BILL EHRHART FELT APPREHENSIVE, SCARED EVEN, WHEN HE paused on the sidewalk to stare at the curb-side stand. He was an American. The stand was in Hanoi, the city Americans blasted with bombs. And the items on the stand were like headlines reminding the Vietnamese who had bombed them.

Not only that, but Ehrhart had been a Marine trooper in the northern part of South Vietnam during the war. He was ashamed of many of the things he and his fellow Marines had done there. The Vietnamese standing all around him might know about the Marines' terrifying search and destroy missions and take it out on him right now.

This time, the summer of 1990, former Marine Ehrhart would have no M-16 rifle to enforce his authority as he had in 1967 and 1968. Once the Vietnamese realized they had an unarmed American surrounded, would they do more than burn him with that same old hate he'd felt searing into him two decades ago when he kicked through their huts?

As he looked away from the sales stand and studied the faces of the Vietnamese, he did indeed feel their gazes on him. But their eyes were filled with curiosity and warmth, not hate. Better yet, the Vietnamese children paid him no mind at all as they picked up those dreaded objects on the table and played with them. They were models of American bombers.

How tragic, Ehrhart thought at first, that the Vietnam War has been so completely forgotten that the children of today's Hanoi can play happily with models of American bombers. But no, he told himself on further reflection, "It's wonderful! Life goes on. They're not carrying that baggage of the war." Exultant, he wrote this poem about his sidewalk experience:

There in that place the Americans bombed,

where the children were sent to the hills

away from their mothers and fathers,

taking their laughter with them,

leaving their city in darkness,

in the market among the bicycles,

baskets of spices and fruit,

beer and cigarettes, burlap bags

and people singing their words

in a language forty centuries old,

in a toystore cluttered with orange

inflatable fish and windup monkeys

and dolls: two identical warplanes,

flight leader and wingman,

"U.S. Air Force" stenciled on the sides.

And the children touch them without fear,

pick them up with their hands,

put them into the sky

and pretend they are flying,

nothing but light in their eyes.

What brought the 41-year-old soldier-poet -- who writes under the name W.D. Ehrhart -- from his home town of Philadelphia to Hanoi was a unique writers conference sponsored by the Joiner Center of the University of Massachusetts and the Writers Union of Vietnam, headquartered in Hanoi. The idea was to put around the same table writers who had fought on opposite sides and then gone home to write about their war experiences. "It is high time for us to better know each other as concrete and lively men and countries," said Nguyen Ngoc, a retired North Vietnamese Army colonel and writer in stating the reason for the conference.

The American veterans and writers who participated in the gathering were Philip Caputo (A Rumor of War), Ehrhart (To Those Who Have Gone Home Tired), Larry Heinemann (Paco's Story), Yusef Komunyakaa (Dien Cai Dau), Larry Rottmann (American Eagle), Bruce Weigl (Song of Napalm) and myself.

I had been in Vietnam in 1968 and 1972 as a war correspondent for The Washington Post. My memories were of a suffocating American military presence; of walking behind trooper Robert Woods on a trail in the Ashau Valley one minute and leaning over him the next as blood gushed out of the hole in his throat made by a North Vietnamese riflemen we still could not see; of schoolyards and streets clogged with Vietnamese refugees trying to escape the war; of acres of shacks, many built out of American beer cans, crammed along Da Nang's ocean front, where the bombs that drove them out of inland farms did not fall. I wanted to experience Vietnam at peace and confront the ghosts American riflemen had heard and chased and shot at but seldom saw.

After meeting for two days at the French-built West Lake conference center outside downtown Hanoi, the soldier-writers climbed on a Japanese-built bus and traveled around Vietnam together. Besides Hanoi, we visited Haiphong, Da Nang, Hue and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and tramped around some of the old battlefields in the boonies, including the "McNamara Line," built along the demilitarized zone in a vain attempt to keep North Vietnamese soldiers from infiltrating into South Vietnam. I broke away on occasion to travel with a separate group of Vietnam veterans and also went through Vietnamese clinics and hospitals with Myron Allukian Jr., the first Vietnam vet to be elected president of the American Public Health Association. Allukian's mission, also sponsored by the Joiner Center, was to assess what members of his association could do themselves to bind up the wounds of the war rather than waiting for the U.S. government to do it.

