SAIGON, 1972. VIETNAM HAD BEEN A nightmare zone, but Dan Piwko (pronounced Peeko) couldn't stay away. After a seven-month stint with the 86th Corps of Engineers in West Germany, he was bored, wired and sick of the spit-and-polish discipline of the U.S. European command. The 23-year-old enlisted man "1049ed" -- volunteered -- for a second tour in Vietnam.

This time around Piwko was assigned to the 525th Military Intelligence Unit as a specialist fifth class -- an office gig in Saigon that was relatively safe after his previous year as a door-gunner in the central highlands. In fact, for Piwko, life in Saigon seemed almost uneventful -- until he met Tran Le Minh, a pretty 23-year-old woman from a middle-class Catholic family. She worked as a clerk for the American defense attache''s office down the street. As they got to know each other, strolling along Tu Do Street while the war raged on the perimeters of the city, Piwko discovered in Minh the same sweetness and exoticism that had drawn him back to this tortured country.

Over the months, Piwko became familiar with Minh's parents and 10 brothers and sisters, often sharing Sunday dinner with them. "It was a chaste and respectful love," Piwko would later remember. "I was different from the other guys there." But as Piwko's tour began to run out, Minh's parents grew hostile, worried their daughter would be left behind. Piwko and Minh had just assumed that time was on their side -- that everything would work itself out. EX-PRIVATE DANIEL PIWKO SAT IN THE REAR OF the Thai Domestic plane from Bangkok to Hanoi, smoking his way through a pack of Marlboro Lights, going back for what he half-jokingly called his "third tour" in Vietnam.

Decked out in tight jeans, cowboy boots and a black chamois shirt unzipped to the navel, a peace symbol pendant and steel crucifix dangling from his neck, the 38-year-old vet was a study in macho cockiness and jittery vulnerability. It was June of 1987. For the past 15 years, years filled with letters, hope and frustration, Piwko had been obsessed with returning to Southeast Asia -- and to Minh. Neither he nor Minh had married. Instead, separated by geopolitics and the legacy of the war, they corresponded as regularly as possible and dreamed of reunion.

"I've lost patience with the politicians," Piwko had announced the night before. "So I've decided -- I'm going in to get her myself."

Seated next to Piwko on the flight from Bangkok was his new-found buddy, a fellow vet named Donald C. Cooney. For nearly a year in 1968 and 1969, while Piwko was firing from the rear of a Huey chopper, Cooney ran 60-day "search and destroy" patrols through the highlands 300 miles north of Saigon. "Humping the boonies" with 100 pounds of ammunition and rations on his back, laying barbed-wire fences and Claymore mines around hillside encampments, picking leeches and venomous centipedes off his face, legs and chest -- his was the kind of life later brought home to Americans in box office hits like "Platoon" and novels like The Thirteenth Valley. But in the winter of 1969, it hadn't felt much like Hollywood material.

The war wasn't something a man could easily forget. Back home in "The Big PX," Cooney married his high school sweetheart, got a job as an aircraft design engineer in Long Island and tried to recapture a glimmer of Vietnam's intensity: Every weekend, he strapped himself into a motorized Ultralight glider and soared over the Atlantic as high as 15,000 feet. Not long ago, one of the glider wings broke off in mid-flight, and he plummeted to earth, yanking his safety chute open seconds before hitting the ground. "I was never afraid of going up after that," he said, "because I figured 'It ain't such a bad way to die.' "

Now as part of the first group of U.S. citizens allowed in Vietnam on a guided tour -- inaugurating a new open-door policy the Vietnamese hoped would bring in desperately needed dollars -- Piwko and Cooney were going back to deal with a past that wouldn't slip away. Like thousands of other vets, both had been taken as teen-agers from the drab anonymity of working-class America and plunged into a surreal world that had reshaped their bearings. Both wore droopy mustaches, chain-smoked cigarettes, peppered their conversation with GI argot and even walked with the same jaunty swagger. We're veterans, the look proclaimed. We busted our ass in the jungle, and after 17 years we still haven't forgotten.

