When thinking of the Asia Pacific nations that are already major garment producers, and likely to become even more so in the not too distant future, Vietnam is not the country that immediately springs to mind. 

But maybe it should. For although not a large scale direct exporter, 60 per cent of the clothing currently coming from Vietnam reaches the outside world via the quota free markets of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan or South Korea. And experts already assess the value of such sales as in excess of US$7bn a year.

The textile industry employs 800,000 Vietnamese citizens in over a thousand enterprises, of which the largest is the still state-operated Vinatex Corporation.

Vinatex, an acronym for Vietnam National Textile and Garment Corporation, has 100,000 staff spread across 6l enterprises. These are concerned with the production of raw materials, yarn spinning, knitting and weaving plus twenty clothing factories capable of turning out l00 million garments a year - some 30 per cent of all clothing production. It contributes up to 40 per cent of revenues earned by the Vietnamese textile and clothing industry.

There is, however, a fast growing privately-owned manufacturing sector. And this, along with the government run factories, will greatly benefit from the US$4bn which the Vietnamese government has pledged to invest in the textile industry between now and 2010.

The private sector contains wholly overseas owned companies, joint ventures which are part overseas part Vietnamese owned, and fully locally owned businesses in some of which the government may still retain a share while other are wholly capitalist in character.

Foreign investors have obviously been attracted by Vietnam's appealing combination of low wage structures and a work force that, if not already skilled, is always keen to master modern production methods. 

There can sometimes be quite dramatic variations in wage levels. These not only depend on skill, but vary from region to region as the textile trade expands into areas where, until its arrival, the only available jobs were in agriculture. It is fair to say that the average earnings for a Vietnamese machinist would be around US$47.50 for a 40-hour week. Most workers however aim to top up their wage packet by working longer hours - anything from 48 to 52 hours within a booming industry in which overtime is almost always available.

Garment production in Vietnam covers every facet of fashion production, but puts the emphasis primarily on those sectors where low production cost is the key to success in the export market.

Areas in which Vietnam scores heavily are the volume production of street and sports wear such as blank, knitted cotton T-shirts - a staple of the industry - and repro football strips which, after re-badging with club logos, will be sold on to fans by British clubs. Both Manchester United and Nottingham Forest club shops have recently been offering simulation team wear originally sourced in Vietnam.

In the conventional retail sportswear and footwear market, leading brands which have already shifted part of their production to Vietnam include such famous names as Nike and Puma.

Obviously the long term aim of the industry is more sophisticated design and higher unit sales. Over the last eighteen months more and more delegates from the Vietnamese industry have been finding their way to the major Asia Pacific based fabric and yarn trade fairs such as Filasia. And if they are not yet large scale buyers, they are certainly keen observers of any "tricks of the trade" revealed by exhibitors which would make their own goods more acceptable to foreign buyers.

During the Vietnam war and in its immediate aftermath, much of the local population was starved of the opportunity to buy Western style fashion goods. But today a strong home market demand exists and is in its turn providing further impetus for Vietnamese producers to fall into line with the latest international trends in garment colour and styling.

The time when Vietnam will be organising its own "fashion weeks" to publicise the work of its thriving textile industry in the manner that now forms a regular part of the scene in Hong Kong and Shanghai is still probably some way in the future.

But the Vietnamese are nothing if not ambitious. They are already measuring themselves against China as the awakening "sleeping giant" among Asia Pacific textile producers. And sales are expanding not only to the region's affluent nations such as Australia, but also into the EU.

By Sonia Roberts