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Vietnam's Economy Reaches Crisis

Loss of Soviet aid, return of workers from abroad are latest blows

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GERMAN reunification cost Nguyen Viet Hao his job. Two years ago, the Vietnamese laborer went to East Germany as a contract worker. That allowed East Germany, through the earnings Mr. Hao sent home, to fulfill communism's commitment to the developing world.

Then suddenly the cold war was over, the Berlin Wall came down, and the two Germanys raced to reunify. With his East German factory defunct and his contract canceled, Hao is back in Vietnam, waiting for work.

``This was sudden, just like the unification of Germany,'' he says. ``These economic problems are happening to East German people as well as Vietnamese people.''

Vietnam's economy, buttressed for years by East-bloc aid, is in crisis. The Soviet Union and Eastern European countries are abandoning fraternal aid for bare-knuckled commerce.

The new order is upending Vietnam, for years a loyal Soviet satellite. In the past five years, the Soviet Union plowed $16 billion into Vietnam, including an estimated $1.3 billion annually in military assistance. But now aid is disappearing. And starting next year, trade with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, about 60 percent of Vietnam's 1989 total, will be on a hard-cash basis. Vietnam is seeking to postpone payments on its $18 billion debt to the Soviet Union.

The economic changes already affect two crucial commodities. Vietnam, which used to get its entire fuel supply subsidized by the Soviets, now gets assistance with 70 percent of its supply. Fertilizer shipments are also down due to Soviet shortages. The lack of fertilizer will trim rice production and hard-currency exports, economists say.

Most difficult is the phaseout of labor cooperation programs, under which about 180,000 Vietnamese worked in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

In East Germany, the Vietnamese migrant group was particularly large, accounting for 58,000 of the country's 85,000 foreign laborers. German officials predict two-thirds will return home. Vietnamese arrive daily on flights from Eastern Europe, happily reuniting with their families and proudly displaying new stereos, motorcycles, and radios.

But ``the economic situation in Vietnam is very hard now. The government is not interested in workers returning from Eastern Europe, because they have nothing for them,'' says Dirk Hebecker, a former East German diplomat.

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