They weren't the only ones. On Cooney and Piwko's pilgrimage -- a 10-day journey that would take them from Hanoi to Hue, Da Nang and Saigon -- there would be several civilians, each of whom seemed drawn to Vietnam. After 15 years of denial and self-imposed amnesia, the entire United States had been gripped by a desire to reexamine the war and the country. People flocked to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and lined up for "Platoon" and "Full Metal Jacket" -- soaking up every image of B52 bomb attacks, napalmed hamlets and rice paddy patrols. CBS had even announced a weekly television series called "Tour of Duty," a sort of Tu Do Street Blues that would bring the quagmire -- or a sanitized version of it -- back into the nation's living rooms.

Despite their common war backgrounds, Piwko and Cooney had different hopes for their odysseys. Cooney, an action junkie who reveled in his jungle exploits, longed to visit old battlegrounds, wander the streets of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, and Da Nang, and face his former enemy. Piwko, who had bounded through a dozen blue-collar jobs in Buffalo, N.Y., since coming home in '72, was a gentle loner, obsessed with the country where he had once found love and acceptance. FROM THE AIR, THE RURAL LANDSCAPE AROUND Hanoi still bore the scars of American-wrought devastation: B52 bomb craters pockmarked the rice paddies, most lying brown and fallow now before the onset of the rainy season. As the Thai Domestic Boeing 737 descended gradually through a cloud bank, Cooney and Piwko exchanged glances.

"We're so far north it's makin' my nose bleed," said Piwko with a snort. He had never imagined he would one day be landing in Hanoi, to be welcomed by the Vietnamese Department of Tourism.

Hanoi! The rugged mountains of the northwest had given way to a patchwork quilt of green and brown fields, crisscrossed by irrigation canals and dotted with eucalyptus-shaded hamlets. The muddy Red River -- actually pink -- cut a fertile swath through the countryside as it snaked toward the Gulf of Tonkin.

Hours later, Piwko and Cooney's tour bus plowed past bicycle traffic, across a Soviet-built suspension bridge to the Thanh Loi ("Victory") Hotel. Located on Ho Tay Lake about two miles north of the capital, it was a Cuban-built block of concrete that looked like a Stalinist version of a Palm Beach condominium. In the high-ceilinged lobby, a man-made stream babbled past a grove of ferns and bamboo trees. Dour-looking Soviet tourists sat in the bar, drinking tepid Bia Hanoi beer and watching a month-old European tennis match on television. The hotel was a peaceful place to kick back and watch the swollen rain clouds drift over the lake where fishermen were casting nets from their rattletrap wooden sampans.

But this was not the real Hanoi.

Cooney pressed his tanned, weathered face to the window of the tour bus and confronted the inner sanctum of his former enemy. It was territory he had never seen. A sea of tiny people rode battered bicycles down tamarind-tree-shaded boulevards. Women draped laundry from the balustraded terraces of two- and three-story stucco tenements. With army jeeps and commune trucks plowing past seedy old French architecture, Hanoi seemed a cross between the People's Republic of China, circa 1972, and the Burmese capital of Rangoon, caught in a time warp of immobility and ceding to what Robert Frost called "slow smokeless burning of decay."

Billboards displayed rosy-cheeked farmers and soldiers marching beneath the exhortation "May the Communist Party of Vietnam Live 1,000 Years!" But the spoils of Vietnam's victory over America were better conveyed by Hanoi's dingy government department store along the lake, where glass cases offered light bulbs, kerosene stoves, bottles of Lemon Liquor, glucose biscuits -- and little else. Nearby, a couple of forlorn shops sold pirated Lacoste shirts and garishly dyed polyester pants. A drugstore window revealed some soap, witch hazel and a few boxes of Close-up toothpaste.

"How much is the Close-up?" Cooney asked the proprietress.

She shook her head. The box was empty. Decoration only, the woman indicated.

For both Piwko and Cooney, the first days back in Vietnam were a time for realignment, a tentative exploration. Everywhere they went -- past Ho Chi Minh's refrigerated tomb or the drab gray bulk of the former Hanoi Hilton, now a jail -- they studied each North Vietnamese face they encountered and were in turn closely studied. That shriveled fellow with the hairy mole on his chin, the green pith helmet and the army fatigues -- could he have planted mines once? The papa-san clutching a carved ivory opium pipe -- did he seethe with hatred of Americans for bombing his family into oblivion 15 Christmases ago?

It was difficult to think of these people as victors. They were so small and frail -- 13-year-olds looked 7, 7-year-olds looked 3, 3-year-olds looked like infants. A quarter century of war and poor diet and health care had turned the Vietnamese into a race of pygmies. Now, ironically, dollar-toting American veterans were being viewed as a means to an economic renaissance.

