At a New York reception held in his honor, Nguyen Co Thach, the newly named foreign minister of Vietnam, was welcomed with flowers, a custom scrupulously followed in Vietnam. Thach thanked his hosts for this thoughtful gesture. Then, improvising for the occasion, he told a woman in his group to break up the bouquets and press a flower into the hands of every woman in the room -- to return the gift to friends, Thach said.

He also thanked his hosts, the American Friends Service Committee, with a short speech describing Vietnam's troubles including the poverty that grinds his people in peace. But before the audience could fall into a stupor from the weight of his message, Thach provided a graphic personal, if somewhat apocryphal, example.

"This suit I am wearing," he said, tugging at his lapels, "it does not belong to me, but to the government. It is like a costume in the theater. I take the suit because I am coming to the United States. I must give it back when I return. It is not good for the government to have an easy life." b

A number of people in the room believed this tale of government-issue suits. And the women left the party carrying his flowers.

Nguyen Co Thach is the Asian Americans imagine Asians to be: wise and pithy as Chou En-lai, earthy as Mahatma Gandhi. Master of the broad gesture and the cunning detail, ranking member of the Vietnamese Communist Party Central Committee, he has impressed officials from such a wide range of nationalities and backgrounds that his reputation precedes him, even in Washington. And with Vietnam firmly in the Soviet camp, he stands singularly and aggressively in favor of befriending the United States.

"I've never met the fabled Nguyen Co Thach, but I'd like to," said one high-ranking State Department official charged with policy decisions affecting Indochina. "He's what every diplomat admires: intelligent, subtle, witty and mendacious."

That reputation is based in part on Thach's ability to get things done, a quality especially noticeable in Vietnam, where the bureaucracy often strangles initiative. The United States has called on him more than once for help in searching for Americans missing in action and families divided by the war. He is also credited with easing Western aid efforts in Cambodia during the famine.

In Hanoi, he is known as the two-headed fox.

"Indeed, where does acting begin and end in the behavior of such a man? He is continually stage-managing himself, continually looking at situations with a producer's eye . . . And yet, however 'artistic' he may be, a producer invariably expresses his inner temperament."

Jean Lacouture wrote these words to explain the magnetism of Ho Chi Minh. They apply equally well to one of Ho's most promising heirs -- Nguyen Co Thach. He came to New York this fall to attend the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly and to continue pressing for a goal that has turned into an obsession: normal relations, finally, between the United States and Vietnam.

It is a seemingly impossible task given the current state of affairs in Indochina and the international stalemate. But Thach, who came within a hair's breadth of reaching his goal two years ago, managed his New York visit like an author flogging a new best seller.

Besides the mandatory discussions with other foreign dignitaries, Thach ventured outside the gray walls of the U.N. Plaza to make unorthodox appearances in purely American settings. He was interviewed on the "Today" show before the waking masses across the country; he dined with members of the Council on Foreign Relations, a select group of the Eastern elite. One night he entertained a U.S. senator in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel, the next he appeared at the Quaker reception.

Everywhere he sparkled.

People were understandably curious to see and hear and shake hands with so engaging a former enemy, and no one appreciated this more than Thach. He uses his powerful charm generously, patiently. His personal mission, it seems, is to make Communist Vietnam human to Americans. It has earned him the sobriquet "Mr. America" in Hanoi.

"What we have now must be called 'abnormal' between the United States and Vietnam, it is a sickness, this abnormalization; it cannot last long," the handsome 55-year-old dignitary told one audience. "But Vietnam, in its 4,000-year history, has never had relations with the United States, so I suppose we can go on for a few more years."

Always Thach's pronouncements are marked by this twin sense of determination and timeliness.

