Domestic agricultural producers must boost exports to help reduce the country's trade deficit, said economist Pham Do Chi.

Chi said if the sector does not increase production and foreign sales, the country's trade deficit will reach 15 billion USD this year.

According to the General Statistics Office, in the first four months of this year, the country's trade deficit reached about 5 billion USD, up nearly 6 percent against the same period last year. There were 4 billion USD worth of imports from mainland China alone.

Chi said the quality of Vietnam 's rice this year is better than that exported by Thailand to Hong Kong . Furthermore, Vietnamese rice is cheaper, he said.

Chi added that Vietnamese rice has taken an increasing slice of the Hong Kong market and is making in-roads into the coastal areas of mainland China where incomes are relatively high. He suggested Vietnamese producers focus on exporting white rice to this market. He said lower quality rice should be exported to the Philippines , India and Africa .

According to the Agromonitor agency, in March this year, Vietnam exported 60,000 tonnes of rice to China . It said Chinese firms are looking to purchase more competitively priced rice from Vietnam . However, he said Vietnamese firms have encountered payment problems with exports to China .

Chi said exports should be supported by banks. In addition, more research on demand in China should be conducted, he added.

However, Dr Tran Du Lich from the National Advisory Council for Monetary and Financial Policies said that though exports have increased they should be considered in terms of output requirements and the selling price.

Vietnam 's farm produce is mostly exported to its neighbours. About 80 percent of Vietnamese dragon fruits is exported to China alone. However, he said it is important to diversify exports to ensure price stability.

Japan and the Republic of Korea are also major importers of Vietnamese agricultural products. Pham Hai Long, general director of Agrex Sai Gon Foodstuffs Joint Stock Company, said the three main reasons for the popularity of Vietnamese agricultural exports are taste, cleanliness and attractiveness. Meanwhile, seafood enterprises have been now checking radioactivity levels in raw materials for processing.

Long said orders at his company in the first two months of this year had increased by 30-40 percent. Helping to boost exports is the country's favourable climate, he added.

Long said upheaval in the global economy and natural disasters has helped to boost exports to neighbouring markets such as Indonesia , Malaysia and the Philippines .

The Ministry of Industry and Trade reported that in March, 45,000 tonnes of rice were exported to the Philippines .

In the first quarter of this year, rice exports increased by 500,000 tonnes compared with the first three months of last year./.