IF 1993 proves to be the year that the United States finally lifts its embargo against Vietnam, France will be well placed to exploit the upsurge in the economy of its former colony. It was among the first nations to reopen trade and investment in 1989 after Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia, and has been generous with economic assistance. President Francois Mitterrand's visit to Indochina this week - almost 40 years after Communist troops defeated the French - is a chance to exploit that advantage. By becoming the first Western head of state to visit Vietnam since the end of hostilities, he is both showing support for the market reforms introduced after the withdrawal of Soviet support in 1991, and stepping up the pressure on Washington to end its outdated sanctions. Mr Mitterrand has never been slow to seize the chance to show his country's independence of American interests. Giving the thumbs up to Vietnam while America dithers will be a coup for him in an election year. Combined with a visit to French troops serving with the United Nations in Cambodia, the trip makes an excellent photo-opportunity for a beleaguered politician. Vietnam is on the verge of becoming Asia's latest economic hot-spot, with neighbours like Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hongkong and Thailand weighing up the advantages and dangers of a new pool of cheap labour on their doorstep. Manufacturers looking to keep their costs down will be eager to set up plants, but that may be at the expense of existing investments in more mature economies. While the West is interested in infrastructure projects, Asian manufacturing money tends to go to whichever country offers the cheapest deal. Vietnam's gain may be a neighbour's loss.