Progress in Southeast Asia

04/04/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This is part two of my world odyssey, the first report being on "The Wonder of Korea". Today, some thoughts combining Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Details with photos can be found at Planet Earth and Humanity.

When France colonized Indochina, there was a general feeling that the Vietnamese were hard workers, Cambodians hard watchers and Laotians hard sleepers. Yes, this is a joke, but many times stereotyping is based on something. Certainly, those Vietnamese that relocated to the U.S. made an impression. There was a period when statewide spelling bee champions and science awards went to Nguyens, Trans and Phans. Their children are also doing well.

If your vision of these countries is limited to the war, the Killing Fields and The King and I, I've got news for you. There has been change, and some of this has been remarkable.

The G-20 major economies already include India, Mexico, Turkey and Argentina. Will Thailand and Vietnam become part of the G-25? Singapore and Costa Rica have populations below 5 million. Thailand has more than 60 million and Vietnam is up to 90 million. Interestingly enough, the latter is increasing at a rate of 10 million per decade, and it is predicted that Vietnam's population will exceed that of Russia within the next generation.

To become a world power, Vietnam has to significantly improve its economics. The per capita GDP is only a bit more than $1,000, but this is 400 percent higher than only 15 years ago. The trend is promising. China Beach (picture 100 yards of beach extending for 19 miles, a distance from Waikiki to Pearl Harbor and back to Waikiki) alone has a five-star mega resort, with five more being built, including a J.W. Marriott and a Hyatt, plus a casino and two golf courses.

The joker in this deck is China. Remember Pol Pot and the Killing Fields? You ask why did this happen? The people of Cambodia say that this was an attempt to exterminate them to be replaced with Chinese Han, something some say still might be occurring in Western China, and, perhaps, too, Tibet.

Any good excuse, and Vietnam could well become a province of China. The Han Chinese strategy, though, is not at work here, as the ethnic Chinese population only amounts to 3 percent, and many of them actually left Vietnam after the 1980 war with China.

This is pretty heavy stuff, so let me close with some upsides. First, traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia, life is good and there is no pervading sense of being under the thumb of communists, who run the government. Granted, my lifestyle is not quite that of Henri Mahout, who in 1860 tromped through the jungles to "find" Angkor Wat. The Angkor Thom area, incidentally, near a millennium ago, had the largest population of the world at 1 million. Today, the living is simple for the masses, but I had four flat-screen TVs in my Sheraton Towers room in Saigon. The Four Seasons Chiang Mai is very similar to the Four Seasons Hualalai on the big island of Hawaii. You can envision major adjustments to come over time as democracy slowly sways into play and socialism is replaced with free enterprise.

A point to understand is that there is a world of difference between official national policy and the hearts/minds of the people. In both countries there is a mistrust of China and Russia. Amazingly enough, they like America. Our B-52s rained hell over Cambodia to get at the Viet Cong, killing a million of their citizens (note that, in comparison, "only" 58,000 Americans died in the Viet Nam War), and they still like the USA. The people of Thailand have no problem with China, Russia or the U.S. Also, as nice as everyone is in Thailand, Cambodians are over the top friendlier.

Some historians are now suggesting that the embarrassment of being booted out of Vietnam was an important step in helping bring about the demise of the Soviet Union, for they got overextended even in this part of the world. China subsequently began to soften when we left Southeast Asia, to the point where pure commercialism and prosperity could well someday fracture their form of government.

Thus, not only is there considerable economic and political progress in this part of the world. What is happening here will bode well for humanity into the 22nd century.