As a political prisoner in Vietnam for three years, Anh Ky Lam was forced to clear dense jungles and grow sweet potatoes, corn and rice under a hot tropical sun.

Today, Lam tends an aromatic herb garden in a back yard in Rockville. What once was forced labor has, in the United States, become a labor of love.

Such are the spectacular changes occurring daily in Lam's life since his arrival six months ago with his wife and two teenage daughters from Vietnam.

He is not alone. More than 500 former political prisoners and their families are undergoing similar changes in the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia, according to Bill Eckhof, a project coordinator with the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Their numbers are expected to swell. At least 8,000 former inmates will enter the United States by the end of September under an agreement reached between the United States and Vietnam last July, and about 100,000 more have applied for resettlement, a State Department spokesman said. The majority will settle in this area, Texas, California and Washington state.

For ex-prisoners such as Lam, life in the United States has been a study in novelty and contrasts. "At first everything was strange," said Lam's wife, Dung Phan Lam, who had never seen snow or a microwave oven in Vietnam.

And as he sits in the sunny modern kitchen of his in-laws' brand-new two-story house, Lam is thousands of miles and 12 years away from the prison camps.

A former marine officer, Lam said the guards never beat him, but he saw many men tortured or shot. Once, because he refused to recite his captors' lessons, he was kept in an isolation box for l5 days.

But his journey isn't over yet. At 46, this small-framed man who lost his right eye in a 1974 battle, is starting a new life. His first priority has been to have plastic surgery on both his legs, badly burned in an industrial accident several years ago.

He also has just completed a five-month course in English and electrical assembly at Northwood Adult Education Center in Silver Spring.

After a decade of struggle in Vietnam, Lam said these adjustments seem minor. He came to the United States with clear goals, which he hopes to reach with the same single-minded determination that helped him survive the prison camps.

"I came here to earn a living, and for my children to get a better education," he said.

The biggest hurdle Lam and his family have faced in their day-to-day survival in this country has been learning English. "It's my biggest problem," Lam tried to say in English, but turned to his bilingual 16-year-old nephew Tung Nguyen to translate for him.

According to resettlement expert Ngoc Bich Nguyen, most of the former prisoners seem to be adjusting to life in the United States with relative ease despite the language barriers.

Softening their adjustment is the fact that, unlike their predecessors who escaped Vietnam by boat in the 1980s, this newest group of Southeast Asian refugees are well-educated, familiar with Western culture and from affluent backgrounds.

Vietnam's intelligentsia, they are former military officers, clergy and journalists who were placed in "re-education" camps because of their close association with the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government.

But the resettlement workers cautioned that the refugees' background may also be the source of problems as the harsh reality of their situation takes root.

"At first, for the moment, they're doing well," Nguyen said. "But problems may arise at a later stage when they begin to fail."

Most of the ex-inmates are over 50 years old. Age and a lack of applicable job skills place many of the refugees in a double bind with regard to employment, said Viet Pham, program coordinator of the Maryland Vietnamese Mutual Association in Silver Spring.

"They're not fit to do manual labor, and they're not really qualified to do office work," said Pham, noting that many of the refugees receive public assistance as they await adequate employment.

Former political prisoner Bay Hoang was an accountant and lieutenant in the South Vietnamese army. Today he lives in a sparsely furnished two-bedroom apartment with his wife and two sons in Wheaton.

He is one of the lucky ones, however. Several weeks ago he started working as a counselor for newly arrived refugees at the Vietnamese Mutual Association's Prince George's County office.

Hoang, 50, accepts his career change easily. "The future is for the kids," he said through an interpreter. "For us it's not that important."

Rosa Garcia-Peltoniemi, a clinical psychologist with the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis, warned that some former prisoners will suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome, which includes recurrent nightmares, flashbacks, impaired concentration and memory loss.

Reuniting with wives and children who have been living in the United States can also be stressful, Eckhof said. Many have not seen their family for up to 15 years. "They're total strangers," he said.

The Maryland Vietnamese Mutual Association wants to address these potential difficulties and is seeking federal funds to start a peer support program for the political detainees, Pham said. Slated to begin Oct. 1, the l7-month pilot project will include a drop-in center and peer counseling.

Lam's prison experience may be 12 years behind him, but he said he cannot shake the memories of the re-education camps.

In Vietnam, Lam had recurrent nightmares, haunted by images of men being shot or tortured. Today he doesn't have nightmares, but, "I still think about it a lot," he said.

And like most emigres, Lam said he was terribly homesick when he first arrived in the United States.

"I would remember my house, my friends," he said. "But now I'm used to it. As I experience what is happening in the U.S. -- its traditions and culture -- I'm starting to like it here."