MasterCard's year-old foray into Vietnam has paid off. The Purchase, N.Y.-based association said this week that four Vietnamese banks will begin issuing MasterCards.

Bank of Foreign Trade of Vietnam, Asia Commercial Bank, Firstvina Bank, and Vietnam Export-Import Bank - licensed last March - will launch MasterCard marketing initiatives within a few weeks to support their respective programs, the association said.

MasterCard expects to issue 250,000 cards during the next three years, a spokesman said.

The effort represents the culmination of a collaboration among MasterCard, the banks, and the Vietnamese government, with which MasterCard said it shared technology and other information.

MasterCard chief executive H. Eugene Lockhart said the Vietnamese partnership demonstrated the enormous impact that payment systems can have in encouraging global economic development.

Neither Mr. Lockhart nor MasterCard Asia/Pacific president James A. Cassin was available to discuss the company's broader objectives for Vietnam. "It's an opportunity to introduce the MasterCard brand to a country where there's nowhere to go but up, in terms of establishing an infrastructure for payment systems," David Robertson, president of The Nilson Report, an Oxnard, Calif.-based industry newsletter, said of MasterCard's move.

U.S. companies have set their sights on Vietnam since February 1994, when President Clinton lifted a 19-year trade embargo. Although generally a poor nation, Vietnam is seen as having strong growth potential.

About 900 tourist destinations and businesses across Vietnam accept MasterCard. One million international travelers visited Vietnam in 1995 - a number that one study predicted would triple by the end of 1997.

Observers note that the Asian market has a relatively young population, with a majority under 25 years old. The strategy of U.S.-based issuers appears to involve slowly developing the brand name as the standard of living gradually increases.

The market in Vietnam "will be really small for another decade," Mr. Robertson said.

MasterCard said it is the first U.S.-based company to issue credit cards from Vietnam. Frank Vicaro, an American Express spokesman, said that its cards have been accepted in Vietnam since the embargo ended. Though American Express travelers checks are sold in several Vietnamese banks, the company does not issue cards locally.

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