I had mixed feelings when I returned to Laos recently after a long while.
I was happy to see that the country had grown a lot, especially after hosting the latest Southeast Asian (SEA) Games which was not only an impressive achievement, but also helped them win the hearts of many visitors.
Every country has nice, friendly people but a nice, friendly and sincere country like Laos is rare. The 25th SEA Games has changed the viewpoint of outsiders and every Lao person about the country.
From the rural to urban areas, I felt like the country has been invigorated.
It was like Vientiane was waking up from a long sleep. The northern area was crowded with foreign visitors, many of them from Europe though it was not the tourism season. Several years ago, just one morning was sufficient to visit northern Laos.
Restaurants and hotels were booming. The attractions were cleaner and more beautiful. Their toilets, including those on the streets, are far better than in Vietnam.
But I was disappointed as I tried to find Vietnamese products in Laos. There was very little available, mostly dried seafood, as Laos has no coastline.
Thai and Chinese products were everywhere. China has built a huge commercial center in Vientiane.
Thailand accounts for nearly 50 percent of foreign goods in Laos, followed by China with 40 percent while Vietnam and other countries make up just 10 percent.
This is a real paradox as Vietnam is the largest foreign investor in Laos and Vietnamese people make up the biggest foreign community there.
Pham Thi Ngoc Yen, a Viet kieu (overseas Vietnamese) living in Vientiane, said, "Thai and Chinese products are cheaper and more beautiful.
"And when I want to buy Vietnamese goods, I didn't know where to go. Sometimes I have to get them sent from Saigon."
Le Xuan Khe, director of Hang Viet (Vietnamese Goods) Company which has organized many fairs to promote Vietnamese high quality goods, said, "Saigon goods are hardly sold in Laos because the tax is high after a long transport journey."
Then I wonder why Vietnamese firms in Da Nang, Hue or Vinh don't bring their products to Laos. The cities are located very close to the country.
Also, the Vietnamese community in Laos is not aware of the campaign to promote Vietnamese goods in the country.
Vietnamese businesses are losing out in the Lao market because they have to struggle by themselves without support from the government or cooperation with each other.
At the That Luang International Fair in Vientiane in 2004, Vietnamese businesses were scattered from small guest houses to five-star hotels and came to the fair on their own in different kinds of vehicles.
Meanwhile, Thai businesses all stayed at four-star hotels and hired a bus to come together. They looked more professional than us, for sure.
In Cambodia, I think it will take another 10 years for Vietnamese goods to be as competitive as Thai goods. And I don't know how long it will take in Laos. Sad, really.
By Nguyen Van My*
*The writer is the director of Lua Viet, a tour operator in Ho Chi Minh City