FRENCH tourists cherish the city of Hue, in central Vietnam, where some dress up in silk robes the color of yellow marigolds for mock banquets in the best hotel in town. The gaudy dinners are an odd tribute to the Vietnamese emperors the French co-opted during their colonization of Indochina. But these charades are not the only political drama in this cultured city, known for its gracious river and the imperial citadel where Viet Cong fighters raised their flag during the 1968 Tet offensive.
In modern-day Vietnam, ruled by a Communist government determined to remain in charge, the city is considered the most dissident part of the country, largely because it is a center of Vietnamese Buddhism.
Although tension between Buddhist monks and Communist authorities has existed for decades, the government appears to be growing increasingly intolerant of their activities.
In a February report, the London-based human rights group Amnesty International said authorities in Vietnam had arrested 23 monks since the end of October, evidence of what Amnesty labeled ''the continuing repression of Buddhists in Vietnam.'' The group believes at least 36 Buddhists are currently in detention, some since the late 1970s.
Human Rights Watch/Asia, a New York-based group, said in a March report it is ''concerned that many of these prisoners are being held for expression of their political or religious beliefs, in violation of international law.''
The government has denied these charges: ''Some Buddhist monks have taken advantage of the government's policy of freedom of religions to attempt to carry out activities to cause disturbances, thus sabotaging national unity and opposing the people's power,'' said a Foreign Ministry statement early this year. It added: ''It is very clear that they are using religion to carry out politics.''
Early this month the government's press center in Hanoi accepted a list of questions from the Monitor about the government's treatment of Buddhists, but later said there would be no response.
As is true elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Vietnam's monks are in some respects the guardians of national identity. In the early 1960s they played a key role in the toppling of the US-backed South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem, and the current Communist rulers seem wary to the point of paranoia of the monks' ability to move public opinion.
''The Buddhists have no political agenda as such,'' says a diplomat in Hanoi, insisting on anonymity in deference to official sensitivities about the topic, ''but I would think to disregard them as a political force is perhaps unrealistic.''
There is a vacuum of coherent ideology in Vietnam today, a by-product of the government's economic ''renovation,'' begun in the late 1980s, which has attracted foreign investors and reintroduced free-market economics. The Communist Party has found itself enmeshed in contradictions, introducing choice and competition in the economy while it maintains exclusive control over the country's political life. Workers and peasants, the party's traditional supporters, have watched their standard of living drop as a new class of entrepreneurs has gotten wealthy.
For three years, members of an organization called the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), effectively banned by the government in 1981, have campaigned for its reinstatement as a legitimate group and called for democratic reforms and greater religious freedom. Political observers in Vietnam and abroad say the UBCV is attempting to exploit popular disenchantment and the Party's internal preoccupations.
The government has responded to recent incidents in Hue and other parts of the country by detaining and imprisoning monks, and by confining them to temples in what the Buddhists' supporters call ''pagoda arrest.''
THE crackdown seems to have been sparked by a UBCV mission to bring relief supplies to victims of last year's flooding in the Mekong River delta. Police arrested several monks and lay Buddhists and seized the relief supplies in November of last year, saying the mission was ''subversive.'' Human rights groups charge that five Buddhists remain in detention in Ho Chi Minh City over that incident, but the government says the arrests did not take place.
On Nov. 27, a group of Buddhists disrupted the opening of an elementary school at the Bao Quoc Pagoda in Hue, according to Amnesty International.
Several monks and students said they merely wanted to submit a petition protesting the political content of the school's curriculum, but a confrontation ensued that left several people injured. Police said they would charge those responsible and Amnesty says two monks were arrested in December. The Vietnam Committee on Human Rights, a Paris-based group affiliated with the UBCV, says a third monk is now under house arrest.
The Bao Quoc incident is significant because monks who belong to the government-backed Vietnamese Buddhist Church, created to supplant the UBCV, took part in the protest, said Penelope Faulkner, spokeswoman for the Vietnam Committee, in a telephone interview from Paris.
On Dec. 29 authorities detained the leader of the UBCV, Thich Huyen Quang, who had begun a hunger strike at his pagoda in Quang Ngai province to protest earlier detentions of monks.
The government has denied that Huyen Quang was arrested, saying other Buddhists had asked that he be moved. He is now being kept at another location in Quang Ngai, under police guard and unable to communicate freely with the outside world, according to human rights groups. ''It's a prison really, no different,'' says Ms. Faulkner.
Authorities acknowledge the January arrest and continued detention of Thich Quang Do, the second-ranking official of the UBCV, saying he will be tried for causing disturbances and other violations of law. No trial date has been set.
In one indication of official sensitivity about Hue and its Buddhists, foreign journalists are only grudgingly allowed to visit the city. ''They will arrest you if you do press activities in Hue,'' said a staffer at the press center in Hanoi, forwarding a warning from the Interior Ministry.
So when an inquisitive monk at Thien Mu Pagoda initiated a conversation with a visitor early this month, he was politely told to go away, lest anyone detect a ''press activity'' in progress. ''It's OK,'' said the monk, ''there are no police today.''
Ironically, Thich Hai Thong had good things to say about the government's scrutiny of the pagoda. ''It's a little bit better,'' he said, explaining that in recent weeks there have been fewer government agents watching the monks, compared with a few months ago. Nonetheless, he added, ''Buddhism is very difficult in Vietnam.''