THE Vietnamese were confronted with some strange manifestations during the last war fought on their soil, from blazing helicopter gunships to dogtagged grunts careering about the countryside in jeeps and tanks. The most recent war has brought with it a new set of sights that stun, chief among them imposing nine-metre high inflatable soft drink bottles tethered to the facades of the Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi opera houses. They appeared on February 4 last year, at the same time as hordes of strangely frantic foreigners in funny hats took to the streets with a seemingly endless supply of soft-drink samples as part of a concerted campaign to capture the hearts, minds and palates of a nation. The battle has waged largely unabated since then, with each side staking out very definite swathes of territory. This time, the Americans are winning, losses are low, morale is high and there's not a set of black pyjamas to be seen. Good Morning Vietnam indeed! On the streets of Ho Chi Minh City traders hawk artefacts of both wars. Some offer cigarette lighters made from old M16 rifle shells, while others sell toy helicopters and fighter jets crafted from snipped-up Coke and Pepsi cans. At a dollar a piece, the converted cans sell for more than they did when full of sugary black liquid. The Cola Wars span the globe, with the two major brands going head to head wherever there is a currency at least one step up from sea shells. But nowhere has this tussle for multi-million dollar market supremacy been so dramatically defined as in Vietnam, a country of 74 million isolated from the free world for 19 years by a United States-imposed trade embargo. From an abrupt starter's pistol shot, the two corporate monoliths poured in resources without apparent limit to win a war that had as much to do with prestige as profit. For the simple reason that no army can be everywhere at the same time strongholds have emerged. South of Ho Chi Minh City, down in the Mekong Delta, is Pepsi territory. Every restaurant, cafe, bar, hotel or shop that ever served a drink, and even the trishaw pedallers wbo bring customers to them has been fitted out with signage, banners and logos. North of the southern capital Coke is in command, splashing its images way up into the mystical mountain retreat of Dalat and the beach resort of Nha Trang. Incentives have ensured that exclusion is maintained - you just can't buy a Coke in Pepsi land and vice versa. The exception is the Australian-owned Saigon Floating Hotel, which played a key role in launching the Vietnam Cola War. Manager Peter Hassler ensures that his bar fridges carry both brands in equal quantity, except when executives from either company are in residence; then it's a matter of a surreptitious dash to the room to remove the rival's product before check-in formalities have been completed. Both teams stayed at the hotel, not so much the best as really the only pub in town, in the weeks leading up to US President Bill Clinton's anticipated announcement. 'It was sometimes very amusing to observe the situation,' recalls Hassler. 'They staggered their meal times so that they didn't have to meet or ride in the lift at the same time, but if they did end up together in the breakfast room they just didn't acknowledge each other.' Clinton must be wishing that all his pronouncements resulted in the same immediate action to commit troops to battle. Jimmy Carter may have been able to turn back the President's Haitian assault force in the air but nothing could have stopped the cola cascade once CNN broadcast the news of the erased embargo. The report came through at around 5 am on a Friday. Five hours and fourteen minutes later, the first locally-produced Pepsi was coming off the assembly line, with the first 1,500 cases set aside for local sampling. By that stage, the promotional push was already about five hours old. The two teams were out of the Floating Hotel and among the crowds tossing cans, dispensing cups and affixing visual material. The Coca-Cola task force alone, utilising 'market impact teams' on loan from Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Pakistan, made use of six tonnes of metal, plastic and vinyl adhesive signs. Marcos Quinto, Coke's divisional marketing manager from Thailand, remembers the very long day as 'one big, big party, which was very timely as it coincided with the Tet or Lunar New Year celebrations. We had concerts in the Tao Doan Park and in the opera houses in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, with pop bands, traditional music and gymnastics. Vietnam's top female rock band, the Three Cats, sang the Always Coca-Cola single on stage'. There were seven Coca-Cola concerts in Ho Chi Minh City, with guests from the education and other ministries, and subsequent visits to schools and charitable institutions to stage parties for underprivileged children and dispense New Year gifts (liberally laced with bottles of Coke). But the politically important show was in the seat of power, Hanoi, at the elegant French colonial opera house. Declared the grandest concert staged there for 40 years, it was eagerly attended by a slew of government ministers and dignitaries. And the bands played on. Pepsi, a largely unknown brand name in Vietnam, had its own parties and its own giant inflatable can but after police problems with crowds in Hanoi it was unable to match Coke in festivities in Ho Chi Minh City. As