The vets walked into the Museum of the People's Army, where dozens of green-uniformed Vietnamese soldiers gathered around a pile of wrecked B52s -- a pop-art-like exhibit of twisted, tangled metal -- with a MiG jet perched above it. As Cooney and Piwko walked gingerly past, they eyed the soldiers as if they were opposing players in a sandlot baseball game. The troops grinned and nodded. The former GIs were incredulous: We had been the enemy, dammit. Were there no grudges, was there no hatred?

The mood was beyond reconciliation, it was positively welcoming. Everywhere Piwko and Cooney went, looks of suspicion melted when they mouthed the Vietnamese words "Ngoi my" -- "We are American." Although the Soviets had inherited the GIs' space here, a point made emphatically clear when the tour group touched down at the Da Nang airport and watched a battalion of MiG fighter planes roar off into the sky, they had not earned the affection of the Vietnamese, who scorned the Soviets as "Americans without money." It was a remarkable paradox: The Americans had blasted the country to smithereens, napalmed sisters and fathers, and yet the Vietnamese embraced these travelers, their old enemy. NEAR THE HAI VAN PASS, 1969. IT BEGAN as another routine assignment for Cooney's 101st Airborne Division, based in the village of Phu Bai, midway between Da Nang and Hue on the South China Sea. Electronic "people sniffers" dropped onto a jungle-covered peninsula had picked up traces of the Vietcong, and a company of 90 grunts had been dispatched to clean them out.

The area was "prepped" with artillery first: enough napalm and cluster bombs to burn or destroy nearly every trace of human life. Then the infantry moved in. By the time a reconnaissance force reached the top of a 1,000-foot knoll late that afternoon, the men were desperate for some shade.

But there was only one tree on the summit.

Seven grunts made an impetuous dash for the tree -- and stumbled into a Vietcong land mine that exploded in their faces. One was dead -- "dogwood five," in the company's lingo -- three or four were injured. Cooney, who had been resting on the beach a few yards away when he heard the terrifying explosion, had helped stuff the dead man into a body bag. STANDING ATOP THE 3,000-FOOT HAI VAN PASS ("The Pass of the Cloud and Sea") on a blissfully peaceful afternoon in Vietnam, Cooney gazed down upon the peninsula where he had barely escaped the lethal sting of shrapnel 18 years ago.

"I knew him well," he said, remembering the friend and fellow GI who was less fortunate. "Black guy -- Willie Williams. A singer from Texas. Christ, he could do a great impersonation of Otis Redding singing 'Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay.' "

For two hours the tour group had been traveling north from Da Nang on Highway One ("The Street Without Joy") in a battered Russian-built school bus. The whole way up the coast, they had been gazing at the flooded paddies, the curving shore, the church steeples looming over aluminum-shack hamlets -- and remembering.

"That's Firebase Roy!" Cooney would say, or "We used to swim on that beach!"

Riding together in the back with their shirts off as the bus switchbacked up and down the mountainous coast, they seemed like blood brothers who had found each other at last. Sometimes Piwko leaned dangerously out the rear exit, surveying the ivory beaches while dragging deeply on a Marlboro. With his red-and-yellow butterfly tattoo stamped upon his left shoulder, he looked precisely like the door-gunner he had once been. Past and present blurred together, transforming the two men from aging ex-combatants into fresh-faced GIs reveling in their youth.

"He's dinky-dow," joked Cooney to one of the Vietnamese escorts, using the Vietnamese slang for "crazy."

"He's callin' me dinky-dow?" retorted Piwko. "He's the guy who throws himself off cliffs with plastic wings on his back!"

But even as the bond between the two men grew stronger, their differences became apparent. Piwko was retreating deeper into his own obsessions, silently brooding over hopes for a reunion with Minh. He had written a letter to the Foreign Ministry in Hanoi, mentioning his 15-year correspondence, making a "humanitarian request" for a brief visit. But he had been told that no decision would be made until he reached Ho Chi Minh City. Meanwhile, the reporters on the tour were making him edgy; Piwko shied away from publicity, told no war stories, deflected the notion that he might ever have engaged in acts of heroism.

"Dan got shot down in his chopper near Pleiku," someone remarked.

"Nah -- the engine conked out as we were landing. Crashed 100 feet to the ground."

"Did they give you a purple heart?"

