DAILY amid maps, files, and computers filling the third floor of Hanoi's Boss Hotel, the search for more than 2,000 Americans missing in Indochina continues.
In the expansive office established by the United States last summer, up to a half dozen staff sift reports, stories, and pictures in hopes of answering the question pivotal to Hanoi's return to the world's economic mainstream: Are captive Americans still alive in Vietnam?
During his current swing through Asia, President Bush reaffirmed the economic embargo blocking US trade and investment in Vietnam until Hanoi makes a full accounting of missing US servicemen. Hamstrung by powerful veterans' and conservative lobbies in the US, Mr. Bush is resisting mounting pressure from an impatient Japan and even hard-line allies such as Singapore which say it is time to welcome Vietnam officially into the fast-growing regional economy.
With dismay, Vietnamese leaders admit privately that an end to the blockade is unlikely before the 1992 US presidential vote, but optimists say the break could come as early as this summer.
Most important for Vietnam, removing the embargo would allow loans from the World Bank and other international financial institutions - loans desperately needed to rebuild roads, power plants, airports, and other devastated infrastructure.
Yet this week, amid Hanoi's grey winter skies and deteriorated colonial facades, the end to Vietnam's economic isolation seems as distant as ever. Even as Bush was underscoring the embargo, Vietnamese and US investigators were reeling with new revelations that KGB secret police officials of the former Soviet Union interrogated American prisoners of war here after the war ended in 1975 and as recently as 1978. Vietnam had announced that all prisoners of were returned soon after the signing of a 1973 peace
For Vietnam, the disclosure is potentially more damaging than a picture allegedly showing three imprisoned American servicemen which triggered a furor in the US last year. After fresh investigation and diplomatic scurrying, Washington later declared the photo a fake and praised Vietnam for what US officials say is a more cooperative attitude.
However, discrediting the Soviet secret police testimony will be tougher for Vietnam, Western and Asian observers say. Vietnamese officials have have not commented on the report.
"It seems to be starting all over again," says a Western diplomat in Hanoi. "The Vietnamese desperately want the issue to go away, and the Americans aren't too happy with the timing of it either."
Vietnam maintains that it will outlast this latest of many controversies which have failed to derail the country's blossoming investment and trade outlook. Taiwan and Singapore, longtime US allies, have defiantly become Vietnam's largest trading partners, while other noncommunist countries in Southeast Asia are scrambling to establish business links with Hanoi. Still, Vietnam admits that US sanctions continue to overshadow the country's economic rebirth after almost a half century of war, political turmo il, and dislocation.
"The policy of the United States is unreasonable and opposite to the policy of its neighbors and allies," says Nguyen Ngoc Troung, editor of the World Affairs Review, a new foreign policy journal in Hanoi.
"Relations within the region are good. Only relations with the United States are abnormal, and that makes the picture for the region incomplete," he says.