HANOI, Vietnam: The second-highest-ranking U.S. diplomat, back for the first time since the Vietnam War, said Friday that he was impressed by the pace of economic change in the country and its good will toward its former foe.
Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte urged Vietnam to increase political freedom and improve its legal system but said the two sides have developed a "close partnership" that the United States would like to deepen.
"I'm very optimistic about the future of our relationship," Negroponte said during a press briefing in Hanoi on Friday morning.
Negroponte worked at the U.S. embassy in the former Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, during the Vietnam War. This is his first trip back to Vietnam since 1973.
Even though the two sides fought a "bitter and difficult" war, Negroponte said, "on both sides, there seems to be a tremendous amount of good will."
He praised Vietnam's economic growth, which has averaged roughly 7 percent a year for the last decade, describing it as an "economic miracle" that had lifted millions of Vietnamese out of poverty.
Negroponte's is the most recent in a series of high-level visits between the two countries. U.S. President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Hanoi in 2006, and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited Washington in June.
Negroponte met with Dung in Hanoi on Thursday, as well as the education minister, the foreign minister and various other officials. He is planning to meet Friday and Saturday with business leaders in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's southern business hub, before visiting neighboring Cambodia.
He said he had raised the issue of human rights in all his meetings, but did not raise specific cases.
Negroponte spoke just two days after Vietnam sentenced an Internet writer and activist to 30 months in prison for tax fraud.
Human Rights Watch issued a statement decrying the verdict against Nguyen Hoang Hai, calling it part of a "crackdown on democracy activists in Vietnam."
Hai, whose pen name is Dieu Cay, has criticized Vietnam's government for its handling of a dispute with China over the Spratly and Paracel islands, located in an area of the South China Sea believed to contain rich oil and gas reserves.