IN the rural Vietnamese province of Hai Hung, 48-year-old Nguyen sits with her two slender teenage boys inside their mud hut. Nguyen says she is too sick to work the 360 square meters of rice to support her family, so her sons farm the land. They have no money and no time for schooling, and outside support for her family is virtually nonexistent.
More than half of Vietnam's population has been born in the 18 years since the end of the Vietnam War. For the children and their mothers who suffer the devastating effects of the ongoing punitive United States embargo and misguided Vietnamese government policies, the past controls their future.
For nearly two decades, the US has blocked multilateral funding to build hospitals, clinics, roads, and irrigation and dike systems, and it still denies advanced technology to this poor nation. Further, the Hanoi government, worried about China and an embittered US, has directed scarce resources toward building one of the word's largest militaries, at the expense of rural development projects.
The World Bank ranks Vietnam as one of the most impoverished nations on earth. Sixty percent of the rural population drinks unsafe water. A recent survey by Vietnam's National Women's Union documents the rapid deterioration in the health of rural women, who are the primary food producers in most families. Few health-care services exist in the countryside, and an estimated 35 to 40 percent of rural children are malnourished.
There have been hopeful signs that the US might finally declare the Vietnam War over and end its punishment of Hanoi. President Clinton's decision to end US blockage of international bank loans to Vietnam is a welcome first step. Vietnam will finally be able to pay off the $140 million owed to the International Monetary Fund, a prerequisite to gaining access to international credit markets.
While Mr. Clinton's partial lifting of the embargo against Vietnam also is welcome, more is urgently needed. By continuing any aspect of this punitive embargo, Clinton has succumbed to purely domestic pressures at the expense of reconciling a war that ended nearly 20 years ago.
To assist Vietnam's transition to a market economy, Washington must place normalizing relations on a fast track for the benefit of both nations. While US firms can now bid on World Bank-financed projects in Vietnam - 25 percent of World Bank projects worldwide are US-funded - Hanoi quickly is signing joint-venture contracts with Japanese, Taiwanese, and Australian companies to produce everything from beer to cars. More than 400 foreign-investment applications in Vietnam were filed by December 1992, and US businesses eagerly seek to join in.
Lifting the embargo cannot be a business decision alone. Vietnam has entered a tricky period of economic reform, while attempting to minimize the social and economic impact upon those most vulnerable: women, children, and the elderly. Pressures mount to cut its bloated military and direct more resources to address issues of rural poverty.
New structural adjustment requirements imposed by the multilateral funding institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, likely will demand severe cuts in government subsidies for existing limited social services. Rural development programs likewise will suffer at the expense of urban infrastructure development and projects focused on export industries and agriculture. In anticipation of these requirements, the government has eliminated support to schools, making free education a lost dream.
Washington must assist Hanoi's efforts to enter the market economy and help the country avoid accumulating, debilitating foreign debt, while supporting development projects for Vietnam's majority poor.
Southeast Asian nations see Vietnam as an important regional partner. Potential Chinese expansion into the South China Sea and elsewhere worries Thailand and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Last year, the ASEAN nations signed a treaty of ``amity and cooperation'' with Hanoi, leading eventually to Vietnam's full membership. At a time of decreasing US military presence in the area, Washington clearly would welcome increased regional stability.
The suffering of US family members who lost servicemen and women during the war is a tragedy that confronts us to this day. We all deserve a final report on the 2,200 Americans still listed as missing in action. But this issue cannot control our nation's response to the Vietnamese people's staggering need for assistance.
Improved diplomatic relations and closer trade ties between our nations may further speed the process. The Vietnamese, who recently have cooperated more fully with US investigators, still have an estimated 300,000 of their own missing.
The US must join in helping build Vietnam by immediately ending the 18-year-old embargo. Hanoi is ready and willing to move relations forward. But Washington must also look forward to a new future relationship and finally leave the past behind. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by amil to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.