IF Vietnam has made great strides forging ties with former enemies this year, then it is now making sure it is not forgetting old friends. As the glare fades from the normalisation of relations with Washington and member-ship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the spotlight has been turned on countries as diverse as Iran and Sudan. Pictures of the smiling presidents of both nations have been splashed across the pages of Vietnam's state press in recent days to mark high-profile state visits to Hanoi. Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani told Vietnam's leaders his country was 'ready to take part' in Vietnam's economic development. His Sudanese counterpart General Omar Hassan Ahmed el-Bashir strolled along the red carpet of Hanoi's Presidential Palace talking of a desire to strengthen 'treasured' bonds. Eyebrows were raised in western missions across Hanoi, not least in Washington's new embassy. US officials used new ties with Hanoi counterparts to 'in-formally' outline stern Washington concern over links with both countries, sources said. Iran is a hot topic. The Clinton administration slapped a total trade embargo on it in June as punishment for alleged support of terrorism, the development of nuclear weapons and human rights violations. 'There was nothing sinister in the visits but Washington's policy on both states was made very clear,' one US official said. 'It was not a matter of commenting on Vietnam's foreign policies, but more making sure Washington's position was firmly understood.' Other observers judged the profile accorded both visits all part of recent drives to re-assert Vietnam's independence and Communist Party domination as the country becomes more open than ever. 'It's a message to show they are free to choose their own friends . . . the whole power of Vietnamese sovereignty is back in vogue now,' one Western diplomat said. Recent weeks have seen President Le Duc Anh call for even greater party control over the whole political system. Premier Vo Van Kiet has master-minded a vice crackdown hitting 'noxious' foreign influences, such as pornography and violent music videos. Regulations controlling tourists and foreigners living and working in Vietnam are now being far more strictly enforced. Several key areas of foreign investment are under review and are expected to lead to greater Vietnamese control. Vietnam's foreign policy is led by a desire to have as many contacts as possible, based on mutual respect for independence. 'We want peace and development,' one official said. 'To get this, we need as many friends as possible without interference. Our drive is that simple.' This has seen Hanoi's leaders simultaneously seek better ties, with visits to and from countries as diverse as China, South Korea, New Zealand, Brazil and Libya. It means the Palestine Liberation Organisation still has a recognised mission in Hanoi, and Israel now has an embassy.