By Lesley Wroughton
HO CHI MINH CITY (Reuters) - In his first visit to Vietnam as America's top diplomat, John Kerry urged the country's leaders to strengthen their commitment to human rights and allow more freedom of expression, including on the Internet.
More than four decades after he served in the Vietnam War, Kerry has returned as secretary of state to seek closer trade and security ties with a country that helped shape his political thinking as a young naval officer.
Even as he praised Vietnam's economic transformation, Kerry said lasting growth depended on promoting basic human rights and freedoms.
"Vietnam has proven that greater openness is a great catalyst for a stronger and more prosperous society and today Vietnam has a historic opportunity to prove that even further," Kerry told U.S. and Vietnamese leaders and students.
"A commitment to an open Internet, to a more open society, to the rights of people to be able to exchange their ideas, to a high-quality education, to a business environment that supports innovative companies and to the protection of individual people's human rights and their ability to be able to join together and express their views.
"The United States urges leaders here to embrace that possibility and to protect those rights," he added.
Kerry's four-day trip to the commercial hub of Ho Chi Minh City - or Saigon as he once knew it - the Mekong Delta and the capital Hanoi will be as much about his past as about promoting stronger ties with a country whose economy is fast transforming itself.
On Sunday, Kerry will return to the Mekong River Delta where he commanded an American swift patrol boat in 1968 and 1969. There he plans to take a riverboat near the waters he once patrolled to inspect farming projects and assess the impact of upstream development and climate change.
His visit to Vietnam comes as the United States tries to reach a trade deal with 11 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including Vietnam. A Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact is the centerpiece of U.S. efforts to refocus attention on the fast-growing Asia-Pacific region.
Kerry announced an initial $4.2 million for a USAID-backed program that will help implement the TPP. "This is just one more way that the United States wants to support Vietnam as it grows its own role in the global economy," Kerry said.
U.S. lawmakers pressed Kerry before his departure for Vietnam to link progress on the TPP to Vietnam's human rights record. A letter by 47 members of the House of Representatives to Kerry last week expressed concern over growing arrests of bloggers and other activists in Vietnam.
U.S. officials acknowledge that human rights in Vietnam have improved since the end of the war. But a State Department report last year cited restrictions on citizens' political rights, limits on civil liberties and corruption as major problems, along with abuse of some religious groups.
To make a point about the importance of religious freedom, Kerry strolled two blocks from his hotel to attend Mass at the nearby Notre Dame Cathedral, one of the most famous landmarks of Ho Chi Minh City built in 1887.
A senior State Department official said Kerry would raise human rights concerns in his talks with political leaders.
While Vietnam President Truong Tan Sang is out of the country attending a Japan-ASEAN summit, Kerry will meet Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh.
"The U.S. is prepared to assist Vietnam in its economic development and growth, but at the same time believes that progress on human rights and rule of law is an essential prerequisite for the kind of growth and kind of long-term stability, as well as the kind of bilateral relationship, that the Vietnamese want," the official told reporters en route to Vietnam.
"These are conversations not lectures," the official said. "The visit to Vietnam is an opportunity to be direct in private (on these issues), " the official added.
During the visit Kerry will also discuss ways in which the United States could help Vietnam with increased maritime security at a time of growing concerns over neighbor China's assertiveness in the contested South China Sea.
The heightened tensions with China have raised concerns that a minor incident in the disputed sea could quickly escalate.
U.S. and Chinese warships narrowly avoid collision in the South China Sea last week, the U.S. Pacific Fleet said in a statement on Friday.
"We do see considerable shared interests and are more than prepared to help the Vietnamese develop their legitimate ability to manage their maritime space through capacity building and other forms of assistance," the senior State Department official said.
Beijing's assertion of sovereignty over a vast stretch of the South China Sea has set it directly against Vietnam and the Philippines - the two countries Kerry is visiting - while Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also lay claim to other parts of the sea, making it one of Asia's biggest potential trouble spots.
(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Nick Macfie)