The Associated Press

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HA LONG CITY, Vietnam (AP) – Action film star Jackie Chan took time out from jumping off buildings and beating up bad guys to play with children Saturday while promoting HIV/AIDS awareness in Vietnam, where health experts warn infection rates are on the verge of exploding.

Chan, 51, was in the communist country for the first time as a United Nations goodwill ambassador. He visited a communal health center and a support group session for people caring for family members with HIV/AIDS in northern Quang Ninh province, which has some of Vietnam’s highest infection rates.

A dozen expectant mothers were waiting for prenatal checkups at the clinic in Uong Bi district when Chan walked in, telling one woman, “Don’t worry. The doctor (will) take care of you.”

Expectant mothers will be given counseling and information on preventing the disease at the center under UNICEF’s first such program in Vietnam. They will also have the option of being tested.

Later, children on bikes chased after Chan as he strolled through the small town, calling out his name in Vietnamese and greeting him with “Chao Bac!” or “Hello Uncle!”

Chan repeatedly urged them, “Wear a helmet. You have to keep safe.”

At the support group session, Chan played with children who had lost a parent to HIV/AIDS and some youngsters who were battling the disease themselves.

He said more has to be done to get affordable treatment to those infected in poor countries like Vietnam. He also stressed the importance of eliminating discrimination and social stigma attached to the disease.

“Twenty years ago, I’m the one who was scared about HIV … but from the education I learned that’s wrong,” he said. “Otherwise, (victims) cannot go to work, they cannot go to school and they would be hiding in their houses.”

His four-day trip will also include visiting a Buddhist pagoda in Hanoi where monks help counsel young people infected with HIV/AIDS, along with a sunset cruise on picturesque Halong Bay, dotted with thousands of limestone islands.

The Hong Kong native and martial arts expert, well-known for his Hollywood hits “Rush Hour,” “Rumble in the Bronx” and “Shanghai Noon,” had flown in from Cambodia where he was raising awareness about land mines prior to visiting neighboring Vietnam.

Health experts have warned that Vietnam is on the cusp of an explosive HIV/AIDS epidemic. Last year, U.S. President George W. Bush selected the country as one of 15 in the world — the only one in Asia — to receive emergency funding to try to control the disease.

Injection drug users and prostitutes still make up the bulk of Vietnam’s HIV infections, but pregnant women have become a growing risk group, with infection rates increasing tenfold over the past seven years.

Since Vietnam’s first HIV/AIDS case was detected in 1990, the country has recorded nearly 85,000 cases. However, some health officials believe the actual number of infected people is closer to 245,000.

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LAST UPDATE: 8/8/2006 7:50:21 PM

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They claim to be matchmakers. But prosecutors say they’re nothing but smugglers. 21 defendants were arrested overnight in what federal authorities are calling the largest marriage smuggling scam they’ve come across.

“Money is at the heart of it,” said U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman. “What isn’t is love and a genuine commitment to marry.”

Authorities say four of the 21 indicted are the masterminds behind the alleged scam. According to federal authorities, the group received $30,000 per marriage proposal.

Prosecutors say they paid $2,000 to so-called recruiters who were U.S. citizens. The recruiters would fly to Vietnam for a pre-arranged marriage and bring the spouse back for citizenship.

“One of the tactics they utilize when be to go to Vietnam and change their clothes all in one day, said Thomas Depenbrock of the U.S. State Department. Several changes of outfits taking pictures at different locations to indicate that its been a long relationship.”

The alleged marriage ring is accused of bringing in close to one-hundred Vietnamese spouses over five years.

Authorities say marrying an American makes it easier and speeds up citizenship.

“It’s a slap in the face for every intended immigrant who patiently wait their turn to enter into the country and be part of the American dream, said Charles DeMore of the Immigration department.

Prosecutors also say the so-called recruiters are still under investigation and could be charged at a later date. Immigration officials plan to review the cases of the Vietnamese who were married and could be deported.

Story by: Marcos Ortiz