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The dinner speech showed how far America and Vietnam have come - and how far they have to go.

When the highest-ranking Vietnamese official to visit the United States since the Vietnam War told 200 business executives it was time to put the past behind, they stood and loudly applauded.Yet, the executives' hands are tied by a U.S. trade embargo designed to force Vietnam to be more helpful in accounting for American servicemen missing in the Vietnam War.

Executives also face another obstacle: the slice of U.S. public opinion that vehemently opposes friendship with Vietnam. As First Vice Premier Van Van Khai spoke that autumn evening at New York's swanky Plaza Hotel, 50 protesters - American war veterans and Vietnamese expatriates - marched outside to denounce the Hanoi government.

Whether American companies soon get a foothold in a Vietnamese economy rejuvenated by free-market reforms depends on how much the United States insists on using the embargo to solve the most painful legacy of the war.

With the backing of some veterans groups, Washington is insisting that before it drops the embargo, Hanoi must hand over all its information on American MIAs.

The cost to U.S. business is substantial. European and Asian companies are building factories and snapping up contracts that could have gone to Americans.

While American corporations like IBM, Citibank and Caterpillar publicly fret, war veterans and relatives of the missing agonize over the more than 2,220 men left behind unaccounted for.

"This is tearing up the families," said Dick Christian, deputy director of research for the American Legion, which represents 3 million veterans. "We hear from the government that there's great cooperation (from Vietnam), but there's nobody that's been able to give us a measurement thus far."

Few people are willing to guess when Washington might drop the embargo, but The Washington Post said that senior U.S. officials were close to a consensus that it should be ended. The U.S. military announced Dec. 20 that the largest team ever - more than 80 Americans, including four excavation teams - would spend more than three weeks in January with Vietnamese searching for MIAs.

Business had high hopes the embargo would be dropped on Sept. 13, its yearly renewal date. But President Clinton renewed the embargo, although he did loosen it. Saying Vietnam had helped on MIA cases, he freed American businesses to bid on projects there financed by international aid organizations.

Since then, the number of U.S. companies with permission from Washington to look for, but not act on, opportunities in Vietnam has shot from about 170 to almost 300.

At least 15 American companies, including BankAmerica, Caterpillar, Citibank and General Electric, have opened offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, a member of both the Senate Foreign Affairs and Veterans committees, has drafted a bill to drop the embargo. He and others on Capitol Hill feel economic prosperity in Vietnam would help foster what America tried to win in the war: democracy and capitalism.

The embargo may no longer have the desired leverage. Europeans and Asians - engineering firms, airplane makers, computer companies and more - already are selling in Vietnam. And a bevy of American products, from cosmetics to computers, are going into Vietman from third countries.

Devastated after decades of war and deprivation, Vietnam will spend billions of dollars to rebuild over the next decade, "and those decisions are being made right now," said Virginia Foote, director of the United States-Vietnam Trade Council, a Washington-based business group.

IBM and Digital Equipment have signed agreements to help Vietnam plan $300 million in information technology purchases over the next seven years.

GE sees between $300 million and $500 million in potential sales from Vietnam's effort to rebuild its infrastructure, "things like power plants, jet engines, medical equipment and locomotives," said George Jamison, a company spokesman.

Robert Laird, Boeing's Asia-Pacific sales director, said the aircraft manufacturer could sell $3 billion to $5 billion worth of planes to Vietnam if the embargo was lifted.

"That's quite a few jobs at Boeing," said Laird, who has made 14 trips to Vietnam in 20 months.

Laird said increasingly impatient Vietnam Airlines officials who wanted Boeing 737 passenger planes instead opted for five A-320s built by Boeing's European rival, the Airbus Industrie consortium.

He said that once Vietnam Airlines' pilots and mechanics received training from Airbus, the airline would buy more of the European jets, and it might be 10 years before Boeing got another chance.

Vietnam's economy has been growing strongly since the Communist leaders began jettisoning market controls and central planning in 1986. The government has approved $7 billion in foreign investment, although only $1.8 billion has been paid in so far. The major investors are from Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Australia.

The World Bank and Asian Development Bank have loaned more than $600 million to Vietnam since October. They and other lenders are expected to offer at least $3 billion over the next three years.

The loans, in turn, should encourage private banks.

"We are optimistic about the future of that country," said Sharon Tucker, a BankAmerica spokeswoman.

Even if the embargo is dropped, however, American business may not be satisfied. Importers will push for Vietnam to get "most favored nation" status, which greatly reduces tariffs and other U.S. barriers to a nation's goods. Other companies will want U.S. government loan guar-antees.

"Even if the embargo is lifted, will the POW activists be able to stir up sentiment against people doing business there?" asked Hank Poli, associate director of the Washington-based Indochina Project, a reconciliation program of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation.

Mobil sent a letter of apology to angry veterans groups after it gave a reception in October in the former presidential palace in Ho Chi Minh City.

But Mobil announced Dec. 21 it won the bidding for the right to explore for oil with three Japanese companies in an offshore field that Mobil discovered off southern Vietnam just before the war ended in 1975. Under the embargo, Mobil can gather seismic data and do test drilling, but it cannot pump or sell oil.

Bill Smith, director of public affairs for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which has 2.2 million members, said there is more at stake than dollars and cents.

"We have the integrity of dealing with our veterans and the integrity of our nation," he said. "It's not simply a business decision."