The American Dream Machine is parked on a quiet street in Wheaton.

That's what Le Thanh, 29, has named his car, although the more prosaic might call it a Dodge Dart.

For Thanh, his mother Man, father Nhuong and seven younger brothers and sisters, the car represents the new life -- in a Maryland suburb far from their native village of Ca Mau in Vietnam's Mekong Delta.

The car is also a tangible step toward the self-sufficiency the Les so fervently want to achieve.No longer must they ask a neighbor to phone a member of St. Columba's Church -- the Episcopal parish that sponsored their settlement in the area 10 months ago -- every time they want to visit friends in Virginia or need to go to the doctor. e

The Les are taking other steps toward making their small brick home more comfortable.

Chili peppers and greens -- common ingredients in many Vietnamese dishes -- are growing in their backyard.

In the front of the house, the five youngest children -- Phuoc, 4; Phuong, 6; Loan, 8; Cong, 10; and Ha, 12 -- play easily with their new friends.

One hot evening recently, the Les gathered in the living room with glasses of tea and ice water to talk about their first spring and summer in the United States.

Thanh, his sister Nga 16, and brother Thuy, 26, now understand enough English to act as interpreters for their parents.

While they still become frustrated trying to express all their thoughts, they've come a long way from the times last winter when they would not answer the telephone for fear of having to speak English.

"Six months ago I was sad because I couldn't understand," said Thanh, with a hopeful look every time he finished a sentence. "Now I am much happier."

Thanh spends his evenings studying English, after working during the day as a house painter.

St. Columba's parishioners arranged for his job, and for Nhuong's as a custodian, so the first-born son and his father were able to begin work almost immediately after they arrived in the United States. More than anything, Thanh says, he would like his family to be self-supporting.

According to Tom Trumble, a member of the St. Columba committee that has helped the Les, this will happen soon.

"The Les have an inner strength that is amazing," he said. "Most of the refugees will eventually be self-supporting, but I am confident that the Les will be among the first."

Nhuong was Ca Mau's chief, the rough equivalent of a small-town mayor, until 1975, and Man ran a small store in the front of their house.

"His job was to sign papers," Thanh said with a laugh, when asked to describe his father's duties.

His position made him politically suspect when the communists took control of the country, and the father and his two older sons were imprisoned for three years.

Almost immediately upon the men's release, the Les started making plans to flee the country. Eighteen months ago they left, with several other Ca Mau families, in a fishing boat Thuy and several other young men had hi-jacked from four communists.

Twice the Les tried to land in Malaysia but were turned out to sea. 1 Finally, on their third attempt, Thanh sank the boat so they could not be pushed out of Malaysia again.

The family stayed in a refugee camp for eight months, under squalid conditions they say they try not to think about now.

"Those were terrible times," said Nhoung. "But we are here now, at least."

Although two sisters have moved to Oklahoma and California, the Les are happy that almost all the family is now in the United States. Another sister remained in Vietnam with her husband and two children.

Buddhist Social Services brought the Les to Washington, and St. Columba's then took responsibility for finding a house for them to rent, and donated the furniture for it. Parishioners also helped register the children in school, helped the family get financial assistance through the Montgomery County government and, most important, arranged for chemotherapy treatment at Washington Hospital Center for Man, who has cancer.

"Our biggest luck of all," said Nga, "has been our mother. She was in the hospital only one time this month."

Man sits quietly on the couch, occasionally adding a comment in Vietnamese.

As Nga looks proudly at her tiny mother, she adds, "My mother says she would not get this help in Vietnam."

St. Columba's now sponsors two other refugee families. The Les have befriended the most recent arrivals, also named Le, who came to the United States about six weeks ago and also live in Wheaton.

"They are a little like us when we arrived," said Thanh, who serves on the church's sponsorship committee for the other Les. "They are still lost."