The delegation, led by Undersecretary of State Monsignor Pietro Parolin, was due to meet Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Gia Khiem during their week-long visit, said the Vietnam News Agency.

Italian priest Parolin and his group were also set to hold talks with religious affairs officials, the Episcopal Council of the Vietnam Catholic Church, and the Hanoi People's Committee, which is involved in the land dispute.

Vietnam has Southeast Asia's largest Roman Catholic community after the Philippines about six million out of a population of 86 million but relations have long been strained between Catholics and the Communist Party.

The Vatican in early 2007 received Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung for a landmark meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, and the two sides say they are working towards eventually establishing diplomatic relations.

But tensions rose around Christmas 2007 when thousands of Catholics at several churches launched a series of mass prayer vigils for the return of church lands seized by the communist government in the 1950s.

The main land dispute centred on a one-hectare (2.5-acre) central Hanoi property, the former apostolic delegate's (Vatican representative's) seat, which the communist government seized in the years after Vietnam won independence from France in 1954.

The rallies early this year swelled to thousands of Catholic faithful, who erected a cross on the site, until the Vatican urged church leaders in late January to halt the protests to avoid ugly confrontations with police.

Vietnamese government and Hanoi People's Committee officials met several times with Hanoi Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet, and both sides in early February said they had agreed to resolve the issue through negotiations.

The Vatican delegation was Wednesday due to leave Hanoi and visit Dalat in the Central Highlands, the major hub of Ho Chi Minh City, and the central provinces of Quang Tri and Thua Thien-Hue before leaving Vietnam on Sunday.

Agence France Presse - June 8, 2008