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Vietnam plans hard sell to lure much-needed foreign investment

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In its latest attempt to put a fallen economy on its feet, Hanoi plans a promotional blitz for a new investment law, serving notice to foreign capitalists that Vietnam is now ``open for business.'' But the code is not just to attract capital or to learn Western management techniques, admit Vietnam's communist leaders. One aim is to further weaken a Western economic blockade against Vietnam, imposed after its 1979 occupation of Cambodia.

The law's terms are generous compared to those in other capital-hungry nations, according to several interested Southeast Asia businessmen, who point to one provision granting 100 percent foreign ownership. Such terms are needed if Vietnam wants to catch up with its neighbors, especially China, in luring Western money and technology.

The code has been so long promised that its passage in December by the National Assembly, after more than three years of debate, was anticlimactic. It also left suspicions among some potential investors that the Communist Party has yet to resolve how to implement it.

Will, for instance, investments from the Soviet Union and its allies be favored over those from capitalist countries? Will Frenchmen be allowed to return to their former colony and buy up old rubber plantations, a sore point for elder communist war horses who shed blood fighting ``imperialism.''

The law does not specify exchange rates or even which agency will manage the law, thus leaving escape hatches for a government accustomed to rigid state intervention, according to one American businessman who visited Vietnam last month.

Just the same, hotels in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are crowded with Asians, Europeans, and even Hong Kong-based Americans who hope to tap Vietnam's inexpensive labor force - average wages are five to ten dollars a month, although foreign companies will likely pay more.

The stack of investment applications, says one Vietnamese official, is ``a foot high,'' and Japanese investors top the list.

Other laws in such business-related areas as banking and technology transfer will need approval before investors can feel at ease working in the country, says Vo Dong Giang, chairman of the state commission for foreign economic relations. The investment code is just one of many capitalist-oriented steps taken by the party since 1986.


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