There cannot be too many media outlets where a visit by a group of parliamentarians from Laos gets equal billing with a tour by the president of the US. Vietnam's state papers, however, have never been too worried about appearances beyond the Communist Party's ruling circles. And the international spotlight of the recent Apec meeting in Hanoi suggested that they were not about to change any time soon. The newspapers wallowed in the international attention accorded Vietnam's leaders as their Chinese, Japanese, Russian and Australian counterparts staged official visits to Hanoi along with US President George W. Bush. At the same time, they also played up the arrival of the delegation from the National Assembly of neighbouring Laos, led by assembly president, Thongsing Thammavong. The juxtaposition of Southeast Asia's poorest and smallest nation with major world powers was not lost on veteran Vietnam observers. From Hanoi's perspective at least, it all makes perfect sense. 'We have always said that we will never forget our old friends,' said one senior Vietnamese foreign ministry official. 'Even as our relations broaden and deepen with large and important nations across the world and our priorities take us in new directions, those countries who helped us during tougher, darker times will not be forgotten. That is very important to us.' It makes for some strange diplomatic bedfellows. The likes of Japan, Australia, the US and South Korea have recently been expanding their Hanoi presences, but stroll around the tree-shaded streets of Hanoi's better quarters and you will find some of the capital's best preserved French-era villas still occupied by the embassies of Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Algeria. Russia has held onto its vast Soviet-era site as have its former satellites, such as Poland and Romania. Iraq, Libya and the Palestine Liberation Organisation are well represented. 'When it comes to international pariahs, Hanoi has always been something of a magnet,' said one western diplomat. 'By international standards, there are some pretty odd fish swimming about.' Glance about the markets and you can still find Algerian couscous, Czech crystal and a rough sparkling wine called Black Sea Gold, out of Odessa. Iraqi banknotes sporting portraits of Saddam Hussein are doing a roaring trade. The links can be traced to the long years of the Vietnam war, and the decades that followed. Given Vietnam's prominence on the world stage, it is perhaps easy to overlook that less than 15 years ago it was fighting off pariah status itself. The crippling US economic embargo that followed the fall of Saigon coupled with the widespread condemnation after its invasion and occupation of Cambodia to drive out the Khmer Rouge left the country economically and diplomatically isolated. Shunned by China, it moved even deeper into the Soviet orbit as well as forging trade and aid ties with the likes of Libya and Iraq. But modern trade and investment statistics paint a vastly different picture, highlighting the growing role of the US, Japan, Europe, Singapore and South Korea - trends set to continue as Vietnam enters the World Trade Organisation. Some diplomatic observers noted that Vietnam may do little to play down its old links but its diplomacy had clearly turned a corner, shedding the suspicions and insularity of the past as it deepens its economic and strategic engagements. The past year, in particular, with accession to Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation and the WTO, has highlighted Vietnam's role as an increasingly prominent regional player. And at the Communist Party's five-yearly congress in April, the 'old friends' were conspicuous by their absence. Previously, they would turn out in force to lend visible support, from African Marxist revolutionaries to members of the US Communist Party. But this year, it was a solely Vietnamese affair, with outsiders limited to messages of goodwill. 'They're welcome, but everybody knows the future is elsewhere,' one Vietnamese official said privately.