Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai announced yesterday that he plans to become the country's first leader to visit the US since the Vietnam War ended 30 years ago.
Khai told reporters during a visit to Australia that he will travel to Washington at the end of next month, but it was not immediately clear with whom he would meet.
"Thirty years has passed since the end of the war; this is the first-ever visit by a leader of a unified Vietnam to the United States," Khai said.
Officials at the US embassy in Vietnam said they could not confirm the trip, and Vietnam's Foreign Ministry declined to provide additional details.
Khai's comments came a day before US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick was expected to visit Vietnam to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between the former foes.
The two countries have grown closer in the past decade in a number of areas, and rumblings of a prime ministerial visit to the US have been circulating in Hanoi for months.
"The purpose of my visit to the United States is to elevate our relationship to a higher plane," Khai said during a joint news conference with Australian Prime Minister John Howard.
In 2000, former US president Bill Clinton became the first US president to visit Vietnam since the war ended in 1975. A year later, the countries signed a landmark trade deal that has grown far beyond both sides' expectations -- netting US$6.44 billion in two-way trade last year.
Other high-level visits have also taken place, including Vietnamese Defense Minister Pham Van Tra's meeting in November 2003 with US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in Washington. Tra became the first senior military official in Hanoi's government to visit the US.
That same month, a US navy ship paid a port call to Ho Chi Minh City -- another first since the former US-backed South Vietnam surrendered to communist forces on April 30, 1975. The 30th anniversary of that date was celebrated with red silk banners, a colorful parade and speeches over the weekend in the former Saigon.
While maintaining its communist roots, Vietnam has been moving toward a market economy. It is pushing to join the WTO and is currently involved in bilateral negotiations with the US that would help boost its plan to enter the global trade body.
But despite the warming relations, some friction remains.
Last year, the US State Department named Vietnam as one of the world's worst violators of religious freedom. Vietnam has recently released a handful of dissidents from jail but continues to detain and harass those who refuse to worship in communist-approved churches.