There were laughter, tears and deep silences as the former enemies, once under orders to kill one another, took turns reading poems. If one quality stood out among the scenes from the trip described below, it was the rough nobility of soldiers from opposite sides of the world trying to find peace for themselves and their countries by talking out what had happened -- to them and to Vietnam and to America -- during the war.

AT THE WEST LAKE CENTER, THE SEVEN American writers sat at one end of a big rectangular table while about 30 Vietnamese filled the other seats. Vietnamese TV broadcast the exchanges. Translators tried to bridge the language gap but had limited success when it came to the poems; Amer- icans requested and received written translations of many of them. Body language helped the soldiers find common ground, especially during the refreshment breaks and dinners where Vietnamese 33 beer and Heineken flowed freely.

Tran Ninh Ho drew rave comments from the American writers with these lines from his poem about searching for a companion after an American bombing raid: "The moment you're looking for your friend, everybody seems all strangers." Finding each other alive, he wrote, "we both laughed while tears were running down our cheeks."

Khuat Quang Thuy, who fought Americans in Quang Tri and the Highlands, said he knew why the American soldier-writers, not U.S. diplomats, had become among the first to return to Vietnam as friends. "Holding a pen is 1,000 times as difficult as holding a rifle," he told the delegates. "For when you hold a rifle, you can easily open fire on order, but when you hold a pen, you can only write in answer to the call of your heart, of your conscience. It is for that reason, I think, that you have found your way back to this country."

Caputo, a beefy, deep-voiced, highly vocal former Marine platoon leader, said he was gung-ho about the war when he arrived in Vietnam in 1965. He left the country 16 months later feeling ill-used by his own government, and joined the anti-war movement upon leaving the Marine Corps. Caputo explained his own return to Vietnam by quoting from Rudyard Kipling: "We have but one virginity to lose, but where we lost it is where our hearts will always be." He told his former enemies across the conference table that "I hope to walk across the region west of Da Nang where 15 of my friends were killed. I want to see what it's like to be there and not hear a single rifle shot or mortar round. I'd like to know how it is to lie in a rice paddy and hear the music of silence."

Lean and leathery Pham Ho, 64, who fought with the Viet Minh against the French in the 1950s, silenced the clattery conference hall by reading a poem about the anguish he felt when his best friend joined the French side:

I fired at him.

Tender and beautiful days gone by

could not stay my hand.

Tender and beautiful days days gone by;

he has forgotten them all.

But I remember still:

the fields of my village; huge ocean of rice;

the morning dew white pearls by the roadside.

Us two,

our schoolbooks clasped together,

our clothes crumpled by sleep,

our bare feet moving together side by side;

in swinging hands the handful of rice

our mothers ground in a leaf of areca palm;

our wide conical hats with their bands too long;

in a pocket, a matchbox, a cricket inside.

How beautiful, how gentle they were -- the days gone by.

And yet these days for us had no tomorrow.

He.

He left the village to follow the invader

many years ago

to my sorrow and my anger.

I tried to win him back several times.

He answered me with dark crimes.

I met him this evening.

I fired at him.

Beautiful and tender days gone by

could not hold my hand.

His body lay on the dike,

no longer the boy I knew of old.

I looked into his face

and regretted his childhood days.

"Did that really happen?" we asked the old soldier-poet at the next tea-and-beer break in the conference center. Ho replied with a smile that the poem ex- presses the emotions he actually felt, but that he never had to shoot at his friend on the battlefield. They both survived the French war and have been reconciled, Ho added with an even broader smile.

VO NGUYEN GIAP ENTERED THE former French governor general's mansion in Hanoi looking more like the elfin schoolteacher he used to be than like Ho Chi Minh's triumphant commander. He eschewed the fruit salad of ribbons and medals most American generals display on their chests, settling instead for a plain, olive drab uniform. He wore dull, low-cut brown shoes, not polished boots. He had no hat, no general's retinue of colonels and majors, no briefcase, no map pointer.

