The dialogue comes as Vietnam begins drafting a constitution that seeks to address such concerns as civil liberties and religious tolerance, areas where Vietnamese leaders have come under pointed criticism from human rights groups and western governments.

Frank Jannuzi, an Amnesty official, said that during a six-day trip that ended Saturday, he met with two leading dissidents, Pham Hong Son and Nguyen Van Dai, as well as representatives of the main evangelical churches and Cardinal Pham Minh Man, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City. The government “gave me wide latitude” with the visits, he said.

Amnesty International has been sharply critical of the Vietnamese government in the past, most recently criticizing the sentencing of 13 Catholic activists to up to 13 years in prison, calling it “part of an escalating government crackdown on freedom of expression.”

Mr. Jannuzi acknowledged the government had a long way to go in addressing such concerns, but said that the efforts to write a constitution suggested a willingness to confront human rights issues.

“I saw a country engaged in a discussion about a new constitution,” he said. “One of the principal topics they’re talking about is human rights,” he added, noting that the government is encouraging public comment as it develops the constitution.

The constitution is being rewritten as the nation tries to adapt to the rapid economic changes brought on by its move from a centralized, Soviet-style economic system to a free market-based one, a shift that has brought economic prosperity that hasn’t filtered more widely through society. Vietnam’s last constitution, in 1992, was instituted just as those economic reforms were beginning.

Since that time, the United States government and others have assailed Vietnam’s human rights record. The European Parliament in 2009 cited “the growing climate of intolerance in Vietnam towards human rights defenders and members of officially unrecognized religious communities” and called for the release of “political prisoners.”

And while Vietnam recognizes religions such as Roman Catholicism and Buddhism and lets their adherents practice their faith, the government exerts control over their clergies and even sanctions appointments.

Mr. Jannuzi, who reached out to the Vietnamese government to open the dialogue, said that the government officials he met “engaged with me with candor about sensitive topics,” particularly human rights concerns.

“All indications are that there will be follow up rounds of dialogues,” he said, characterizing last week’s trip an “icebreaking visit.”

By Gerry Mullany - The New York Times - March 6, 2013