WASHINGTON (AFP) – January 13, 2010 — The only Vietnamese-American member of Congress said Wednesday he urged Hanoi's communist government to improve human rights on a quiet, restricted visit back to his nation of birth.

Representative Anh "Joseph" Cao, the son of a South Vietnamese army officer who fled to the United States when he was eight, paid his first trip back since 2001 as part of a trip to Asia during the holiday recess.

Cao, a longtime advocate for human rights who was joined by two fellow congressmen, said he agreed not to meet with dissidents, hold news conferences or issue press releases as a condition to enter Vietnam.

"The Vietnamese government did not want to issue a visa because they felt that my visit potentially could be, I guess you could say, explosive," Cao told a conference call after returning to Washington.

"In order to get the visa I had to quietly go into Vietnam and to leave quietly," Cao said.

But Cao said he raised specific concerns, including Vietnam's imprisonment of Internet activists whose blogs have rattled the government.

"I directly addressed to them the issues of human rights violations," Cao said.

Cao said he received no specific assurances on any case. But Cao said his discussions with Vietnamese unaffiliated with the government -- including his sister -- offered reason for hope.

"They all said that conditions in Vietnam have greatly improved. People are allowed to operate their businesses and allowed to worship freely, as long as obviously they don't speak out against the government," Cao said.

Cao said the primary goal of visiting Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia was to study ways to help clear up unexploded ordnance dropped by US forces that have killed thousands since the end of the Vietnam War.

He said the US contribution of 3.6 million dollars a year to Laos was only a quarter of what that nation needed.

Cao became the first Vietnamese-born member of the US Congress in 2008 when the then little-known immigration lawyer pulled off an election upset against a corruption-tainted veteran of the Democratic Party.

Cao, who represents a predominantly Democratic and African-American district, has since proven a maverick. The former seminarian was the only Republican House member to support President Barack Obama's drive to bring health care to millions of uninsured Americans.

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