A U.S. congressional delegation led by House Speaker Dennis Hastert began a visit to Vietnam on Thursday to help boost trade and expand relations between the two countries that were once bitter enemies.
Hastert will talk with American business people in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi and will meet with his Vietnamese counterpart National Assembly Chair Nguyen Van An and Prime Minister Phan Van Khai.
The four-day visit comes at a time when the two countries are close to concluding their negotiations on Vietnam's accession to the World Trade Organization. The communist country hopes to join the trade body before it hosts the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum this fall.
Hastert, a Republican from Illinois, is accompanied by U.S. Republican Reps. Michael Oxley of Ohio, Sherwood Boehlert of New York, Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, Ray LaHood of Illinois, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Randy Neugebauer of Texas and Democrat Rep. Dan Boren of Oklahoma.
Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat, rejected a visa to join the delegation after she learned she would not be permitted to visit Vietnam's restive Central Highlands or to meet with religious and political dissidents.
Sanchez, an outspoken critic of Vietnam's human right's record, represents the largest U.S. population of overseas Vietnamese in Orange County, California.
Washington has placed intense pressure on Vietnam to improve human rights after including it on a list of the world's worst violators of religious freedom for two consecutive years. Vietnam has responded by releasing some jailed dissidents, but it continues to allow only a handful of government-approved religions to operate. Hanoi maintains that no one is jailed for religious or political beliefs.
Relations, however, have warmed considerably since then-President Bill Clinton lifted a trade embargo on Vietnam in 1994, followed by the signing of a landmark bilateral trade deal in 2001.
Since then, there have been a series of exchanges of high-level visits, U.S. Navy warships have made port calls to Vietnam and direct United Airlines flights now connect Vietnam to San Francisco, reports the AP.
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