Yet here was the general who rejected Chinese advice that he assault the French Legionnaires at Dien Bien Phu with waves of infantry, defeating them instead with patience and innovative tactics still studied in war colleges; who beat the high-tech United States military without using bombers or helicopters or much artillery; who changed tactics as the war progressed to keep ahead of the American and South Vietnamese forces arrayed against him; who could have been forgiven for swaggering a bit in front of the soldiers in the American delegation -- but did not.

Giap, speaking through a translator, opened with the comment that "I too was once a writer," adding that he thought the conference "is very good. We very clearly differentiate between the American people and the American government. You are welcomed here as human beings. Ho Chi Minh has taught us to love every human being.

"Every time I'm met by people," he continued, "I'm always asked about war. I say, 'To talk about war is okay, but I have fought for peace. We are people of peace' . . . Now the floor is open to you to ask anything you like."

I asked whether his battlefield losses totaled 1 million men as has been reported and how he would have used U.S. forces if had commanded them. "We don't have yet the precise statistics" on battle deaths, he replied. "It's not up to 1 million as you said." As for what Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the American commander in Vietnam, should have done differently, Giap smiled and gave an answer that stopped short of criticizing his old adversary: "If I were an American commander, I would not fight Vietnam. And I think many Americans share my feeling."

Responding to another question, Giap said he agreed with the writings of former undersecretary of state George W. Ball that American power had limits. "U.S. strength is not limitless," Giap said. "To us Vietnamese people, the material strength is not what brings victory. The greatest power is the people, the nation. We have never accepted slavery to any foreign invaders."

The first place he went after the fall of Saigon, Giap said, "was the South Vietnamese military operations center used by the South Vietnamese general staff. On the wall there was a map telling where we deployed our forces." This pinpointing, he said, was done by "electronic computers. The impression I have kept until now is this: They had every modern weapon and we didn't. But we won. So the decisive factor is the people. Whatever weapons the ARVN {Army of the Republic of Vietnam} had -- lasers, electronics, artillery -- they couldn't defeat people."

The 77-year-old general's smile widened when Ehrhart said: "I expect you get very tired about answering questions about the war. I would like to know now when you don't have to meet with people like us, boring things like this, what do you like to do with your time?"

"I like to play Vietnamese musical instruments as well as play the piano," Giap responded merrily. "When we play the piano, our hands must move, our eyes must look, our ears must listen -- and then the mind will be free. And I like photography too, because the cameraman must choose the scene, check the light -- it needs an artistic taste. And it makes the mind stop."

Heinemann, who served in Vietnam as an Army infantryman, asked, "What would you have become if you had not met Ho Chi Minh?"

Giap circled the question rather than tackle it directly. But in doing so, this peaceful-looking man who sent hundreds of thousands of men to their deaths revealed what stoked the revolutionary fires in his belly.

"When I was a young man, my country was a lost country. I fought for independence," he said.

"I came from a peasant family. The landlords were French. When I was a child, I, together with other children in my village, fought the landlords' children. Later I did some studies and research on peasant issues.

"My father was a peasant who had to borrow a lot from landlords. When we harvested, we also had to pay back. When my mother used the boat to carry the rice which we had to pay back to the landlords, I was there in the boat." The landlords, Giap said, poured his mother's rice into a ventilating box, causing the lighter rice to blow away, and ordered her to fetch more to make up for what had been lost.

Toward the end of the meeting, Kevin Bowen, co-director of the Joiner Center, said that President Bush's decision to continue to bar U.S. trade and economic assistance to Vietnam "punishes the people who need assistance the most." He said the Joiner Foundation had difficulty sending medicines into Vietnam.

"Certainly we have difficulties and hardships," Giap replied, "but we are optimistic. That's what the Vietnamese people are."

