Vietnam says woman representing country at Miss Universe pageant is not Miss Vietnam; organizers say she can compete

A week before Miss Vietnam was set to stride across the stage in her swimsuit and evening gown at the Miss Universe pageant, officials in her home country on Tuesday said she hadn't earned the sash.

Pageant organizers say Pham Thu Hang, 22, can compete in the May 31 competition in Bangkok, Thailand, but Vietnamese officials said the real Miss Vietnam is studying in the United Kingdom and that Hang merely won a local contest.

"She was the winner of a Hanoi beauty contest," said Le Ngoc Cuong, director of the Ministry of Culture's Performance Art Department. "She is not qualified to represent Vietnam."

Cuong said his office has asked the Hanoi department that licensed the Miss Hanoi contest to have the final say on whether Hang can represent Vietnam.

Miss Universe pageant organizers were told of Hang's situation weeks ago and agreed to allow her to compete, said MaryHilliard Harrington, spokeswoman for the pageant.

"We are confident that this is Miss Vietnam and Miss Vietnam Universe," she said. "We believe these are rumors started by the press in Vietnam."

Harrington said Miss Universe organizers reached their conclusion after looking at documentation, photos and video along with speaking to someone in Vietnam who helped organize the Miss Universe pageant there.

Vu Phuong, director of the Hanoi Cultural Fund, which organized the local contest that Hang won earlier this month, said Miss Universe organizers invited her to participate in the globally televised event alongside women representing 80 other countries.

The Ho Chi Minh City Law newspaper quoted vice minister of culture and information Le Tien Tho as saying Vietnam will inform Miss Universe organizers that Hang did not win or place in the national competition.

The Vietnam title was won by Nguyen Thi Huyen, 19, in October 2004. A month later, she was selected as one of 15 finalists at the Miss World competition in China and has since moved abroad to study. It was unclear why the runner-up to the national competition was not invited to participate in the Miss Universe pageant if Huyen could not attend.

Tho said cultural officials will not intervene if the Miss Universe organizers accept Hang's status.

Officials at the Hanoi Culture and Information Department, which licensed the competition in Hanoi, were not available for comment Tuesday.

TRAN VAN MINH, Associated Press Writer

On the photo: Nguyen Thi Huyen (left), Pham Thu Hang (right)

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