WASHINGTON—”Vietnamese science,” says physicist Nguyen Van Hieu, “is only a little boy. We hope that the United States can help us to become strong and healthy.”

Fourteen years after the end of a bitter war, Vietnam is trying to enlist U.S. scientists in an ambitious campaign to rebuild its impoverished country. The job won’t be easy: The U.S. has a ban on all trade with Vietnam, the two governments have no diplomatic relations, and there is no tradition of scientific collaboration between the two countries. But Hieu, president of his country’s National Center for Scientific Research, is determined to overcome those obstacles and prepare his country for the 21st century.

The 51-year-old Hieu, who spent several days in the U.S. last month as a guest of the Federation of American Scientists, is an ideal emissary for such a mission. He’s an outgoing, articulate, and experienced goodwill ambassador who, in 1978,...

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