It began as a protest.

More than 200 Vietnamese gathered yesterday afternoon at Dupont Circle carrying signs and banners deploring the deaths earlier this month of more than 100 Vietnamese boat people who drowned after their vessel was refused permission to land in Malaysia.

Reports of the incident said the boat was being towed by Malaysian police who shot at some of the refugees even as they were drowning.

But the plight of the boat people is so desperate and so complex that even as they marched through the steady rain toward the Malaysian Embassy at 2401 Massachusetts Ave. NW the protesters were tempering their anger with gratitude to the Malaysian government for helping their people at all.

A letter to the Malaysian prime minister from the 14 Vietnamese organizations that organized the march decried the drownings-which seemed to be a repetition of several such tragic incidents late last year.

But at the same it praised Malaysia's general "courage, moral leadership and humanitarianism" for currently giving temporary asylum to more that 58,000 Vietnamese refugees while richer and larger nations remain reluctant to accept them for permanent resettlement.

"We should know," said the letter, "since many of us actually wre refugees in Malaysia."

Ambassador Zain Azraai, who met with a group of the protesters, assured them that an investigation of this month's incident was under way, that initial findings suggested at least that no shots were fired, and that Malaysia was not changing its policy. He complained, however, that his embassy was singled out for a demonstration.

As they left, the Vietnamese agreed that perhaps they could as easily have called their protest a "march of appreciation."