The trade mission from Orange County met with the Vietnamese vice president here Tuesday, and the delegation's leader urged the communist government to consider policy reform allowing overseas Vietnamese to claim or buy back properties lost when they fled the war-torn country years ago.
Co Pham, president of the Westminster-based Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, made the proposal during a 90-minute meeting between the delegates and Vietnamese Vice President Nguyen Thi Binh in the plush, high-ceiling presidential palace here.
"The Vietnamese overseas would like favorable laws so we can . . . claim our properties and belongings" abandoned when 2 million Vietnamese fled their native land after the United States pulled out of the Vietnam War in 1975, Pham said.
Binh, who was the highest ranking official the 24 delegates will meet, said only that she would "convey the message" to Vietnamese lawmakers.
The issue of lost properties is important to Vietnamese residents in Orange County, many of whom denounced this first trade mission, which is largely sponsored by Vietnamese overseas. Local opponents say renewed trade between the United States and Vietnam could stimulate this nation's poor economy and thus keep alive a communist government that has a questionable human rights record.
Some in the Vietnamese American community have lobbied the U.S. government to solve the issue of lost properties before restoring diplomatic ties with Hanoi.
Pham said Tuesday that he brought up the sensitive political topic even though he did not expect government officials here to accept the request.
"This issue is too important to the Vietnamese expatriates not to bring up," Pham said.
While most of the Vietnamese Americans on the trip agree that the issue of lost properties is important, they do not believe that Vietnamese Americans ever will be allowed to reclaim the properties they left.
"If you abandon a house . . . forget it," said Hieu Phan, an architect from Westminster.
Pham also asked Binh to pay attention to freedom and democracy for the citizens of Vietnam.
"We have learned . . . that if people can develop economically in a free way, the country will be better," he said.
The vice president requested that her American guests support Vietnam's quest for diplomatic recognition and most-favored nation trading status from Washington.
Several of the delegates told her they will contact their U.S. elected officials on Vietnam's behalf.
"I assure you I will urge my congressmen to speed up the normalization process and to give Vietnam MFN status," said Dunson Cheng, chairman of Cathay Bank, a Los Angeles firm with a branch in the center of Little Saigon in Westminster.
Though President Clinton lifted the trade embargo in February, it is difficult to protect U.S. interests in Vietnam without formal normalization between Hanoi and Washington, a problem businesses face when entering the Vietnamese market.
The trade delegation on Tuesday also met with a U.S. State Department official for a briefing on the current political and economic situation in Vietnam, as well as the unresolved issue of unaccounted-for U.S. servicemen. That meeting was closed to reporters.
On Thursday, the trade mission moves to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, for another round of meetings with Vietnamese politicians and business professionals. Delegates return to the United States on Monday.
The delegation had hoped to meet with Vietnam's President Le Duc Anh during their weeklong stay, but it is not possible, said Hoang Cong Thuy of the Viet Nam-USA Society, which is coordinating the Americans' visit.
"The president has too tight of a schedule," Thuy said. "He is meeting with the Chinese delegation."