DESPITE harsh treatment of religious leaders and political dissidents in Communist-run Vietnam, the United States does not plan to reverse a dramatic improvement of ties with its former foe.
In fact, US officials see signs of gradual progress in the face of reports that Buddhists and other Vietnamese have been imprisoned for peacefully expressing their views.
''It seems to me that it's going in the right direction,'' says Nancy Ely-Raphel, a US deputy assistant secretary of state for human rights abuses.
President Clinton, who faces potential backlash at home for moving too fast in normalizing ties with Hanoi, has begun emphasizing human rights abuses in Vietnam as a form of diplomatic leverage since lifting a 19-year economic embargo against Vietnam in February 1994.
His decision to allow US companies to trade and invest in Vietnam marked the first major turning point in relations since North Vietnam defeated the US's ally, South Vietnam, in 1975. US companies have since become Vietnam's eighth-largest source of foreign investment.
Washington and Hanoi took a second step forward by opening diplomatic liaison offices in January. The offices are seen as an interim phase before opening embassies and exchanging ambassadors.
Clinton, however, wants Vietnam to do more to help resolve remaining cases of US servicemen still missing from the war. On May 16, Hanoi turned over ''quite lengthy'' archival documents relating to the missing servicemen, US officials said.
Several US senators are helping Clinton move to full ties with Hanoi, among them John McCain (R) of Arizona, John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, and Christopher Bond (R) of Missouri. Their efforts could produce a nonbinding Senate resolution urging the president to upgrade relations later this year. Such a step could provide political cover for Clinton, whose avoidance of the military draft during the war in Vietnam makes it difficult for him to act alone in improving ties.
A similar resolution last January helped give Clinton the boost he needed to lift the economic embargo. The senators see a window of opportunity for Clinton to act before the 1996 presidential campaign begins.
Ms. Ely-Raphel said Vietnam's one-party government was responsible for substantial abuses, but advised against making human-rights improvements a requirement for full diplomatic relations.
''I'm not sure I can appreciate that sort of conditionality,'' Ely-Raphel said. ''I don't know if I see the value if things are going in the direction you want.''
Some US officials say the US would play into the hands of Vietnamese hard-liners and slow down any trend toward democratization if it made human rights a condition for full ties.
The Communist Party newspaper Nhan Dan (The People) challenged the US's rights record May 16 in a possible attempt to offset an inquiry into Vietnamese conditions by Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord and other members of a presidential delegation visiting Hanoi this week.
Mr. Lord, who brought up specific cases of imprisoned Vietnamese during talks here, said ties with the US ''will depend on many factors, and that includes human rights.''
Vietnam's readiness to at least talk about its human rights marks a significant break from the past. Last October, it accepted a visit by the United Nations Human Rights Commission, which inspected three labor camps and talked with prisoners. And an Australian parliamentary delegation came in April to open a human rights dialogue with Vietnam.
''There does seem to be more of a willingness to discuss human rights in international fora,'' says Mark Girouard, a researcher for the New York-based group Human Rights Watch/Asia. But he criticizes the creeping pace of improvements.
So far, US talks with Vietnam on human rights have produced few tangible results, and Hanoi's repression of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam has, if anything, intensified, he says. On May 15, Hanoi did release Thich Hai Chanh, a Buddhist monk imprisoned for his role in antigovernment riots two years ago in the central city of Hue.
The Communist Party newspaper Saigon Liberation reported last week that the government plans to reform its religion policy to conform more closely with trends toward openness in other areas of society.
''Vietnam is not by any means the world's worst human rights violator [in the world],'' one source in the US Senate says.
The State Department plans by the end of the year to add five full-time diplomats to the staff of nine now working at the liaison office. San Francisco and Ho Chi Minh City, the former South Vietnamese capital of Saigon, recently signed a friendship pact in April, the first of its kind between American and Vietnamese cities.