it happened, it hardly mattered because it had something up its sleeve that caught Coca-Cola almost flat-footed. This David had more than a slingshot to take on Goliath. Prior to 1975, Coca-Cola was Vietnam's favourite soft drink, with production facilities in seven major cities. It left the country along with the last helicopter from the US embassy roof but has always been available in the country as an illegal but accepted import. Before the embargo was lifted Vietnam's soft-drink sales amounted to around 30 million cases annually, almost two thirds of which was cola smuggled in from Singapore. With as many as 150,000 cases a month arriving, Coke has such a high identification factor that 1992 advertising agency research found 83 people who said they drank Coke for every one respondent who named Pepsi. There was no doubt that Coca-Cola expected to re-establish its old dominance but the lay of the land had changed somewhat. Over the 19 years of the Vietnam shut-out, neighbouring Southeast Asia countries - cola dominoes one might say - had fallen to Pepsi. In Vietnam, anticipating the mad scramble for supremacy, Pepsi entered into partnership with the large and profitable International Beverages Company, which had a state-of-the-art plant that could, at least on paper, swiftly increase capacity from eight million cases a year to almost 80. At the same time, 'Coke's joint venture (with the Chuong Duong Beverage Company)' reported Thailand's The Nation newspaper, 'has been slow to materialise and involves a pre-war bottling plant with minimal capacity and potential.' During 1993 a prescient Pepsi had tied up many of the key billboard sites as well as an endorsement agreement with the reigning Miss Vietnam, Ha Kleu Anh. She was taken to Bangkok for the shooting of a television commercial portraying Pepsi as 'Miss Vietnam's playful helper in the transition between Vietnam's traditional and modern worlds.' All available television advertising time was then locked up by Pepsi's partner, IBC, for Schweppes soft-drink spots (as a British firm, Schweppes was not subject to the trading ban). 'It was clear that, when the embargo lifted, the cola launched with the greatest speed and impact would gain a significant advantage' recalls John Englehart, general manager of Ogilvy & Mather Thailand, Pepsi's advertising agency. 'But no one outside the White House knew whether the lifting was days, months or years away. We got an advance signal we had not expected in mid-January, when the US Senate voted heavily in favour of lifting the embargo. This move was clearly intended to help President Bill Clinton act without fear of inciting congressional noise over his youthful misgivings about the American war with Indochina.' Within an hour of the announcement, IBC was relabelling Schweppes bottles as Pepsi and all the Schweppes TV sports had been transferred to Pepsi. The effervescent Miss Vietam was omnipresent on the airwaves and it would be three days before Coke could run their commercials. The next day, major newspapers carried full-page Pepsi advertisements and the name was well implanted. 'As much as anything it had been our team's respect for Coke's marketing capacity that fuelled the extensive preparations for the Pepsi launch, so we were surprised that it was several days before they revved up their promotional engine,' Englehart says. 'By then, the post-embargo euphoria was fast waning and Pepsi had won the opening salvo. Pepsi had become better known and more widely consumed than Coke and its advertising was preferred by a margin of more than five to one.' Coke, of course, disagrees. That's the point of the Cola Wars. One company never rests if the other might have an advantage. It's why Pepsico Inc has annual global revenues of nearly US$25 billion (HK$195 billion) and why Coca-Cola, as Bill Bryson puts it in Made In America, 'inspires the word for the American cultural takeover of the planet: Coca-Colonisation. Today, Coke is sold in 195 countries, giving it a bigger following than the United Nations with 184.' It's why the Vietnamese people, who don't yet have much that's western beyond a motor scooter, now have local Coke and Pepsi at 12 to 15 US cents (up from six US cents for the local Tribeco cola but down from the old price of 60 cents for the illegally imported cans) and have swiftly developed such an appetite for the stuff that the market is growing at an astonishing 20 per cent a year. John Finlay, the Australian-born president of Coca-Cola Indochina, confidently enthuses: 'Vietnam has an extremely strong soft drink culture. The business reflects that of Australia and New Zealand about 30 years ago . . . the industry will grow at an almost explosive rate.' It no doubt will, even if other areas of greater need don't grow much at all. Having recovered from its initial drubbing at the hands of Pepsi, Coke began in June the construction of a plant with an annual capacity of 8.5 million cases and will spend US$45 million to develop the Vietnam market over the next five years. It's not hard to see why Clinton was under such corporate pressure to open the Vietnam door. Then again, maybe it had something to do with the fact that, having lost one Vietnam war, America was not of a mind to lose another. In once again providing the battlefield, the Vietnamese are probably just glad that the rules of engagement have changed. Bubbles up your nose certainly beat napalm on your skin.