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Twenty years after America's soldiers left Vietnam, its businessmen are eager to return.

Encouraged by a recent easing of the U.S. trade embargo, a group of leading businessmen visited Vietnam in February. It was the largest American commercial delegation since the Communists defeated the U.S.-backed government in 1975.Countries with more conciliatory policies are far ahead in trade and investment, including Japan, Singapore, Australia, Taiwan and South Korea.

While the American visitors were here, President Francois Mitterrand of France, the former colonial power, paid a ground-breaking visit and brought along many French businessmen. Aviation and telecommunications agreements were signed.

The Clinton administration has indicated it will continue the U.S. policy of not lifting the embargo or establishing relations without the fullest possible accounting for more than 2,000 U.S. servicemen still listed as missing in action.

"The Americans are quite late. Almost the whole world is here already," said Nguyen Xuan Oanh, a former Harvard economics professor who advises the Vietnamese government.

But he added that U.S. businessmen should be able to recapture part of a market they once dominated. "if the Americans come," Oanh said, "I think there will be an explosion of enthusiasm."

Nguyen Duy Le of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce said his government is "reserving part of the pie" for Americans, but "the outcome in the beginning will not be as they desire. Sometimes the way of doing business here is a little bit slow."

Western-style economic reforms that began in 1986 could turn this nation of 70 million into Asia's most lucrative new market.

There is great demand for American products, and many are smuggled in from Thailand.

Outdoor markets in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, sell American facial tissues, toothpaste and disposable shavers. A government-owned department store offers American soaps, shampoos and sunglasses.

Other familiar U.S. goods are manufactured under license outside the United States and shipped to Vietnam. Coca-Cola canned in Singapore is available in nearly every restaurant in the city.

U.S. companies began actively maneuvering for position after Dec. 14, when the Bush administration said they could open offices and make contracts for execution when the embargo is lifted.

Many companies have sent representatives to explore opportunities, including Lockheed and the investment bank Goldman Sachs. Oanh said Bank of America and Citibank had been authorized to open representative offices.

Northwest, Delta and United air lines all want landing rights, and "if they come in, it will be in a big way," he said.

Petroleum is one of several areas - including banking, aviation, construction and telecommunications - where American corporations would have financial or technological advantages.

There are reports, however, that Asian and European companies have snapped up many of the most promising exploration areas. An executive at one such company said the Vietnamese "got fed up" with waiting for the embargo to end.

Vietnam is estimated to have at least 1 billion barrels of proven reserves, and exports of crude oil are its main source of foreign exchange.

Americans are not expected to arrive en masse even when the embargo is lifted.

Along with abundant natural resources and disciplined, cheap labor, Vietnam also has an infrastructure ravaged by war, a bewildering bureaucracy and no legal framework for business.