HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — Children's clothes from Florida were popular, but toothpaste was the star of the first U.S. trade fair in this former capital of South Vietnam since the Vietnam War ended in 1975.
"I like this exhibition very much," said Tran Thi Anh Vu, 19, who was among mobs of Vietnamese who turned out last week to admire goods displayed at Vietnamerica Expo '94. "With this exhibition, I think Vietnam will have good relations with Americans."
American products are nothing new to Ho Chi Minh City, known as Saigon when it was the capital of the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government up until 1975. Some of the goods at the fair were available on city streets even before Washington lifted its 19-year-old trade embargo against Vietnam in February.
But prices on the street are often inflated, making fair-goers eager to snap up the display samples at wholesale prices.
"It's cheaper and better quality," said Pham Phuong Hoa, 21. She carried off two shopping bags filled with Colgate toothpaste and liquid Palmolive soap. Tubes of toothpaste were being sold for 10,000 dong, or nearly $1, half the price on the street.
Vietnam Investment Information & Consulting, based in San Diego, organized the four-day exhibit as a follow-up to the country's first post-war American trade fair, held in April in Hanoi.
The new exhibit is being held on the balloon-festooned grounds of Ho Chi Minh City's former Presidential Palace, now called Reunification Palace. The palace gate was stormed by North Vietnamese tanks on April 30, 1975, toppling the South Vietnamese government and ending both the war and the city's heavy American presence.
Pham Chanh Truc, vice chairman of the city government, opened the fair by welcoming back U.S. businessmen.
"Perhaps Ho Chi Minh City will become a good environment . . . for the American business community," he said.
Charles E. Rainey, chairman of Florida's St. Petersburg-Clearwater Economic Development Council, was just as upbeat.
"Our goal is to keep people employed in our county by exporting and importing," he said. "Hopefully we can create a market."
One booth displayed children's clothes made by Pixie Playmates of Florida. After fair-goers clamored to buy the samples, the Americans finally relented and sold more than 100 of them for $2 to $3 apiece.
"They loved it," said Frank Novak, secretary-treasurer of Tampa Bay International, a distributor.
However, U.S. businessmen are no longer quite as euphoric as they were 10 months ago when President Clinton lifted the trade embargo. Many companies' applications to form joint ventures or develop real estate have bogged down in the Vietnamese bureaucracy, and post-embargo investment is still less than $40 million.
Trade also remains low, although the Vietnamese government has yet to release figures.