Thach is also Vietnam's chief "American expert" and has been since 1964. He enjoys taking pieces from American history and turning them inside out to explain Vietnam. He told one interviewer he came to a new understanding of America's position during the war by reading "Gone With the Wind": "Perhaps America understood the Vietnamese problem as similar to their own problem between the North and South . . . on the realities of Yankees and Texan s, and that's not right." On another occasion, while discussing the American demand for a Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia, he told a reporter: "I can tell you this -- the Vietnamese will withdraw from Cambodia long before the United States withdraws its troops from Europe."

It did not go unnoticed at the State Department when Vietnam's leading expert on the United States was tapped last February to become his country's foreign minister -- Thach's goal must be considered a national one as well.

No long ago Morton Abramowitz, U.S. ambassador in Bangkok, finally had a chance to meet Thach. Abramowitz has been the voice of the Carter administration in the region throughout a series of crises that all related to America's old nemesis: the waves of boat people, the famine in Cambodia, the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia and the Chinese Invasion of Vietnam.

As such, he and Thach had become each other's most formidable diplomatic sparring partner, albeit from a distance.

Abramowitz went to this first meeting in Bangkok with enthusiasm and offered his hand to Thach and his opinion about future American-Vietnamese relations. "I've been in this region for more than 15 months," Abramowitz said, "and I believe we can work out our problems."

Thach answered with amusement: "I've been in the region for more than 50 years, and I don't believe it will be so easy."

Thach first emerged as one of Hanoi's most persuasive voices during the Paris peace talks where he was an aide to Le Duc Tho. He proved as appropriate a protege of that negotiator as he had been much earlier to Vo Nguyen Giap. When the celebrated general was commanding the early offensive that led to victory against the French at Dien Bien Phu, Thach was at his elbow, a principal aide who had spent time in French prisons for his anti-colonist activities.

Like most Asian communists, Thach is deliberately hazy about his background. He is suspicious of those who would interpret history by analyzing one person's life rather than reading trends throughout the society; in its class structure, political and economic upheavals. He would say of his childhood that it was "provincial," that he is a northerner who learned Chinese as well as Vietnamese in order to talk to all his playmates. And he was poor -- "I am the son of peasants." The rest of his life is chronicled by official appointments rather than personal milestones.

From Giap he moved to the chairmanship of the resistance committee for the province surrounding Hanoi and then in 1954 he was named general secretary at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.Two years later, at the age of 31, he made his first trip abroad to open North Vietnam's mission in New Delhi.

"Can't you smell the curry in my English?" he asks, saying he learned the language, as well as other aspects of Western civilization, on the job. Again, one is faced with the outlandish in Thach's recital of reality.

"Before departing for India, President Ho Chi Minh asked me, 'Do you know how to use a knife and fork?' and I had to say no, I could only use chopsticks," says Thach with a straight face.

He proceeds to tell a yarn about his first formal dinner at the French Embassy in New Delhi in which he refuses a first course to study his fellow dinners' agility with the table implements, accepts the entree and masters knives, forks, spoons and diplomatic repartee in one stroke. "It is true," he insists, falling back in his chair with laughter.

By the time Thach sat across from then-national security adviser Henry A. Kissinger at the Paris peace talks he had matured into a diplomat fluent in French and English as well as Chinese and a spokesman who could repeat Hanoi's position to the doctrinaire T and still entertain. He also became more comfortable in assessing situations and people, learning to trust his own judgment. From the beginning, he says, he was wary of Kissinger.

"In Hanoi [during an early trip] we invited him to come out and meet the people but he didn't dare -- he was afraid," Tach says. "He knew the people knew he was responsible for the bombing."

When Kissinger accepted the Nobel Peace Prize (which Le Duc Tho refused), Thach became convinced of his opinion that "Henry Kissinger is a very cynical man."

Although Thach was to face his most bitter disappointment with another U.S. official, he holds him in higher regard. "Richard Holbrooke is honest," Thach says. "But he is not in control."

