The way Vietnamese officials tell it, their country's "new economic zones" are a grand social experiment designed to provide both employment for the poor and food for the hungry.

"A redistribution of labor" is the description offered by Deputy Foreign Minister Hoang Bich Son.

Refugees who have fled tell a different story. They say the "new economic zones" are barren labor camps characterized by hardship, deprivation and, ultimately death.

Lam Phat Sang, 32, a refugee in a Malaysian camp for boat people, says he was sent to one economic zone for 30 days because he had worked as a U.S. Army interpreter until 1975. Given one bowl of soup to sustain him during each eight-hour work period, which was spent planting sweet potatoes and rice, he fled after nine days out of fear of starvation.

The new economic zones have captured attention because many refugees have told interviewers they risked death on the South China Sea to avoid being assigned to them.

American and United Nations officials say that in interviews hundreds of refugees have said the threat of exile to the zones was the final factor convincing them to flee.

Recent interviews at refugee camps in Hong Kong and Malaysia confirm that Refugees said they fled after serving a period of time in the zones or because they were told by Vietnamese authorities they had only one alternative -- flight by boat, for a fee.

All said, moreover, that they feared starvation. They described the zones as barren fields or thick forests where farming was almost impossible. They either had seen or had been told of people weakened by hunger and needing medication. Two recalled seeing children with swollen bellies. None, however, said they witnessed deaths in the zones.

There is no doubt the zones are a large-scale enterprise undertaken by the Vietnamese government. Mai Luong, deputy director of the Agriculture Ministry's Department of International Cooperation, said Vietnam's five-year plan, which began in 1976, calls for 1.8 million people to be relocated in the zones. About a million have been assigned there so far in what Luong calls "land reclamation" projects.

Luong said the goal is reclamation of about 2.5 million acres and so far about 1.5 million have been reclaimed.

Other than developing new food sources, he said, the idea is to relocate jobless people from crowded urban areas in almost empty lands.

"There are many areas of dense popualation in the north," he said in a recent interview here. "In some of the new economic zones there are only 10 people per square kilometer. So we must redistribute." A square kilometer equals .4 of a square mile.

Most of the zones are in either central Vietnam or in hilly sections of the north, although Vietnamese officials say some have been established in the south's Mekong Delta, where much of the country's food is grown.

Independent sources here said the zones originally were created to grow crops for a country suffering from persistent, postwar food shortages. They also were designed to deal with the people in Ho Chi Minh City who became unemployed after the Americans left.

These sources also say the zones were created in response to decrees issued in March 1978 which left thousands of ethnic Chinese without jobs or private property. These "former capitalists" were to learn socialism from the ground up in the new economic zones, these sources said.

Initially, assignment to the zones was voluntary and the first settlers went by choice. Now people are being forced to go and even sentenced to specific terms of duty. Two refugees in Hong Kong said they were ordered to serve terms calculated on the basis of their rank in the old South Vietnamese Army and Navy.

Ethnic Chinese have been sent to the zones from both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City because they were not sympathetic to communism or were suspected of siding with China in the border war this year.

"The new economic zones originally were not created to resettle the Chinese, but to get people out to grow more food," said one well-informed diplomat. "They seem to be a failure. People cannot live there. Now it has become a punitive thing for dissenters."

However, the zones do not appear to resemble the "gulags" or Soviet forced labor camps to which Rep. Robert F. Drinan (D-Mass.) and others have compared them. By contrast escape from the zones seems to be relatively easy. Military guards are present, but several refugees said they had slipped away in the night without being followed.

Son, the Vietnamese deputy foreign minister, said the zones have been "misunderstood" by foreigners relying on accounts given by refugees.

"Those who left the country for one reason or another cannot tell the truth," he told a group of American congressmen last week.

"This is a redistribution of labor," Son added. "Because in the southern part of Vietnam the urban areas were hurt [by the war], we have to see that the peasants are brought back to the countryside."

Son's version concerning "peasants" returning to the soil does not fit with accounts of refugees who said they had been soldiers for South Vietnam, aides to American forces, or ethnic Chinese merchants -- and all city dwellers for many years.

Several said they had no experience tilling the soil and the government had not provided them with farming advice or tools. Worst of all, they found no homes to live in and said they were instructed to build their own with whatever material they could find.

Chang Chi Cuong, 22, son of an ethnic Chinese who owned a business in Ho Chi Minh City, said he was sent to one zone with a party of youths for temporary work.

"There were no houses or water there," Chuong, now in a Hong Kong refugee camp, said. Home was "four poles and a deck" with no roof.

"We tried to grow vegetables, rice and other things," he said. "If you do well and get a harvest, they [government agents] buy it from you at low prices. Water was very hard to get. A lot of people left after seeing there was no hope of a harvest."

Another refugee, who asked that his name not be published, said he was sent to a zone because he had served in South Vietnam's Navy.

"They did not supply us with anything," he said. "There are soldiers there, but no food and no houses, and there is much sickness. Many people were sick and dying because they had no medicines. All of us escaped."