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Vietnam: The New "Gold Rush"

In a first-of-its-kind conference at Palo Alto, California last week, hundreds of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and technologists came together to discuss the rapidly growing technology market in Vietnam, a country labeled by some as Asia's new "Roaring Tiger." Participants ranged from Google representatives to Ho Chi Minh City start-up executives to even officials from Vietnam's Communist government, who flew in to pitch their country - and throw a few elbows at their big next-door rival, China. Vietnam, with a population of 84 million, is currently the second-fastest growing economy in Asia (China being the first, naturally) and expects economic growth of 9% this year.

"People need to understand there is an investment alternative in Asia, and it's Vietnam," said Huy Do, chairman and president of the relatively new Vietnamese Strategic Ventures Network, which organized the conference. The conference, expected to become an annual event, highlights the growing reconnection between Silicon Valley's Vietnamese community and the Communist country: many of the Bay Area's Vietnamese inhabitants fled their native land after Saigon fell to Communist forces in 1975. However, younger Vietnamese-Americans are now hoping to cash in on the new Vietnam the way Indians, Chinese and Taiwanese have done in their respective homelands. Now there are so many Vietnamese-Americans and others heading to Vietnam, "it almost feels like a gold rush," said Ross Meador, a Berkeley-based attorney who specializes in international law and Vietnam.

Nevertheless, some Vietnamese are still reluctant to have anything to do with the Communist government. Quinn Trann, founder of the strart-up GoQTT.com which specializes in travel to and from Vietnam, explains: "There are those who, no matter what, say, `I left Vietnam in such a bad situation. I still have bad memories and I don't want to have anything to do with it.'" And there are always the hassles of dealing with a foreign government. Thinh Tran, co-founder and chief executive of Milpitas-based Sigma Designs, has had to grapple with endless red tape since opening up an office in Ho Chi Minh City eight years ago, operating in an ever-changing business environment. However, Tran added, the environvment has gotten much friendlier as of late. The workers are smart, hard-working and loyal, he said. "We were surprised at how fast our young engineers learn. We don't have to throw books at them."

In the past year, two events put the economic spotlight on Vietnam. Santa Clara-based Intel announced it was tripling its investment in Vietnam to $1 billion and Vietnam became the 150th member of the World Trade Organization. The momentum continued this year when Taiwan's Hon Hai group, one of the world's largest contract electronics manufacturers, announced plans to invest $5 billion in the developing country. "A lot of people, when they talk about Asia, they talk about China," Vietnamese advertising entrepreneur Dang said. "But now everybody is talking about Vietnam. Vietnam is very hot."

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