Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet
Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet - 
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SCOTT JAGOW: Vietnam's president begins a historic visit to the U.S. today. It's the first time since the war that Vietnam's head of state has come here. Both countries see economic benefits to working together. More now from Jeremy Hobson.

Jeremy Hobson: Trade between the U.S. and Vietnam is worth almost $10 billion a year.

With Vietnam's entry into the World Trade Organization last January, that figure is sure to rise, but there's also something the U.S. finds particularly attractive about Vietnam, says University of Virginia Professor Brantley Womack.

Brantley Womack: It has a similar type of political and economic structure to China and yet it is not China.

Vietnam has a cheap, educated labor force. By investing there, American companies hedge their bets against the uncertainties of U.S.-Chinese trade relations.

For the Vietnamese, Womack says, the president's visit has great symbolic weight.

Womack: This is far more important as a general reassurance than specific accomplishment of this or that business contract.

The visit could also sooth tensions on human rights. Some U.S. politicians have protested the arrest of several high-profile Vietnamese dissidents.

I'm Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.