US lifting of trade embargo heralds boom for Vietnam: Washington ends opposition to IMF refinancing of Hanoi's debts

THE Vietnamese Prime Minister, Vo Van Kiet, arrives in Britain today to an eager reception from businessmen, who see yesterday's relaxation of the US embargo on Hanoi as the starting gun in a race for orders.

President Bill Clinton announced yesterday that Washington would no longer oppose a request by Vietnam to refinance debts of dollars 140m ( pounds 93m) to the International Monetary Fund. The IMF's executive board meets on 12 July. Approval for the refinancing would immediately open the way for a flood of lending to Vietnam to repair the country's infrastructure, which has remained devastated since the end of the Vietnam war 18 years ago.

While pressure from the families of servicemen missing in Vietnam is likely to prevent the US trade embargo being lifted any time soon, any concession by Washington will be welcome to American businessmen, who have watched their competitors get a head-start in a growing market of 70 million people. British companies have been active in exploring for offshore oil and gas, with some pounds 370m having been invested by British Petroleum, British Gas and Enterprise Oil, among others.

Mr Kiet, a 71-year-old southerner who was once a political commissar in the Viet Cong, is one of the chief architects of Vietnam's policy of doi moi - renovation, or reform - which seeks to emulate China's success in promoting market economics while maintaining the Communist Party's monopoly of politics. As in China, the new approach has raised people's incomes and given them more control over their lives, but at the cost of greater corruption among officials, whose inefficiency has also been exposed by faster economic development - growth reached 8.3 per cent last year.

Although the 're-education' camps set up after the end of the Vietnam war have now been closed, human rights groups say there are several hundred people jailed for offences considered political, particularly Buddhists accused of promoting separatism in the former South Vietnam. Human rights concerns will be raised on Monday, when Mr Kiet and his Foreign Minister, Nguyen Manh Cam, begin a round of official meetings with ministers, including one with John Major at Downing Street.

Most of the three days will be distinctly commercial, with the Vietnamese leaders being whisked to a North Sea oil rig as soon as they arrive today, and being entertained in Edinburgh tonight by offshore equipment suppliers. Mr Kiet, a keen tennis fan, will also watch the men's singles final at Wimbledon tomorrow.

British aid to Vietnam, currently around pounds 10m a year, is expected to increase sharply - possibly to around double that figure - as a result of the visit. Most of the aid at present is to resettle Vietnamese boat people who have returned from Hong Kong. Although more than 40,000 remain in camps in the colony, 25,000 of whom have already been 'screened out' as economic migrants rather than refugees, the issue has ceased to dominate bilateral relations as the number of new arrivals dwindles. Last year only nine boat people reached Hong Kong.

Vietnam, according to British sources, has kept its promise not to victimise returning boat people. Hanoi is said to have been exemplary in implementing the Cambodian peace accords, one of the conditions imposed by the US in 1991 for improving relations with its former enemy.