"You kiddin'? I almost had a purple ass."

Piwko had had little passion for the "John Wayne stuff." He had loved the Asian culture, the Buddhist temples, the rhythmic patterns of life in the rural villages. From his base camp deep in the central highlands, he and a few buddies used to drift off into the surrounding hamlets, treating infections and malaria, trying to break down barriers created by his uniform. "Most people would light up to see us," he remembered. "I felt a helluva lot more fear when I was back in America."

Cooney, on the contrary, couldn't reminisce enough about his days as a Boonie Rat, reveling in the filth ("We never took our uniforms off for 60 straight days"), the leeches ("They've got this anticoagulant, so when you finally get 'em off, you just keep bleeding"), the centipede that made a grunt's face swell up like a "goddam grapefruit." When he talked about hang gliding, he exuded the same boisterous bravado he displayed in his tales of Vietnamese body counts: "We had one dead, five injured last year . . . You want to know my basic philosophy? 'Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse.' " "WATCH OUT FOR THAT TRIP WIRE THERE!" SOME- one was joking.

After a three-hour drive into the boonies west of Da Nang, the tour group was hiking six "clicks" (kilometers) to the 9th-century Hindu ruins of My San. The temperature was 100 and rising. The high elephant grass gave no protection from the withering sun. Trooping through the lush vegetation past water buffaloes and startled peasants wearing straw coolie hats was eerily like a search-and-destroy mission in Charley land.

"Just imagine doin' this with full gear."

"This isn't much different from the war, is it?"

After three hours, they reached the ruins: towers of bricks and stone in varying states of disintegration, some with delicate erotic friezes dancing across fac ades. A B52 had dropped its payload on the complex in 1972, reducing centuries-old sculpted Krishnas, Ganeshas and Shivas to rubble in an instant -- the legacy of a once-great Asian empire obliterated in a flash of American firepower.

"Shee-it," Cooney said, surveying the wreckage. "I can't believe I just humped the boonies for three hours to come stare at a pile of goddam bricks."

Suddenly, a shirtless papa-san emerged from his thatched-roof hut clutching a captured M16 rifle. The vets stared in disbelief -- a frightening moment of de'ja` vu -- then relaxed when he grinned and ushered them inside to share some cha.

Later, Cooney and Piwko dashed for the cool waters of a nearby stream. Piwko lay in his black-and-white checkered skivvies for 15 luxurious minutes, drifting off to sleep.

"Sure hope a goddam croc-o-dile doesn't swim upstream right now," he said.

"Just keep your legs crossed, Piwko."

"That's exactly what I'm doin'."

Suddenly, he leapt up with a frenetic yelp and began slapping himself wildly -- two enormous black leeches had attached themselves to his back. HUE, 1968. AFTER A MONTH-LONG MISSION IN THE central highlands, Cooney and a couple of buddies from the 101st Airborne had borrowed a U.S. Army jeep and roared into Hue, desperate for a little R&R. They were primed for a "firebase stand-down" -- a stint of drinking, barbecuing, touring and womanizing in the ancient imperial capital.

The centuries-old cathedral of Hue lay in ruins. The commercial district of the city was a smoldering pile of rubble. But the Citadel -- a gray walled fortress looming above the Perfume River, where the NVA had fought off the U.S. Marines for 24 days -- stood miraculously intact. Only three months after the most savage fighting of the Tet Offensive -- fighting that had killed 6,000 soldiers and countless civilians -- Hue residents had moved back inside the walled city. They were cooking their rice and hanging their laundry out to dry, as if the horror had never happened at all. BEHIND THE CITADEL'S SOARING STONE wall stood an ornate palace-and-temple complex, a structure that had been painstakingly restored with a $4 million UNESCO grant. The palace was filled with carved wooden beams with golden inlays, silk tapestries, bronze Buddhas. The Americans wondered: Where was the evidence of the war?

"Is this from an American round?" Piwko said, retrieving a metal casing from the dirt.

"Looks more like an AK47 round."

"No -- it's definitely from an AK762," said another vet.

All through the journey they'd been looking for remnants of battle, feeling adrenaline with every scrap that validated their experience: concrete pillboxes, outdoor "museums" filled with captured American tanks and rocket launchers, American shell casings being used by bicycle repairmen as containers for wrenches and inner tubes, old U.S. airfield signs ("No Smoking On Ramp") stenciled over with Vietnamese names. But the artifacts were few and far between. The Vietnamese had rebuilt from the ruins and absorbed the war's detritus, relegating the American presence, like the French occupation, to the ash heap of history.

