On Thursday morning Nguyen Ngoc Loan drove into Washington from Burke, Va., just to take a look at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

He had not come to search for the name of a loved one, merely to see for himself the monument spawned by the war in his former homeland.

As South Vietnam's chief of police, Loan appeared in one of the best-remembered photos of the war in 1968 pulling the trigger of a pistol pointed at the head of a Vietcong prisoner of war. He now runs a restaurant and print shop in northern Virginia.

"It's beautiful," Loan said of the memorial.

Like the controversial former general, many of the 10,688 Vietnamese living in the Washington area have been interested bystanders in the debate surrounding the memorial and the events leading to its dedication this afternoon.

With a few exceptions they have not actively participated in those events.

When asked, Vietnamese say they are gratified the United States is finally honoring its fighting men. And in some cases the last week has been an occasion for many of them to think again about the war that uprooted them.

"What I would say is why did they wait until this time to have an official recognition?" said Tu Nguyen, a 26-year-old bank employe who lives in Arlington.

"We think the veterans should be better treated. . . . We are glad to see that public opinion has recognized their sacrifices by putting up a memorial to their memory, said Huy Nhat Bui, a former lieutenant colonel in the South Vietnamese army who is now a lawyer here.

"We Vietnamese people are always grateful for what American people did for our country."

Most Vietnamese who have come to this area believe the war was fought for a good reason and that fact did not change when their side lost.

"Many of us feel that in a war you cannot always win, you could fight a very righteous war and still lose, but the fact that you lose. . . does not mean you are not righteous," said Ngoc Nguyen Bich a former government information official who now works at Georgetown University's bilingual center.

"I would say that the big difference between our reading and the general American reading is that Americans in general are not good losers. You don't like to talk about something you lose."

Thursday afternoon Bich and Bui were among about 20 Vietnamese, mostly former military or police officers, who with four American veterans of the war, laid a wreath of red and white carnations at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to honor both the Americans and Vietnamese who died in the war.

The only local Vietnamese who actively participated in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, according to fund officials, was Huong Tran of McLean, a former naval officer, who sent letters to his friends and raised about $2,000 from fellow Vietnamese.

The local Vietnamese community is liberally sprinkled with former military and police officials and others who had close links with U.S. government departments in Saigon. Most of them came in 1975 and have more easily adapted to life here than many of their fellow countrymen who came later in the so-called "second wave" of refugees. These "Boat People" were poorer, less educated and had less knowledge of English when they arrived.

The military background of many Vietnamese here, their close association with the U.S. government in Vietnam and the willingness of this country to help an estimated 400,000 of them start a new life in this country are undoubtedly factors in the perceptions many Vietnamese have about the American role in Vietnam.

Even when given an opportunity in conversation many Vietnamese do not criticize the United States for abandoning them at the end.

Any bitterness or resentment that is expressed is usually vented against the news media which some Vietnamese feel contributed to the antiwar movement they feel was responsible for losing the war. "We always think we lost the war not in Vietnam, but here in Washington," said Bui.

Some Vietnamese have perhaps come further than many Americans in "learning a lesson" from the past, as Giang Huu Tuyen put it. Tuyen, who is editor of the Vietnamese magazine Viet Chien, published in Arlington, likes to relax by playing cards with his friends in Cafe Dalat, a dimly lit coffeehouse in Arlington.

Over the melody of a Vietnamese song, Tuyen, a 33-year-old former naval lieutenant, and An Dinh Nguyen, who came here two years ago, agreed that the U.S. involvement in their country was ill-fated from the beginning.

"It was a mistake, but not wrong," said Nguyen who is now studying computers at George Mason University. The mistake was sending troops to Vietnam instead of keeping American support limited to money and arms, they said.

The presence of the American military advisers and then troops "confused the Vietnamese people, they thought Vietnam was invaded," Nguyen said. This was exploited by the North Vietnamese, they said.

A second mistake was that the U.S. backed "the wrong people" in South Vietnam, Tuyen said. "There were many good nationalist leaders in the south the U.S. should have supported but did not," he said.

Not all Vietnamese, even now, can talk so dispassionately about the war.

"Most of our people realize that events, the fall of Saigon, is like a wound so they don't want to talk again and again about it," said the Rev. Nhi Tran, pastor of Falls Church's Blessed Vietnamese Martyrs church. "But they have a very, very great sentiment to the men; they contributed much to the freedom of our country."

Some talk unconvincingly about a "second phase" to the war yet to come, but "ninety percent of the Vietnamese people want to forget, they are tired of war, they want to adapt to here," Tuyen said.

"But please," said Duong,"when you write your story, just say one thing from the Vietnamese people -- thank you."