On offer: high-end sushi, Italian cuisine, craft beers costing five times as much as mass-produced lager, and other foreign fare. Consumers sport iPhones and other premium handsets.

This scene in Ho Chi Minh City reflects what Boston Consulting Group says is Southeast Asia's fastest-growing middle class. According to BCG the "middle and affluent class" earning $714 a month or more in Vietnam will double to 33 million people, about a third of the population, between 2014 and 2020.

Marketing researcher Nielsen estimates that the number of middle-class Vietnamese will reach 44 million by 2020 and 95 million by 2030. Foreign brands such as Samsung Electronics, Starbucks, Dell and others are plowing into the market to capture this growing segment of consumers.

Highlighting the scale of the market, Paul Nguyen, chief executive of Canada-based insurer Manulife, told the Nikkei Asian Review: "The opportunities for life insurers are limitless in Vietnam." Nguyen said Vietnam is the most "under-insured" country in Southeast Asia, with 17 insurances companies offering perks to entice customers.

"The country is under-insured, but a growing life insurance market is attracting foreign players to join the market," said Nguyen. Manulife reported a 69% surge in annualized premium equivalent insurance sales in Vietnam to 1.68 trillion dong ($75.3 million) in 2015 from the previous year.

Anh Nguyen, 25, works for a European organization and the family business. Despite earning $1,000 each month, she lives at home and spends just $2.25 a month on gas for her motor scooter. Nguyen said she considers foreign foods an "investment" along with overseas travel. "I'd say with that amount of money it's not luxury, but I can live comfortably. If I need to travel, it's not a struggle," she said.

But it is not just the urban elite that is contributing to Vietnam's growing middle class. The government has invested in agricultural infrastructure to raise the incomes of rural communities too, said Aparna Bharadwaj, a BCG principal who covers Southeast Asia. Around 66% of Vietnam's 94 million people live in the countryside.

Vietnam's urban-rural parity relative to other countries "comes from conscious government investment in rural development and agricultural development," Bharadwaj said. "That allows the middle class to not be confined just to metropolitan areas and large cities but to disperse very rapidly to smaller towns and rural areas."

Since it was devastated by war in the 1960s and 1970s Vietnam has been trying to rebuild its economy and has encouraged foreign investment in export manufacturing since 1987. Foreign direct investment of $22.76 billion last year pushed annual growth in Vietnamese gross domestic product to a five-year record high of 6.7%.

High-value electronics developers such as Taiwan's Hon Hai Precision Industry and Samsung Electronics have ramped up production locally alongside more traditional exporters of clothing and car parts.

By Ralph Jennings - Nikkei Asian Review - October 22, 2016