Later that evening, from the Hung Giang Hotel's concrete balcony overlooking the Perfume River, Cooney and Piwko watched as a few sampans puttered downstream past the Citadel. They were sitting with a couple of other vets, mixing lethal combinations of Stolichnaya vodka ($1 a liter at the Hung Giang bar) and canned Vietnamese pineapple juice, and waxing nostalgic over the sex shows on Phat Phong Road in Bangkok.

Across the balcony, a dozen Russians chatted together against the railing, while others slow-danced to Ukrainian folk melodies. The Russians and the Americans regarded each other warily, fellow travelers separated by an abyss of war, language and politics. Then, one American, his tongue loosened by the Stolichnaya, leaned over and asked, in slow, clear tones: "Do . . . any . . . of you . . . speak . . . English?"

Giggles. Nervous glances back and forth. A young woman with a blond punk haircut stepped forward.

"I . . . can speak . . . a leeetle," she said. The Russians began gathering round.

She was a "mathe-mateeks" teacher at an elementary school in a Ural Mountain town near Chelyabinsk, she said, here on a three-week package-tour holiday. Others were pilots, factory managers, a cross-section of the Soviet middle class.

And now that she had seen Vietnam, would she return?

"No." There was general laughter.

"Next year, I get car . . . travel around my country. And someday -- " she took a deep breath. "Someday I would like to see Bulgaria."

Uhhh . . . Bulgaria. Right. What about America?

"America!" said a burly, blond Aeroflot pilot named Sergei. "It is dream!"

And so it went for the next hour, until Cooney and Sergei were trading cigarettes and pulling swigs from the same bottle of vodka, communicating by hand signals and a word or two in common.

"War? You fight war?"

"Yes. War. I fight war."

"Is bad -- war?"

"For some -- bad. For me -- not so bad."

It was a mini-detente on a rooftop in Hue, and another reversal of expectations. The vets had come here half-expecting to be spat upon by their former Vietnamese foes, only to find themselves virtually embraced as comrades-in-arms. And now, the Russians, so dour in appearance, had turned out to be warm, even appealing. The global power struggles that had enmeshed both sides in Vietnam seemed distant; tonight, in this foreign place, the atmosphere was steeped with a sense of reconciliation. PHU LOC, 1969. IT WAS JUST A TINY cluster of shacks straddling Highway One south of Hue, but for three months Phu Loc was the center of Donald Cooney's world. He and 12 other GIs had been charged with "securing and holding" the Catholic hamlet of several hundred people: Living in two adjoining huts in the center of town, they constructed a barbed-wire perimeter, established a dusk curfew, patrolled the surrounding rice paddies by moonlight -- and shot down anything that moved after dark.

One morning an American helicopter gunship passed overhead, relaying information of enemy movement in the paddies a few hundred yards west. Cooney ordered 155 howitzers aimed toward the verdant hills and let loose with a ferocious barrage. Afterward, they wandered up a trail to inspect the casualties. "We killed 13 of them in one blast," he later remembered. "Pretty good body count for a couple of minutes' work."

It was easy to be brutal to an unseen enemy, fleeting shadows who came and went with the night. To the villagers, the GIs responded with more complex emotions. Whenever CARE packages arrived from America, they passed out candy and cookies to the village children. On Christmas Eve, villagers and grunts gathered in the French-built schoolhouse to share turkey and cranberry sauce dinners sent up north from "the rear area."

But sometimes, the vets could be appallingly inhumane to villagers, too. Once, two from Cooney's company were driving in a jeep near Phu Loc when they spied a young boy riding his water buffalo through the paddies, 50 yards away.

"Bet you can't hit him," said one.

"I'll betcha I can." He took aim with him M16 and fired. The boy fell from his buffalo, dead. "STOP HERE! STOP HERE!" THE BUS WAS rolling along Highway One through the rain-soaked flatlands just south of Hue, when Cooney leapt to his feet and started shouting at the driver.