That remark stems from the fateful negotiations between Thach and Holbrooke two years ago which almost led to normal relations between Vietnam and the United States. Thach calims he and Holbrooke reached an agreement and then someone in the American government (read National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brezezinski) convicted President Carter to back out. Thach interpreted this as the sign that the United States had moved toward China -- now Vietnam's major enemy -- and a few months later Hanoi signed its treaty with the Soviet Union.

Holbrooke denies that the United States reneged on its word. He says final approval had not been granted and was withheld because of the boat people fleeing Vietnam, Cambodian-Vietnamese tensions and the subsequent Soviet-Vietnamese treaty.

Whatever the outcome of these negotiations, they have served Thach well, for he is now considered one of the few Vietnamese officials sophisticated enough to appreciate and thrive on international politics.

Thach's reputation comes not only from diplomats but from journalists, American representatives and senators and from international bureaucrats. Last fall three American senators in Bangkok investigating refugees on the Thai border wanted to travel to Phnom Penh to meet with Cambodian officials and to offer aid for famine victims. With no official relations between Cambodia and Thailand -- much less the United States -- Thach was asked to intercede, and within hours the historic visit was approved.

International relief representatives were stymied by the red tape and stubbornness of Vietnam's bureaucracy in the long initial efforts to ship grain and medicine to Cambodia in the gruesome early months of the famine. Cables to Hanoi and Phnom Penh went unanswered, logistics requests in Vietnam were denied. Finally one of the officals approached Thach. Two days later the first air shipments landed in Cambodia.

"Quite safely you can say that Thach takes credit for finding ways for international relief to go into Kampuchea," said one of these officials. "Who else in Hanoi can you turn to who can understand all the implications -- who wants to help?"

In the generally faceless bureaucracies of communist countries it is rare to find a Thach, perhaps too rare. For this reason the question always arises whether Thach is a prophet, a minority voice in the government, or whether he has been selected to appear as such. Of all communist regimes, Vietnam's is considered the most cohesive, one rarely plagued with schisms.

He may have the confidence of Pham Van Dong but he is not a heavyweight in the party," said one expert on Indochina. "He is not a policy maker."

Yet Thach is considered by many to be a true exception.

"Nguyen Co Thach is impressive as a foreign minister," said T.T.B. Koh, U.N. ambassador from Singapore -- one of Vietnam's most severe critics. "Vietnam does not have a good record for honesty, but Thach himself is a relatively straight man."

A European diplomat recalled an experience that he felt proved Thach's independence: "In mid-April, 1975, he called three of us in for dinner. He told us his country would need aid for reconstruction from every nation, that Vietnam's only hope for independence and a decent standard of living was to remain equi-distant from Peking, the United States, and the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, his plan didn't work."

Vietnam can take the blame for a good part of that failure. In the spring of 1977 the United States wanted normal relations with Hanoi, but the Vietnamese negotiators in Paris refused to drop the precondition of war repa-relations.His admirers note that Thach was not part of that Vietnamese team.

Instead, they say, Thach's energies have been spent for the good of Indochina: relief for the Cambodian famine, intercession to control the flow of the boat people and begin legal immigration from Vietnam, promises for final accountings of Americans missing in action from the war days and later dropping of the demand for war reparations.

And all the while, the two-headed fox has remained aloof from Vietnam's controversies. Little was heard from him when Vietnam was denying that its army had invaded Cambodia and toppled the Pol Pot regime. He was also absent from the Geneva Conference on Indochina Refugees last summer that saw Vietnam roundly condemned for its policies toward the boat people.

A leader must stake out a role and proceed to fill it in such a way that he seems at once innovative and in step with his country. Thach has found his: to improve Vietnam's status internationally -- but at the same time reflect the way Hanoi sees itself.

Vietnam has a self-image that might surprise an American. Even though the Vietnamese have occupied neighboring Cambodia and can count Laos as a friendly satellite, they see themselves as victims: of world powers from France to the United States to China; of nature with its typhoons, monsoons, and droughts; and of competitive neighbors.

Thach put this succinctly: "We, the Vietnamese, have become a port for all the world's calamities."