AT THE MINISTRY OF LABOR AND Invalid and Social Affairs in Hanoi, another group of American veterans -- not the writers -- had engaged in 30 minutes of polite conversation and tea drinking with Nghiem Xuan Tue, deputy director of the ministry. Then Dan Carr, a former Marine rifleman from Townsend, Mass., stood up to make a presentation.

"I think now is the appropriate time to present you with these to give to the soldier's family," Carr said as he leaned far across the table to hand Tue the identification card and pocket money -- about 200 dong, now worth about 5 cents --

taken off the body of North Vietna- mese rifleman Ngan Van Dan in October 1969.

Tue, visibly moved, promised to deliver them, declaring: "I think this is a very small thing, but very meaningful to the family. I think this is a heartfelt action from your side."

Former Cpl. Kevin O'Connell of Hubbardston, Mass., was the Marine who killed Dan. He had asked Carr to take Dan's personal effects back to Vietnam.

"I was the squad leader of an ambush," O'Connell told me when I telephoned him. "I saw five North Vietnamese soldiers coming toward me on the dike. I opened up on them and killed the first three. The other two got away. I walked out on the dike and saw that the three NVA I shot were in the water of the paddy. When I got within 15 yards of them, one of the three raised his head out of the water and tried to throw a grenade at me. The grenade slipped out of his hand and rolled under his head. It blew his head off.

"I took the ID card and money off that body. I've had this feeling ever since that they belonged to the soldier's family. I always felt guilty having them. If that had happened to me, I would want my family to know I was gone rather than always wonder."

WALKING INTO THE SAME ELEGANT reception hall where Giap had met us earlier, Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach exhibited no outward sign that he was in the middle of a power struggle within Vietnam's communist government. Thach -- who seemed full of the kind of bounce and humor that Hubert H. Humphrey used to project in the Senate -- waved us into easy chairs, smiled and said: "No protocol. No protocol. Please sit down."

The foreign minister is the leading liberal within the ruling Politburo. He successfully pushed for the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia, contending this would impel President Bush to lift the hurtful U.S. economic embargo against Vietnam. When the withdrawal did not bring this result, according to government officials in Hanoi, Thach and fellow liberals lost clout within the Politburo to the hardliners led by Interior Minister Mai Chi Tho. While Thach favors opening Vietnam's door wide to foreigners as a way of hastening economic recovery from the war, these officials say, Tho and his allies argue that this will make it easier for the American Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Council to foment the kind of revolts that toppled communist governments in Eastern Europe.

The first question put to Thach was: What was the most troublesome legacy of the war for Vietnam?

"We have lost out in development, and we were cut off from the world," he replied, speaking in fluent English. "I myself -- I am now 67 years old. But all my life there was struggle -- underground activities against the French; in the French jail; the French war; the Vietnam War; now the problem of Cambodia and China teaching Vietnam a lesson. We need badly peace . . . All of us are losers. We should clean the wounds of war."

The U.S. economic embargo, Thach said, "is painful but less painful than the war. The most important thing is that when you have no enemies, you can sleep very quietly. When you have an enemy, or a hostile partner, you must sleep with one eye open . . ."

Thach said the Vietnamese government has learned the value of a free market economy as opposed to government price controls. He said pulling the government out of the farmers' business has helped Vietnam go from a rice-importing nation to a rice-exporting nation over the last three years. But he conceded the country has a long way to go, with new jobs badly needed.

(Pham Song, Vietnam's health minister, provided a measure of the job crisis in a separate interview, declaring: "We need 2.5 million new jobs a year. We can find only 1 million." Vietnam's unemployment is being aggravated, Song said, by the return of Vietnamese workers from Eastern Europe as inefficient industries there are closed down. Asked if the unemployed are likely to rise up and topple the government, Song replied: "At this moment, no. But in the future? Hard to say.")

Thach was asked why he thought the United States and Vietnam have not been able to normalize relations. He answered by drawing what he saw as the big picture:

"The Vietnam War is not the greatest mistake of the United States. No. The greatest mistake of the United States is to consider Vietnam as a pawn in the relationship of the United States and China . . .

