Just a week after Washington extended a diplomatic hand to Hanoi, Vietnam further heightened its profile abroad with a trade and cooperation agreement with the European Union. "We are ready to be the friend of any country," Vietnam's foreign minister, Nguyen Manh Cam, told reporters. "This accord comes at a very important time." The agreement, signed today, was concluded just days before Vietnam's expected entry into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations -- a group with which Hanoi had a lot more catching up to do. "Most of the European Union countries already had relations with Vietnam," TIME Brussels bureau chief Jay Branegan points out. "In the European opinion, the U.S. effort was long overdue."