She endured a trip in an open boat across the South China Sea, lived with hundreds of other refugees in a camp in Thailand and now works long days in the kitchen of a Washington hotel.

Cao Thi Nhan is a survivor, but when she escaped from Vietnam in 1979, she couldn't keep her family together. One of her three children by her marriage to an American stayed behind, unable to reach Nhan when she left abruptly for the United States.

This week, Nhan got her daughter back.

"I waited two years for Linh," she said of the 12-year-old, one of the 11 Amerasian children who flew from Bangkok to Los Angeles over the weekend. Their arrival in this country capped years of quiet, and largely unnoticed, work by more than a dozen relief agencies nationwide.

"I waited for my daughter because I want her in America," said Nhan, a quiet, trim woman who lives in an aging Park Road apartment in Northwest. "I will never go back. I don't want Linh to be there, either."

Officials in the Washington office of the New York-based International Rescue Committee (IRC) worked for two years with Nhan to pry Linh from the same bureaucratic quagmire that keeps thousands of Amerasian children in Vietnam, which fell to Communists in 1975. Word of Linh's arrival at Dulles Airport Monday heartened many whose children are still in Southeast Asia, while reminding them of the frustration of trying to get them to the United States.

"I'm on cloud nine right now for her. I'm elated," said Jim E. Wilder, a Landover man whose 13-year old son, Huan, remains in Vietnam. A student at Prince George's Community College, Wilder is leading an effort to establish a home in the Washington area for Amerasian children waiting for adoption or sponsors.

"But there's another side to this coin. While it's great that some of the kids were allowed to come over -- that people haven't given up hope -- I'm concerned that there may not be a follow-up, that the doors may be closed on the others. These kids have been used as political bargaining chips.

"With Hanoi, you just never know."

Nhan's story and her dogged attempt to reclaim her daughter typify the painfully slow process of resettling Amerasians in this country. Progress, when it comes, does so in inches, say those familiar with Nhan's and others' attempts.

Refugee agencies say there are at least 3,800 Amerasian children whose parentage is documented and who are waiting to come to America from Vietnam.

"You're never really sure about anything until the children have landed in Bangkok," said Ray Evans, IRC's Washington director. "These things take time. You're working with a government [Hanoi] that's not quite as responsive as you'd like them to be."

The IRC sponsored Nhan's own immigration to Washington. A native of Kiangiang, a small town south of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Nhan married a civilian aircraft worker named Kenneth Brooks in 1968. The couple had three children: Kiet, born in 1969, Linh, born a year later, and Lan, who is 11. It was a happy family, with Brooks frequently crisscrossing the region on business, Nhan said.

"I did the wash, cooked food, looked after my children and my husband. We were together, and that was very good," Nhan said.

In 1971, the family moved to Thailand, and when Brooks returned to the United States a year later to find work, Nhan took her three children back to Vietnam. Linh was sent to live with Nhan's sister, who was childless. Later, she would live with Nhan's 70-year-old mother.

With the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 1975, "things became very bad for anyone at all connected with Americans," Evans said.

"Cao made the decision to escape. She saved for it and sacrificed for it," he said. "Yet she made that conscious decision to go and take the risks. When families were leaving the country, they would just get ready. When the time came to leave, you just went."

Linh was unable to join her mother, brother and sister when the trio left Vietnam in a boat in January 1980. "There were many hardships in the boats," said Hien Bich Vu, another Vietnamese woman who was Nhan's caseworker. "Some people were more lucky. Some, like those who were attacked by pirates, were less lucky."

Nhan was one of the lucky ones. She arrived in Thailand after a five-day crossing in a small boat and lived for three months at Songhkla, a refugee camp on the Malay Peninsula that Elizabeth Rutledge, an IRC official in New York, said "was not a hell-hole, but it sure wasn't a plush beach resort."

Nhan's marriage to Brooks was the key to leaving the refugee camp. She had enough paperwork to prove she was an American's wife and that her children were his offspring. Her son, now a student at Bancroft Elementary School, was declared a U.S. citizen; Lan emigrated as a Vietnamese because she did not have adequate proof of her American citizenship.

"My husband was here in America, and I wanted my children to be here, too," Nhan said recently. "This is where I wanted my future to be."

Although her husband was living in Chicago in early 1980, the IRC brought her to Washington, where IRC officials found Nhan a job in the employes' cafeteria at the Shoreham Hotel and enrolled her in an English class at Sacred Heart Church on 16th Street NW near her home.

She promptly began trying to get her daughter to the United States.

Linh also claimed U.S. citizenship, but it took more than two years for the Vietnamese to grant an exit visa, the final ticket to her new home. "We've got hundreds and hundreds of complete files on kids, files that lack only an exit permit," said Rutledge. "The relatives get incredibly frustrated because they don't understand what the hangup is. It's one long waiting game."

Several weeks ago, after protracted negotiations between the U.S. State Department and private adoption and relief agencies, the Vietnamese said 60 Amerasians could leave the country. Of that number, 11 began the journey last week; 26 more are expected to emigrate on Oct. 7, officials said.

Evans said it was "pure luck" that Linh's name was among those permitted to go. The IRC, founded in 1933 to help refugees from Hitler's Germany, was informed in August that Linh and one other IRC-sponsored youth were among the 11; Evans said he has one other case of an Amerasian waiting to emigrate from Vietnam.

"This is a great thing for us, because it gives other people a hope," said Evans.

"It proves that there can be breakthroughs," agreed Rutledge. "We wish we could have gotten more, but this is a start."