"To get out of the Vietnam War, Kissinger and Nixon were in China to have a deal with China to stop supplying arms to Vietnam so the United States can enforce a peace agreement with Vietnam. So this also spawned a relationship between China and the United States. And China also used Vietnam as a pawn in the relationship with the United States. Now there is a common ground between the United States and China that they have no normal relations with Vietnam.

"On the chess board, the pawn has no legs. It can't move. Only the player can move the pawn. But in the international arena, all the pawns can move by themselves. The Vietnam pawn can move by itself out of the control of the United States and China. This is the trouble for the United States and China. This pawn has legs."

A SEVERE STORM KNOCKED OUT THE lights in the Haiphong restaurant where Americans and Vietnamese were to perform for one another, and the thunder reminded everyone that this was the city President Nixon bombed so devastatingly in 1972 at the urging of Henry Kissinger. Waitresses scurried about, sticking lighted candles all around the large room. As if inspired by the eerie glow from sudden candlelight, North Vietnamese Army Lt. Le Luu, wearing an American-made T-shirt that read "Vietnam Vet" on the front, stood up from the table and exclaimed: "We were born to love each other, not kill each other."

American poet Yusef Komunyakaa, a former Army lieutenant and the only black in the delegation, responded with lines from his poem "We Never Know":

He danced with tall grass for a moment, like he was swaying

with a woman. Our gun barrels

glowed white-hot.

When I got to him,

a blue halo

of flies had already claimed him.

I pulled the crumpled photograph

from his fingers. There's no other way

to say this: I fell in love.

The morning cleared again,

except for a distant mortar

& somewhere choppers taking off.

I slid the wallet into his pocket

and turned him over so he wouldn't be

kissing the ground.

Ehrhart stood up next to read his poem about the buddy he lost in the war, explaining that the Bobby in the poem was Marine trooper Bobby Ross:

The day you flew to Tam Ky, I was green

with envy. Not that lifeless washed-out

green of sun-bleached dusty jungle utes.

I was rice shoot green, teenage green.

This wasn't going to be just one more

chickenscratch guerrilla fight:

farmers, women, booby traps and snipers,

dead Marines, and not a Vietcong in sight.

This was hardcore NVA, a regiment at least.

But someone had to stay behind,

man the bunker, plot the H&I.

I have friends who wonder why I can't

just let the past lie where it lies,

why I'm still so angry.

As if there's something wrong with me.

As if the life you might have lived

were just a fiction, just a dream.

As if those gold Nebraska dawns

were just as promising without you.

As if Nebraska soil can grow things

just as well without you.

Since you've been gone, they've taken boys

like you and me and killed them in Grenada,

Lebanon, the Persian Gulf, and Panama.

And yet I'm told I'm living in the past.

Maybe that's the trouble: We're a nation

with no sense of history, no sense at all.

I still have that photo of you

standing by the bunker door, smiling shyly,

rifle, helmet, cigarette, green uniform

you hadn't been there long enough to fade

somewhere in an album I don't have

to look at anymore. I already know

you just keep getting younger. In the middle

of this poem, my daughter woke up crying.

I lay down beside her, softly singing;

soon she drifted back to sleep.

But I kept singing anyway.

I wanted you to hear.

THE MORNING AFTER THE POETRY readings I wandered around Haiphong at dawn to watch it wake up. I wondered what kind of reception I would get in this city that was pounded by B-52s during the war, with hundreds of civilians killed, according to the Vietnamese.

Long before 7 a.m., the city was alive with people bicycling to and fro. There were so many cyclists that as the morning advanced, the streets came to look like streams filled with schools of colored fish. The cyclists swam past each other, never colliding, no matter how crowded the streets became. There were very few automobiles.

Women and children set up tiny stands for selling food and drink along the streets. Their offerings included cans of Coca-Cola and 7-Up, evidence that at least some products of America's corporate giants have managed to get through the economic embargo. Little boys working these stands with their mothers were usually the first to discover the American in their midst.

"Hey, Joe! Hey, Joe!" the boys called out time after time.

"Hey, Joe! What you know?"

