I grew up with the Vietnam War. It was the perennial background news story to my early teenage years. Then in 1972, while I was studying economics at the Universite de Nanterre in Paris, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was hopping in and out of the city to negotiate peace with Le Duc Tho.

But after the fall of Saigon in April 1975, Vietnam, a country that was front page news most weeks throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s, became virtually invisible to the West. As the American journalist, Gary Silverman noted in 2015, after the war Vietnamese, ‘became more like figments of our collective imagination. Out of sight, out of mind, out of harm’s way.’

Largely under the radar of western media, from 1976 Vietnam then engaged in a border war with Pol Pot’s Cambodia. In 1979 a Vietnamese puppet state was established as the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. Embarrassingly the United Nations even continued to support Pol Pot despite the widespread knowledge of his genocidal murder of a quarter of Cambodia’s population.

In the early 1980s when I quizzed a British diplomat at a lunch in Bangkok as to why we were supporting Pol Pot, he replied artfully that the west was not supporting the now infamous genocidal murderer, but the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea, an alliance of anti-Vietnamese allies which including both King Norodom Sihanouk and the Khmer Rouge. The western preference for Pol Pot’s genocidal regime over Vietnam was a fair indication of low Vietnam’s reputation had fallen.

However, on 15 December 1986 Vietnam’s 6th National Congress revealed a Doi Moi policy (Renovation – Innovation), which, like Perestroika in the Soviet Union, would allow the development of that contradictory construct - a socialist-market economy. It was a deregulation aimed at increasing ‘the production of food, consumer goods and exportable items.’ The National Congress also confirmed plans to establish a stock exchange.

When I flew to Saigon on Christmas Day 1986, two weeks after Doi Moi, I witnessed first-hand the extraordinary poverty to which communism and military adventurism had led the country. In truth, since its liberation from Japan and France at the end of World War II, Vietnam had become ‘an army with a state’ rather than a state with an army. It was the Sparta of the modern age.

But despite Doi Moi acceptance into the international community was not immediate. Withdrawal from Cambodia in 1991 helped. So did a reconciliation with China. In preparation for better relations, the National Assembly removed a preamble to the Vietnamese Constitution which asserted that China was ‘a dangerous, direct enemy of the Vietnamese people’.

By 1994 the US government had removed its trade embargo; the following year full diplomatic relations were established with its former enemy, the US. At the same time, Vietnam became a full member of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations).

In 2000 Bill Clinton became the first US President to visit Vietnam. Aiming to further the healing process between the two countries, he pledged funds to help clear up the American munitions which had killed some 40,000 civilians since the end of the war. Vietnam’s long march to international respectability reached its apogee when it was accepted into the World Trade Organisation in 2007. From its low base of just $100 in 1986 GDP per capita quadrupled by the end of the century.

But it was over the next two decades that growth really took off; on a purchasing power parity basis Vietnam’s per capital GDP has now risen to $14,200. With GDP growth of 8% in 2022, Vietnam became the region’s fastest growing economy. With a young population of 99.2m which is still growing at 0.8% per annum Vietnam is looking to become a top ten global economic power by 2050.

It is a measure of Vietnam’s modernity that it has recently emerged that Vietnam is home to the world’s most crypto-currency savvy population. As well as usage, Vietnam is fast becoming a centre for the mining of Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies as Chinese entrepreneurs move their operations out of the PRC. The growth in digitalisation of the economy has been spectacular. Vietnam now boasts 70m internet subscribers compared to 165,000 in 2001.

Vietnam was growing rapidly before President Trump and then the Biden Administration began to cool on economic relations with China. President Xi Jinping’s increasingly hostile rhetoric toward Taiwan, his determination to dominate the South China Sea, and the expansive nature of his belt and road strategy have altered the dynamics of Asian procurement.

Attracted by low labour costs, Nike was already a major investor, but increasingly tech companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Dell that have decided to de-risk their Asian supply chains by investing in Vietnam rather than China. Chinese companies have done likewise. China has some US$26bn invested in 4,000 projects in Vietnam. While Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in China has fallen off a cliff in the past three years, FDI into Vietnam has taken off.

Concomitant with its growing economic power, since 2021, Vietnam has re-emerged, albeit dimly in Western media, into the geopolitical spotlight. In July, Hanoi was visited by US Defence Secretary Austen Lloyd and then by Vice President Kamala Harris. When the US proffered a gift of free Covid Pfizer vaccines, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi visited Vietnam the following month with a gift of 3m vaccine doses.

Suddenly it seems everyone wanted to be Vietnam’s friend. America’s reappraisal of its relationship with Vietnam follows other Asian countries that have come to see Vietnam as a perfect bulwark to China’s regional ambitions. Both India and Japan have already cosied up to Vietnam. On a visit to Vietnam by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi in 2016 the relationship between the two countries was upgraded to one of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership - moving it beyond commercial relationships to intelligence sharing and joint naval exercises.

The European Union has also made advances to improve relations with Vietnam. And in June 2023 President of the Swiss National Council, Martin Candinas, met with Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh on a visit to Hanoi. Trade and financial services were high on the agenda.

China has supported its claims to the entirety of the South China Sea by the building of military installations such as harbours, helipads, missiles silos and airstrips on the largely uninhabited Paracel Islands. These 130 miniscule islands – mostly coral reefs – have become the crux of a simmering dispute between Vietnam-China over oil and fishing.

Stress in the China-Vietnam relationship is nothing new. It is China that is Vietnam’s ‘forever foe’ – not its 20th Century colonial master, France, or cold-war enemy, America. Vietnamese textbooks record China’s conquest of Vietnam by duplicity in 179BC. Famously the Trung sisters led a rebellion in 43AD which is still popularly celebrated. Apart from a half century interlude, China ruled Vietnam for over 1,000 years until 939AD. A fourth period of Chinese domination followed the rise of the Ming Dynasty. As recently as 1979, a border war between Vietnam and China cost 30,000 Vietnamese lives.

Vietnam’s border proximity to China and its increasing economic importance leaves both sides in a delicate geopolitical balance. They are in effect ‘frenemies’. The result, as a recent Rand Corporation report has concluded, is that ‘Although Vietnam is unlikely to oppose China outright, it is also unlikely to collaborate with Beijing on security issues.’

In June last year, following the incursion of Chinese warships into Vietnamese waters, a flurry of foreign navies paid courtesy calls. Cam Ranh Port, formerly a Soviet naval base, played host to the Indian navy followed by the Japan’s largest destroyer Izumo. On the 25 June, aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan docked in Danang. Three months later Washington and Hanoi upgraded their relationship to one of ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ – the same as China.

Even Xi seems to have realised that keeping Vietnam at least neutral was important; at the end of December, he visited Hanoi to meet with Communist Party general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, President Vo Van Thuong and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh. During his visit some 37 trade and infrastructure agreements were signed.

More than any other country the tensions between China on one side, and the US, Japan, India, Korea and Australia on the other, has benefitted Vietnam. It has become a pivot state courted by all. Thus far it has remained determinedly neutral. To great advantage to Vietnam geopolitical rivals have been deftly played off against each other. As a result, in just 35 years Vietnam has gone from pariah state to Asia’s brightest star.