Cooney had recognized Phu Loc: its concrete, tin-roofed hovels partially hidden behind a thicket of banana, palm and breadfruit trees. He slogged forward through the mud and drizzle like a man possessed, surrounded by three dozen ragged children. Shirtless old men with Ho Chi Minh goatees and gnarled bellies watched from the doorways of thatched-roof shacks as Cooney moved past the yellow stucco schoolhouse, down a dirt track to a dead end, where a tiny cement-block-and-brick hut stood amid lush tropical foliage.

"It's still here," said Cooney with amazement. "This is where I lived. It's a lot smaller than I remembered it."

For a moment it seemed ludicrous, the thought of this GI and his buddies encamped here two decades ago, imposing their protection upon people who preferred to be left alone.

But Cooney didn't see the war in political terms. He was like the character in "Full Metal Jacket" who, when asked whether America should be fighting in Vietnam, replies, "I don't know about America -- I just know I was meant to be here." Now, after circling the house and wandering past the flooded paddies he had once patrolled by moonlight, Cooney walked slowly back to the bus. It was over, he said. He felt like he had "closed the book." Cooney was ready to go back home. SAIGON, 1985. FOR THREE YEARS AFTER Piwko's departure, Piwko and Minh had been writing to each other once a week. But when the communist "liberators" marched into Saigon on April 30, 1975, her letters had abruptly stopped. For months Piwko lived in anxious ignorance, until he learned that she had been sent to a communist re-education camp for the crime of working for the U.S. Army. When Minh got out and her letters resumed, they concentrated on a single theme -- escape from Vietnam.

Each day was misery for her, she wrote. Stripped of working privileges and benefits, she lived with her parents and survived by sewing clothes for neighbors. As time passed and her marriage prospects dimmed, "her family wanted nothin' more to do with her," Piwko said. She talked of joining the exodus of boat people. Piwko wrote that it was too dangerous. She applied for an exit visa through the Orderly Departure Program, but the Vietnamese government informed her that without relatives or a husband in America, she had little chance.

Now, 10 years after the fall of Saigon, a Buffalo state assemblyman met surreptitiously with Minh in the back room of a leather goods shop in Ho Chi Minh City, delivering money and words of encouragement from Piwko. "I love him very much," she said. "It has been very difficult. I just don't want to live here any- more." FINALLY, SAIGON.

The politburo had renamed it Ho Chi Minh City after the Liberation, but to most residents -- and all Americans -- it would always be Saigon.

The communist regime had imposed a veneer of severity on the city: The prostitutes had been rounded up, shipped off to re-education camps. Streets had been renamed for communist martyrs. The frenzied traffic and the noxious brown haze that had hung over the city when Piwko was here had been replaced by non-polluting bicycles. (Most of the cars and motorcycles had long since fallen into disrepair, stashed in back yards to await better times.)

Beneath the austere fac ade, however, Saigon's westernized, capitalist spirit had survived. Airport shops displayed stereo blaster boxes, color TVs and tennis rackets. Young Vietnamese, decked out in western T-shirts ("Giorgio's of Beverly Hills," "Nike") and fashionable sunglasses, flocked nightly to a new discotheque at the Rex Hotel. There they danced under red and green strobe lights to a band that alternated between Michael Jackson songs and Polish polkas.

Cooney and Piwko were haunted by Saigon's ghostly reminders of the American presence: Down an alleyway, a dark girlie bar still operated quasi-legally -- "Let's Spend the Night Together" blaring from a stereo, Ian Anderson and Jimi Hendrix posters on the walls, six or seven aging bar girls offering their services to AID workers and diplomats.

In front of the old Caravelle Hotel (now the Doc Lap) overlooking Saigon's main square, Southeast Asia's answer to Fagin's ragged urchins lay in wait for western tourists. There were a couple of dozen of them -- including one tall Amerasian girl of about 18, with dirty blond hair and acne, who appeared to be the den mother. All spoke a smattering of English, just enough to communicate their pleas for T-shirts, cash, "present from America."

From the moment the tour group arrived at Tan Son Nhut Airport, Piwko was gripped by uncertainty: Would the Vietnamese grant his request to see Minh, or would he be forced to sneak through the streets of Saigon for a surreptitious back-room visit?

He was nervous, even agitated, the first afternoon as the group gathered round two tables in the art deco dining room of the Caravelle. White-jacketed, French-speaking waiters lavished bifteck and salade verte upon the Americans while lamenting the decline of business. ("C a ne va pas bien, m'sieur. C a ne va pas bien de tout.") Not a soul came to deliver a message to Piwko -- nor at dinner that night. It wasn't until the next day's lunch that he got his answer.