"America Number One!"

If I stopped on the sidewalk, as I often did during the morning walk, I was surrounded by smiling children trying to touch me. Their mothers usually looked on with approval.

Why, after all the bombing we did, are Americans so popular in cities like Hanoi and Haiphong as well as in the countryside? A Vietnamese intellectual offered an explanation I heard repeatedly in Vietnam: "We know that we could never have won the war against the United States if the American people had not turned against it. So we are grateful to the American people. We distinguish between them and their government."

I found this unconvincing, however, because it does not explain the particular friendliness of the postwar generation. Is this due, perhaps, to the image of youth and vitality and freedom conveyed by the tapes of American music that are finding their way into Vietnam in increasing numbers? Or to the young people's schooling about the American Revolution and Bill of Rights? Or to the beautiful Americans the Vietnamese often see on the television screen as they stand in clumps on the sidewalks watching sets in store windows? Whatever the reason, the affection today in Vietnam for Americans is palpable almost everywhere except among former South Vietnamese soldiers, who are quick to complain that we betrayed them by pulling out of the war in 1973.

IN HAIPHONG, I WAS AMAZED TO SEE that a new cement factory had risen from the rubble I remember seeing in photographs flashed around the world in 1972. I was also surprised that there were no bomb craters visible within the city -- forgetting how much rebuilding can be done in 18 years. But a guide from the Haiphong People's Committee made a point of taking us around to the rear of the cement factory, where an American bomb was displayed like a cannon in a village square. The North Vietnamese who had been with us for several days now seemed to wince at the crudity of this propaganda ploy. A policeman stopped me from taking pictures of the factory itself, rather than the bomb behind it.

City officials detailed the number of bombs that had fallen on each part of the city, but when asked, they said they still had not been able to determine the total number of people in Haiphong killed by American bombs. These briefings were done matter-of-factly rather than in an angry fashion -- as if even Haiphong's officialdom wants to forget about the war and go on to other things.

Even Nguyen Thi Bai, vice chairman of the People's Committee and the highest city official we met, chose to talk about a different kind of struggle. "We are engaged in a second war together," the former literature professor told the American writers, "a war between literature and television. I'm happy to say that in this war, we are all on the same side."

WALKING ALONG THE BARREN STRETCH of cleared land known as the McNamara Line, in the demilitarized zone that formerly separated North and South Vietnam, I ventured briefly off the main path. Immediately, I heard shouts of warning: I might set off an undiscovered mine.

The Americans, we were told, had seeded the earth with so many thousands of explosives that the Vietnamese have not been able to find them all. Farmers and others are still getting killed by these explosives. I quickly went back to the path.

One of the best things the U.S. government could do for the Vietnamese people, I concluded, would be to send in teams to find and remove our leftover explosives. Farmers are now trying to raise bananas along the DMZ, but the mines make this dangerous work.

AS THE SOVIET AIRLINER MADE ITS final approach to Da Nang, I looked out the window and saw Soviet MiG-21 fighter planes nestled in the concrete aircraft shelters the American military had built along the runway at the urging of then-Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara.

This former U.S. Marine stronghold was the launching pad for U.S. ground forces arriving in Vietnam. Marines landed here in 1965 to protect the airfield for the South Vietnamese government. By mid-1969, the United States had 543,400 troops in the country. I remembered Da Nang as being overwhelmed by the noise of American generators; by bars and prostitutes catering to Americans; by the smell of American fuel.

This time -- in June 1990 -- I walked along the Da Nang waterfront and saw and smelled nothing American. Da Nang's streets were awash with people in conical hats. The waterfront smelled like fish. Vietnamese children surrounded me whenever they realized I was an American. Once again it was smiles and "Hey, Joe!"

But Da Nang has a new set of troubles, with unemployment and health care at the top of the list, according to executives on the local People's Committee. American bombing, shelling and shooting drove thousands of children off farms and into Da Nang during the war, they said. Today, those children are grown but neither know how to farm nor want to return to the countryside. The resulting widespread unemployment taxes the extremely limited resources of the postwar government. I saw hundreds of young men lolling around Da Nang's cafes on weekday mornings, apparently without work.

