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Vietnam Delegation Optimistic : Trade: Orange County representatives see bright prospects for business in communist nation.


HANOI — Newly arrived to this communist country, an American trade delegation including Orange County Vietnamese expatriates is finding signs of budding capitalism.

About a dozen of the Americans on Monday were surprised by an aggressive street vendor who thrust a T-shirt through an open window of their parked van. But before the vendor could complete the deal, the van sped away. Determined to make a sale, the Vietnamese woman hopped on a nearby motorbike and tailed the van about two miles back to the hotel.

She closed the deal.

"Wouldn't you like to have a sales force like that?" said Richard Elliott, 54, a regional director of Sherwin-Williams, the paint manufacturer. "I am amazed by the people here. They are always working and very resourceful."

In their first full day in Vietnam, most of the 24 American delegates expressed optimism about the business prospects in Vietnam. On Monday, the group met with high-ranking leaders of government and business who may soon become willing partners in helping American businesses ease into the Vietnamese marketplace.

"We hope the presence of all of us here will build a bridge between the U.S. and Vietnam," said Co Pham, president of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce in Orange County.

Today the group is scheduled to meet with Vietnamese Vice President Nguyen Thi Binh. And on Thursday the group will travel to Ho Chi Minh City for another round of meetings with business and government heads.

In addition to Pham, two other Orange County delegates have emerged as the group heavyweights--Kenneth Moore, president of Orange County Chamber of Commerce, and Dunson Cheng, chairman of Cathay Bank. Cheng, head of Little Saigon's largest Asian-American-run bank, and Moore were given special treatment, including a private car and audiences with the Vietnamese deputy premier, the country's deputy foreign minister, and the general secretary of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce.

At each stop Monday, Moore impressed upon local officials that Orange County's 80,000 businesses and 2.5 million people could serve as an important boost to the fledgling local economy. Orange County has the largest population of Vietnamese outside Vietnam.

"I hope we (the countywide chamber) are a valued, added component to the trade mission," said Moore, 51, who has been the organization's president for two years. "Interest in Vietnam is wider than just the overseas Vietnamese. In fact, there is a broad-based interest in Orange County to do business with Vietnam."

This year, international trade and investment with Vietnam is expected to total about $9 billion, according to the United States-Vietnamese Trade Council in Washington.

Moore said the county chamber officials considered the trade mission so important that they scraped together $5,000 from their depleted budget to send him.

Cheng, 50, is also encouraged about the business outlook between Orange County and the Southeast Asian country. Cheng is evaluating whether Cathay Bank can become a major player in connecting Southern California and Vietnamese businesses.

"For the rest of the stay here, I would like to meet local bankers to understand the banking industry," Cheng said.

Cheng is most concerned about the stability of the Vietnamese economy and ensuring that foreign investments are not wasted. He asked deputy foreign minister Le Mai about Vietnam's chances in gaining most-favored nation status with the United States.

Similarly, Pham asked government officials to consider proposals that would allow overseas Vietnamese to claim or buy back property lost when they fled the war-torn country. Pham also asked officials to relax their policies so that foreigners--and especially overseas Vietnamese--could own property in Vietnam.

According to deputy foreign minister Mai, Vietnam is striving to rebuild its economy and cannot commit to the group's requests as yet. He said Vietnam must first commit itself to upgrading the country's infrastructure--especially roads, bridges and its communications network.

"We are still a developing a nation," Mai said. "Many things require patience."

However, Mai said the Vietnamese economy is improving, pointing to an annual growth rate that could reach 9% next year. He added that Vietnam would like to send thousands of college students to the United States for an education.

While Vietnamese leaders have welcomed the American trade mission, some Orange County Vietnamese strongly opposed the delegation's direct contact with the communist regime. Before the delegates' departure, several hundred protesters converged on Pham's office to denounce the impending visit.

But the American delegates seemed pleased with what they've heard and seen of the business climate thus far.

The trade delegation really consists of 24 smaller missions, with each person advancing a particular business agenda. Some want to export aviation equipment, others are promoting food processing systems or laundry detergents. Another delegate is a real estate developer.

"There are still a lot questions to get answered," Elliott said. "We want to come here and make a buck and not to lose it. So how do we deal with the communists?"

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