At 4 o'clock, Piwko sat chain-smoking on a Naugahyde couch in the Caravelle lobby, eyes darting past the glass doors toward the heat-numbed square. A quartet of cyclo drivers lay asleep in their vehicles, parked before the seedy old, French-built Assemble'e Nationale. Even the hyperactive orphans had crawled under the shade of a tamarind tree.

Then, movement: A plain, frail-looking woman, wearing a white blouse and tight gray slacks, tentatively approached the glass doors of the Caravelle, then hovered outside.

The Caravelle doorman swung open the portals, and she entered the lobby.

Minh.

Piwko stood. They looked at one another. She moved toward him, one hand stretched out. A soft touch, nothing more.

Minh groped for words. "I am -- " "I am -- " Her English had faded. "I am -- very happy."

Whispering, holding hands, they spent all evening huddled on the Caravelle's couch, trying to ignore the watchful government officials and the black-and-white TV blaring in the corner. Then, the next morning, she returned. The Vietnamese Foreign Ministry even bent the regulations, allowing her to join Piwko in the ninth-floor restaurant (normally restricted from Vietnamese), where they sat for a two-hour breakfast.

But Tran Le Minh would not leave with Piwko.

The officials said she had no family in America, no spouse, not even any written evidence of an engagement. They told her that a backlog of 60,000 Vietnamese had been granted exit permits through the Orderly Departure Program, with only 6,000 accepted by the United States each year. Some had already waited five years to get out. Minh would have to take her place at the end of the line.

And so, 38 years old, rejected by her parents, a pariah to the government, sewing dresses in a room lighted by a single light bulb, she was destined to remain in limbo.

Piwko's face was grim and taut as he carried his luggage to the hotel lobby his last morning in Vietnam. "I'm thinking about coming back to Saigon to marry her," he said. "Maybe then they'll let her out."

As Piwko boarded the tourist bus in front of the Caravelle for the last time, Minh stood on the sidewalk, holding back tears, casting one final look at the ex-grunt who had flitted briefly through her life again after 15 years. Piwko sat in his door-gunner seat, utterly silent. He looked frail, fatigued and suddenly very old. The Amerasian orphans clustered beneath his window, waving, laughing, rapping on the glass, begging for "dollar, T-shirt, pen, book, anything." Then the driver gunned his engines, the bus pulled away, and Minh was left behind.

"I'd like to be able to close the book like Don Cooney did," Piwko would later say. "But I still got something there. I've been waiting for 15 years. I guess I can wait some more. I just gotta have hope and faith."

He paused. Shook his head. "Right now," he said, "that's all I got." :: Joshua Hammer is a free-lance writer who has lived and traveled extensively in Asia. Practical Tips for Vietnam Travel

Entrusting oneself to Vietnam's Department of Tourism isn't exactly like taking a Thomas Cook tour through France -- but neither is it the threadbare ordeal you might expect. Vietnam has been hosting Soviet and other Eastern European tour groups for years, so by the time the first Americans arrived last spring, an efficient infrastructure was already in place. Planes leave when scheduled, the air conditioning usually works, the food is ample and generally good, and the hotel rooms are comfortable and happily devoid of vermin.

Still, it's useful to keep in mind a few things. The country is swimming in viruses and bacteria, so remember those shots: typhoid, cholera, bubonic plague and gamma globulin for hepatitis. Don't expect to find amenities like medicine, shampoo, toothpaste, batteries and film.

Spending money can be tricky. The Vietnamese government -- determined to wipe out the black market -- counts your dollars going in, makes you keep tabs of all exchanges and dollar transactions, then counts your dollars going out. Major discrepancies could land you in jail -- and

Traveling through Vietnam is by tour group only, but that doesn't mean you must follow the pack. Supervision generally is lax. However, most of the time it's worth staying with the group. Two of our most remarkable forays were a four-hour boat trip up the Perfume River from Hue, stopping to explore ancient temples, pagodas and imperial palaces; and a strenuous though infinitely rewarding hike to the Chom ruins of My San near Da Nang. Trips to both the War Crimes Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and the tunnels of Cu Chi (an underground Vietcong communications and supply network) north of Ho Chi Minh City brought home that era with powerful immediacy.

Several companies offer package tours to Vietnam. A visa is required and can be obtained through the tour operator. :: -- J.H.