At a meeting with Da Nang writers and politicians, Bill Ehrhart offered his explanation of why American leaders still refuse to put the Vietnam War behind them and assist Vietnam's recovery, as the United States assisted Europe with the Marshall Plan after World War II.

"The big mistake the Vietnamese committed was to win the war," Ehrhart contended. "Powerful people don't like to be humiliated and embarrassed. Your small country defeated the most powerful country on Earth. You embarrassed these men."

Still, the Vietnamese look west for aid.

"Can you cure them?" an anxious mother asked Myron Allukian at a Da Nang clinic. The American Public Health Association president explained that he was a dentist, not a medical doctor, but this did not dash the mother's hopes. She had brought the visiting American a daughter and son whose bones have never hardened, making it impossible for the children to sit or stand. The mother said she has been told the disease stemmed from her husband, a former soldier, being exposed to the American defoliant Agent Orange during the war. (Some Australian doctors visiting Da Nang at the time doubted this theory when we told them about it, but couldn't say for sure what the problem was.)

Allukian promised to ask his medical colleagues back in the United States whether anything could be done for the children. "Thank you, thank you," the mother said effusively. I marveled at how she saw the United States as the shining hope for her children's future rather than the country responsible for their pain.

I REMEMBERED DONG HA FROM 1968 and 1972 as a wretched pile of shelled buildings; as miserable families gathered in schoolyards trying to cook their food along the walls and sleep in the classrooms; as barbed wire and soldiers and scorched vehicles pushed off to the side of Route 1; as a place that would never know peace. But seeing the city 18 years later, oddly, failed to bring back those old images, even when I went to some of the same spots.

It made me think that the image we see in the present moment eclipses the old ones, chasing out both illusions and demons and bringing with it a mental tranquillity that returning Vietnam veterans say can be cathartic. Dong Ha in 1990 struck me as just another junky city off Route 1, not once-contested ground freighted with significance.

Our travels did not take us to the trail outside Khe Sanh where the rifle company I was with got ambushed. But I doubt if the old emotions would have come back even there. It is like going back as a man to the hill you used to sled down as a boy. Suddenly, it's just another hill.

Near Dong Ha, we got a laugh when we spotted a Vietnamese shack built against an American tank. The once fearsome vehicle had been relegated to service as a store room. Le Luu staged a mock assault against the tank, his infantryman's crouch proving that he knew exactly how to do it.

IN HUE, I AGAIN LEFT MY HOTEL ROOM at dawn, hiring a sampan to ferry me around the Perfume River. The river is crowded with hooded boats that are home to hundreds of families, and when the Vietnamese on the boats saw I was an American, they hailed me and smiled. Several urged me to join them for breakfast. But I told the girl paddling the sampan to keep moving, for fear I would lose the morning light for taking photographs.

I was delighted to see that the bridge over the river was no longer hanging in the water, as it was when I was there in 1968; that the giant market at the water's edge has been rebuilt into a two-story complex; and that there was a fearless hum from women talking as they squatted behind their wares all over the heart of the city.

Walking on the grounds of the Citadel, part of the imperial family's ancient compound and scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the Vietnam War, I watched Vietnamese boys furiously playing soccer and wondered if they knew what had happened on this same ground in 1968. Probably not.

The war came back with force only when I toured the main Hue hospital with Allukian. A young girl lay crying in a bed from wounds inflicted all over her body when she detonated a shell on a river bank while washing clothes. A wounded fisherman lay in the next room, a victim of another shell his net dragged off the Perfume River bottom.

"YOU YANKS CAME IN SECOND IN THE war," the British oil exploration technician was saying. "Looks like you're going to come in second in the peace. Pity, really."

We were on an airliner bound for Ho Chi Minh City. "We've found formations all along the Vietnamese coast that should be rich in oil, and we just struck gas off Haiphong," the technician explained. "The Vietnamese have oil. Your companies are itching to get into it, but the embargo won't let them. We even had to pull the American Hewlett-Packard computers out of one of the boats before it did the soundings offshore and put in Japanese computers. The owners were afraid that once we got started, we might need spare parts for the American stuff and wouldn't be able to get them because of the embargo."

