While a few brave dissidents do protest about human rights and political freedoms, their actions are clamped down on by the authorities and the majority of Vietnamese appear unmoved by their concerns.

"Nobody really cares much about politics," said Alan. "Of course we hope the government will support us in what we do, but day-to-day politics is not something we think about really."

Teething problems

For poorer people, the recent economic changes mean rapid urbanisation and large-scale migration from the countryside to the cities.

Pham Thi Diep selling bread in front of a new development of luxury offices
Pham Thi Diep came to Hanoi to give a better life to her children

Pham Thi Diep recently left her home province of Ha Nam to sell bread on the streets of the capital. She says she misses her children back home, but added: "At least now I can send them to school."

While most poor people will benefit from the new economic climate, some will benefit far more than others, according to Le Dang Doanh, a senior Vietnamese economist.

As agricultural land is taken over for industrial use, people living in these areas will become more vulnerable - especially those who are old, uneducated or infirm.

And according to World Bank estimates, poverty levels in certain pockets of Vietnam - specifically in ethnic minority highland areas - are falling far more slowly than in the rest of the country.

But despite these teething problems, there is little doubt that most Vietnamese people are optimistic about the future.

"The dream of young people in the past was to satisfy their boss, or become a member of the Community Party - it was the dream of the servant," said Nguyen Vinh Tren.

"Now people want to speak English and French, earn lots of money and live an international lifestyle."




SEE ALSO
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16 Nov 06 |  Asia-Pacific
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12 Nov 06 |  Asia-Pacific
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07 Nov 06 |  Business
Country profile: Vietnam
03 Jan 06 |  Country profiles

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