"Vietnam is one of the most repressive, closed countries in Asia," Elaine Pearson, the group's Australia director, told ABC's The World.

"We see large numbers of people who try to criticise the government, bloggers and so on, actually get thrown in prison for lengthy terms.

"A lot of people don't see that side. They see Vietnam as an economic powerhouse but the government keeps a very tight lid, particularly, on freedom of assembly, freedom of association and also religion."

Australia holds a Human Rights Dialogue with Vietnam, China and Laos every year, describing the talks as a chance to engage in "frank discussions on sensitive issues".

Ms Pearson says the Australian delegation must insist Vietnam agree to "clear and measurable benchmarks" to measure its progress on human rights.

"Revolving door" of political prisoners

Hanoi is regularly denounced by rights groups and Western governments for its intolerance of political dissent and systematic violations of freedom of religion.

Earlier this year authorities freed a number of high-profile dissidents as pressure mounted on the communist nation to stop jailing its critics.

Ms Pearson says the government continues to jail activists in large numbers.

"It's released about a dozen or so (prisoners) but there's actually, we think, between 150 to 200 political prisoners right now behind bars," she said.

"At the same time as it's released those prisoners, which has happened largely as a result of pressure from the United States which is trying to sign a free trade agreement, they've also made fresh arrests.

"We know of at least 12 people who've been arrested over that same time period. It's really a revolving door of people being let out of prison and more people being put in prison."

Ms Pearson says international pressure can bring about change.

"The only movement that really happens in Vietnam is when foreign governments start to raise concerns about these issues, so I don't think Australia should give up," she said.

"I think it's really important that this is a once-a-year opportunity for Australia to put Vietnam on the spot and say, 'if you want to be a responsible international partner, you've got to stop throwing all of your critics in jail.'"

Vietnamese activists are often charged with conducting "propaganda against the state" under Article 88 of the criminal code, which rights groups say is one of many "vaguely defined articles" used to prosecute dissidents.

"People have gone to prison for simply redistributing leaflets which have information criticising the government, sometimes alleging corruption by officials," said Ms Pearson.

"We've seen bloggers go to prison under those charges for publishing information that investigates or criticises officials.

"There are a whole range of provisions in the penal code ... We're saying that these provisions should simply be abolished and people who are in prison under those grounds should be immediately released."

Drug users subject to forced labour

Human Rights Watch also wants Australia's aid programs to withdraw funding for HIV services in Vietnamese drug treatment centres where, it alleges, forced labour is rife.

"Tens of thousands of people are held in these centres. There's no due process ... Basically this is a means of drug treatment, that people are forced to work and produce products," said Ms Pearson.

She says Canberra is well aware of the practice.

"We released a report on this a couple of years ago. My colleagues have had a number of discussions with officials in AusAid.

"Their viewpoint is that they are providing HIV services which are essential services to the detainees but our position is that these centres shouldn't exist.

"There's no good reason for people to be held there. Drug treatment can be provided in lots of ways that are voluntary and don't rely on forced labour."

Focus on Australia's record

Human Rights Watch also wants Canberra to be more transparent about what is discussed during the talks.

"Part of the problem with these dialogues is that they're behind closed doors," said Ms Pearson.

"It would be really helpful if, as a result of the dialogue, we know which specific issues the government's raised and what issues are being discussed and we can measure improvements."

She says the talks will also offer Vietnam the chance to raise concerns about Australia's human rights record.

"We actually saw in the Australia China dialogue held earlier this year that China used that opportunity to raise its concerns about Indigenous issues and asylum seekers, so perhaps Vietnam will also do the same," she said.

"When we are showing that we're not respecting the conventions that we sign, how can we expect other countries to do the same ?"

ABC / Australian Network News - July 27, 2014