HANOI, December 23, 2011 (AFP) - Vietnam made an embarrassing gaffe this week when receiving China's Vice President Xi Jinping, considered the future number one in Beijing, by displaying Chinese flags bearing one star too many.
The trip was designed to improve strained relations that deteriorated following recent tensions over the disputed South China Sea.
But on Wednesday, Xi was greeted with flags picturing six stars, while the official emblem of the People's Republic of China has only five -- one large yellow star surrounded by four smaller ones.
A similar incident occurred in October, when the six-star flag was used by Vietnam's national television broadcaster while mentioning a visit by the Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong to China.
The official media of both sides did not mention the latest incident, but exiled Vietnamese websites contained a number of comments.
"We must end the activities of those selling the Vietnamese fatherland, looking to make Vietnam the fifth star of China," lamented an anonymous comment on the dissident site "Dan Lam Bao" ("Citizen journalism").
"The Vietnamese Communist Party wants to become a second-class Chinese citizen. This is a damned flag for the Vietnamese people," said another.
The communist neighbours have had a long-standing dispute relating to sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly island groups, which are in oil-rich waters straddling vital commercial shipping lanes in the South China Sea.
Rare anti-Chinese demonstrations were held this summer in Vietnam, which the authorities allowed to take place before clamping down.
The two countries fought a brief border war in 1979 before normalising relations in 1991.