The Vatican and Vietnam have agreed to have a Resident Papal Representative in Hanoi, they said on Thursday, a step years in the making that could lead to full diplomatic relations with the communist-run country and provide a model for ties with China.
The move, first reported by Reuters on July 16, was announced shortly after Pope Francis received Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong in a private audience.
It is the result of work by a joint working group that began in 2009.
A joint statement said the two sides wished "to continue advancing bilateral relations".
According to a senior Holy See official, the Vatican has officially but privately also asked China to allow a permanent papal representative in Beijing.
Vatican officials hope that Vietnam's acceptance could help to persuade Beijing to do the same, diplomats told Reuters.
Relations between the Vatican and China have been difficult since an accord in 2018 on the appointment of bishops that the Vatican says China has violated several times. It says an office with a representative in Beijing could avoid future problems.
Vietnam broke off relations with the Vatican after the communists took over the reunited country at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. The authorities then viewed the Catholic Church in Vietnam as having been too close historically to the former colonial power, France.
Parts of the joint statement echoed arguments the Vatican has used to try to convince China to move forward with relations, such as the capacity of the Vietnamese to be "good Catholics and good citizens", contributing the development of the country.
Vietnam is home to nearly 7 million Catholics, about 6.6% of the population of 95 million.
Its constitution allows for freedom of religion and government media have rejected criticisms from groups such as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a congressional watchdog that has placed Vietnam on its list of "countries of particular concern".
UCA, an independent Catholic news agency that specialises in Asia, says the government places restrictions on Catholic activities. For instance, it limits the number of parishes.
The current papal representative to Vietnam, Archbishop Marek Zalewski, is based in Singapore, where he is the Vatican nuncio (ambassador). He is allowed to make occasional working visits to Vietnam with government approval.
It was not clear who would be the new Hanoi-based representative.
The Vatican, a sovereign city-state surrounded by Rome, has diplomatic relations with about 180 countries.