U.S. President Donald Trump is meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as I write this piece, in Hanoi's century-old Metropole Hotel. It's a 20-minute one-on-one meet and greet, followed by a photo op and then dinner with the full entourage of aides. They get down to business on Thursday with a full day of meetings, the full agenda as yet unclear.
It's good that bone spurs did not deter Trump from this trip to Vietnam. There's plenty for him to appreciate in how this command Communist country is pushing its way forward. One of Asia's hottest economies is also home to a stock market that has turned a turbulent 2018 around.
Ahead of this second North Korean summit, Trump met with Vietnamese President Nguyen Phu Trong at the presidential palace, another grand colonial-era structure. The Vietnamese government is widely praised as more open to foreign capital than its northern neighbor, China, and this courtesy call cements the close ties between the two nations.
Trump is holding out America's former enemy and one-party state as an example for Kim and his country to follow.
"Vietnam is thriving like few places on earth. North Korea would be the same, and very quickly, if it would denuclearize," Trump said on Twitter after his arrival in the Vietnamese capital. He repeated similar comments once in Hanoi.
There was a bit of business on Wednesday, as Trump met the Vietnamese president, then waved his host nation's flag alongside the Stars and Stripes held by Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.
The Vietnamese airlines VietJet VN:VJC and Bamboo Airways inked a deal to buy 110 planes from Boeing Co. (BA) for more than US$15 billion. That's after VietJet in November ordered US$6.5 billion in jets from Airbus (EADSY) during a visit from French Prime Minister Eduoard Philippe.
Trump is right to praise his hosts and their open attitude to business. He's in Southeast Asia's most-promising nation.
I love Vietnam. It's a great place to travel or work. The country is young, and there's a palpable sense of optimism on every street.
This is a nation that wants to work, too. On a visit in late 2017 to a freshly built factory of drinks maker THP, I was amazed by just how enthusiastic the 30-something workforce was to show me around the shiny new plant.
There was none of the boredom or rote script you'd expect on a normal factory tour. The gaggle of young managers showing me around clearly loved their jobs in this new operation in the Chu Lai Open Economic Zone, site of a former U.S. Marine Corps base southeast of Danang and of one of the first battles involving U.S. forces.
The THP management had shipped in aseptic bottling machines from Germany, one of the most advanced assembly lines in the country. They had amassed ingredients such as licorice, prunella and chrysanthemum flowers from around the country to make the company-trademark and top-selling herbal tea, were producing bottles at triple the rate of the old factory in Saigon, and they wanted to show it all off.
Around 30% of the employees and 36% of the management at THP are women. That's not uncommon in a country that was decimated by the "American War." You can travel around the country and scarcely see an elderly person. Indeed, 85% of the population is under 55 -- an unwelcome legacy, perhaps, but one that leaves the 97 million people who call Vietnam home looking for and marching toward an optimistic future.
Vietnam's economy grew 7.1% last year, its fastest pace in a decade. That's half a point higher than China. Weaker electronics exports from Southeast Asia amid a global trade slowdown may knock that back a bit this year, but fast-growing domestic consumption gives the country an extremely solid economic underpinning.
Retail sales were growing at an annual pace of 12.2% at last count. Despite a slump in computer and electronic parts sales that started last October, exports are up 8.9%. It's the hottest country in Asia on the Standard & Poor's heat map of manufacturing exports.
The Ho Chi Minh City Stock Exchange has been choppy since a selloff last spring. The benchmark Vietnam Index (VNI) doubled over the course of 2016 and 2017. As concerns about the impact of global trade tensions rose, it then collapsed 25.6% between April and July last year.
However, Vietnam has been the primary beneficiary of China's combat with Trump. Companies with operations in both countries have expanded south, while real estate brokers say they've seen a trebling of calls from investors and occupiers searching for industrial sites.
Vietnamese stocks are wide open to market manipulation, with small market caps and even smaller free floats. THP's founder told me that the "market can be manipulated, so if we are just random buyers who jump into the market, we would lose money." The entrepreneur, Tran Qui Thanh by full name but known as "Dr. Thanh," has kept his company private. "We only gain if we are the ones who are playing that game," he said.
The principal way for U.S. investors to access the Vietnamese market is through the VanEck Vectors Vietnam ETF (VNM) . Like the Ho Chi Minh exchange, it's alive again this year, up 11.7% in 2019, most of the gains coming in February. It appears that, after testing the bottom of the market three times last year, there's a sustained rally underway.
Trump's visit will soon be over, but Vietnam's opening-up and economic expansion will continue. Investors would do well to watch as this frontier market marches forward.