IN Ho Chi Minh City, dozens of prostitutes gather at dusk in a park, oblivious to the huge billboards warning of the terror of AIDS hung above them. In the Mekong Delta further south, state truckers stop for a beer and a cuddle with hostesses at one of dozens of burgeoning roadside bia om joints. In Hanoi's old quarter, a prominent state factory owner has a bamboo screen pulled across the middle of a restaurant so he can sip brandy and grope the waitresses in private. There is little doubt, officials and residents say, that vice is on the upswing across the country in a heady combination of greater financial and social freedom and foreign influences. Many, including at the highest levels of the state, fear that Vietnam must take stronger steps to beat the underside of open door economics, the emerging market of vice. 'If you have faced austerity for years and now you have money, status and opportunity, the fastest way to spend it is through vice - that is the attraction for many,' one official warns. Those steps are now being drawn up by a new body - the Department of Social Evils Prevention - with a clear mandate from Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet. 'The Prime Minister has made it clear that he not only wants us to drive back the social evils but he wants them stamped out altogether,' said Hoang Van Quynh the department's head of education, promotion and policy. 'We are aiming to get it under control by the year 2000, and if we can control it, we can then take other measures to destroy it altogether.' Foreign businessmen and state and Communist Party officials will not be spared as greater use is made of existing anti-prostitution and corruption laws, which may soon face review to beef them up. Mr Quynh said prostitutes had to be seen as 'patients', and if caught repeatedly would be sent to 'concentration centres' for medical treatment and job training. Clients could face a range of fines and re-education, while brothel keepers and the corrupt could face lengthy jail terms. Any state and party officials would face official reports and career-destroying disciplinary action. Eventually, department officers will be posted to every small town to bring all state agencies together in the crackdown. The market economy and outside influences could not be blamed entirely, because states such as Singapore had managed both market-led growth and social control, he said. The recent emergence of armed gangsterism in a now broken-up brothel and restaurant operation in Nha Trang, and a Taiwanese-Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee joint venture operation funding a popular hostess club had underpinned the urgent need for new efforts. Mr Quynh said: 'It is a fact that we are worried that prostitution will eventually be widely accepted unless we take action now . . . I don't think it has been accepted yet, it's against the tradition of Vietnamese society. 'I believe our drive is in conformity with the cultural beliefs of Asian people and Vietnamese people in particular.' At the Stanley Ho-controlled casino in Do Son, a fishing village in the far north, gaming managers are not so sure of the merits of vice-free future. 'The authorities would be best to keep one eye open and one eye closed . . . our customers like women,' one operator said.