A Yearning To Put the Past Behind

FALL OF SAIGON 20 YEARS LATER. Foot soldier fighting for the communists wants reconciliation with the US

IN the hamlet of Thanh Duc, about 50 miles south of the city that used to be called Saigon, Americans are welcome visitors.

''I hope the people and the two governments will resume relations so the Americans can help Vietnam,'' says Nguyen Van Van, a former Viet Cong fighter who lost two sons in the war that ended 20 years ago.

Mr. Van is now one of the hamlet elders, a farmer who seems happy to take time out from his day to answer questions about the war.

At times he sounds like he could write screenplays for Oliver Stone.

''I joined the revolution because the old regime was unjust,'' he says of the government the United States backed in the former South Vietnam.

''In the old days I witnessed soldiers of the old regime killing people who they thought were Viet Cong.'' A favorite method of execution, he says, involved disemboweling the suspected Communists and dragging them through the village.

The Communists, Van recalls, would help sweep floors and thrash rice.

But Van doesn't fault the Americans for the sins of the Saigon government. ''The old regime did the opposite of what American help meant,'' he says, explaining why the Vietnamese government is now seeking closer ties with the US.

His wife, Le Thi Anh, out of earshot of her husband and some of his friends, offers another analysis of why America is still a welcome partner. She tells of a relative who emigrated to the US after the war's end and who has since visited the village as a rich man. ''The people who left are better off,'' she whispers.

The men don't view the emigres quite so enviously. A friend of Van, another former Viet Cong guerrilla named Tran Van Man, recounts the story of a man from the hamlet who served in the South Vietnamese government. The man spent six years in a reeducation camp after the war ended, Mr. Man says, and then moved to California.

He did well until riots erupted in Los Angeles over the beating of Rodney King. ''His property was destroyed by American black men a few years ago,'' Man says, winking to emphasize the irony of it all.

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