Other Western oil explorers told me that all the foreign ships surveying the seabed rely on American NavStar satellites to pinpoint their position, a practice the embargo does not affect.

In a similar chance meeting, a Canadian geologist who had just conducted a study of Vietnam's potential mineral deposits told me: "You name it, Vietnam has got it -- gold, silver, tin and thousands of tons of really good anthracite, especially around Haiphong. There's much more mineral wealth here than in Thailand. And the labor for getting it out of the ground is cheap. The geological survey people are ready to sign mining agreements. Just a matter now of getting the politicians to agree."

Is Ehrhart right -- that because Vietnam won the war, the U.S. government is trying to make the peace as painful as possible by refusing to help its old enemy recover? How does the embargo make sense for either the United States or Vietnam?

THE NEW SAIGON -- HO CHI MINH CITY -- looks joyfully sinful compared with Hanoi, Haiphong, Da Nang and Hue. There are bright lights and dancing, for example, and the floating restaurant is back in business big time. The U.S. Embassy looks much the same from the outside but is being used for Vietnamese government offices, "so you can move back in easily," one Vietnamese said with a smile. The luxury hotels have reopened, but the Continental's famous open terrace with the overhead fans has been enclosed -- making it safer but far less romantic. The former offices of The Washington Post and the New York Times have been reclaimed as family apartments.

Still, Ho Chi Minh City looks antiseptic compared with the shady lady of the war years. The prostitutes and beggars are out of sight; Indian money changers no longer beckon to American passersby from inside bookstores; and everybody seems to project a certain tiredness and joylessness, as if the war went on too long and no peace dividend has been forthcoming.

Duong Quynh Hoa, director of pediatrics for Ho Chi Minh City, confirmed that peace can be painful -- especially after a country has been bled white, as was Vietnam. She said that 45 to 60 percent of Vietnamese children suffer from malnutrition because their parents do not know that more rice is not a substitute for a balanced diet; that family values are eroding under the assault of television and other pressures, with one indicator the fourfold increase just since 1986 in the number of women abandoning children born out of wedlock; that illiteracy is going up as parents opt to buy consumer goods rather than spend the money on their children's education; that with rising costs it is increasingly difficult to entice young people to become doctors at the government salary of $10 a month or less; that men and women who lost limbs during the war cannot afford to buy artificial ones and are thus lost to the work force; that cancer and other diseases attributed to Agent Orange are beyond the capabilities of Vietnam's strained medical structure.

What has been the worst impact of the war on the Vietnamese people? I asked this doctor, who abandoned her socially prominent position in Saigon to minister to anti-Saigon troops in tunnels and in jungle clearings from 1968 to 1975.

"Psychologic," she replied.

What does Vietnam need most from the United States and other countries to heal the wounds inflicted by 30 years of war?

"Training and development," she said. "Not to give money, please!"

ABOUT HALFWAY INTO OUR TOUR, WE visited a cemetery in the DMZ, near the former Marine fire base at Con Thien, where 10,300 of the 19,000 Vietnamese who died on the Ho Chi Minh Trail are buried.

"Where is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier?" Larry Heinemann asked the cemetery superintendent. The superintendent led the former trooper to the monument marking the spot where scores of unknown North Vietnamese soldiers are buried.

Heinemann placed his Army good conduct and commendation medals on the monument. He clasped hands with the startled cemetery superintendent. Earlier, he had found the tomb of a Vietnamese soldier born the same year he was and placed the Army Combat Infantryman Badge on his grave.

"Why did you do that?" I asked Heinemann, who got through his year in Vietnam unscathed.

"He probably deserved it more than I do. Does that make sense?"

I did not answer. As with so much else about the Vietnam War, I did not know whether it made sense or not. George C. Wilson, a longtime Washington Post military correspondent, is the author of Mud Soldiers.