HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez touted Vietnam's booming economy Monday, saying there was great potential to expand trade ties between the United States and its former foe.
''Vietnam is one of the fastest-growing countries in the world, and it is going to continue to grow at a very fast pace,'' said Gutierrez, who is leading a delegation of U.S. business leaders. ''The potential is very strong and the opportunities are very strong.''
Since the United States and Vietnam implemented a bilateral trade deal in 2001, he noted, two-way trade has grown to nearly $10 billion a year from $1.5 billion a year.
''We have a strong future together,'' he said. ''We have a strong partnership.''
Gutierrez met Monday morning with Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. He also will travel to the southern business hub of Ho Chi Minh City during his three-day visit.
''The people and the government of Vietnam are very delighted with the fine cooperation between the United States and Vietnam,'' Dung said, welcoming Gutierrez at the prime minister's office.
''I believe that your visit will help further strengthen the development of relations between our countries, particularly in trade and investment,'' Dung said.
Gutierrez was accompanied by representatives from 22 American companies, including Dow Chemical Co., Ford Motor Co., 3M Co., Alcoa Inc. and Northwest Airlines Corp.
The visit was the first Cabinet-led U.S. business mission to Vietnam, which joined the World Trade Organization earlier this year and fought the U.S. in a war that ended in 1975.
Some members of the U.S. delegation are already doing business in Vietnam, while others are still exploring the market, home to the second-youngest population in Asia.
''We're very bullish on Vietnam,'' said Brady Southwick, regional director of Cummins Inc., a manufacturing firm that intends to expand its operations in Vietnam. ''The demographics are very good, and we see it as a real growth market for us.''
Vietnam's economy is growing more than 8 percent a year and attracting interest from companies around the world. Foreign investment exceeded $10 billion last year and is expected to reach $13 billion this year.
The United States is the sixth-largest foreign investor in Vietnam, behind Asian countries such as South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
American companies have more than 500 investment projects in Vietnam with a total capital of $5 billion, Dung told Gutierrez.
Vietnam is drawing increasing attention from investors, although many foreign firms still have concerns about the business climate in communist Vietnam, a developing country that has been intensifying its free-market reforms over the last decade.
Business leaders here say Vietnam needs to improve its infrastructure, legal system and enforcement of intellectual property rights. Gutierrez said businessmen had shared such concerns with him during the visit.
He also said the U.S. hoped to even out the balance of trade between the two nations, which heavily favors Vietnam.
Last year, Vietnamese exports accounted for nearly 90 percent of the trade between the two nations.
''We don't want to reduce the trade deficit by limiting imports to the United States,'' Gutierrez said, adding that the U.S. simply wanted fair access to Vietnamese markets. ''We want to be able to export more.''