In a cardboard folder at the U.S. Embassy here are the names of 21,278 men, women and children who want to leave Vietnam. The four-volume list arrived from Hanoi last month and refugee workers here are already joking that it is really just a telephone directory for Cholon, the main Chinese district in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

The list is not part of an illicit traffic in refugees. The names were compiled and approved by officials of the Vietnamese government, who typed them onto cheap brown paper and sent them out through U.N. channels.

Almost everyone on the list is ethnic Chinese. The list appears to be Vietnam's latest effort to get action on the nearly dormant "orderly departure" program concluded with the U.N. last spring. Through it Vietnam apparently hopes to send out large numbers of its unwanted Chinese citizens by air with the cooperation of countries like the United States.

So far only about 900 people have left this way. If the pace does not quicken, many analysts here believe, Vietnam could resume sending out refugees in fleets of rickety boats to show its displeasure.

Last spring and summer, Hanoi provoked worldwide condemnation as hundreds of thousands of Chinese were put to sea on dilapidated freighters and tiny fishing boats. Overloading and rough seas sank unknown numbers of the vessels.

Members of the mercantile class and viewed as potential fifth columnists for China, these people were doubly unwelcome in the new Vietnam. As the exodus gained momentum, 54,000 "boat people" reached the shores of neighboring countries, U.N. figures show.

But then the numbers dropped dramatically. Only 6,800 arrivals were recorded in August and 3,300 last month. World attention shifted from the boat people to a new wave of refugees fleeing by land from Cambodia to Thailand.

"We have tried to do our best to switch off the tap," said an officer at the Vietnamese embassy here. Many observers here believe this was done because the boat fleets had forced the world community to agree to help Vietnam get rid of its Chinese in a more orderly fashion.

At the Geneva refugee conference in July, Vietnamese representative Phan Hien reiterated Hanoi's willingness to implement a plan, worked out earlier with the United Nations to allow emigrants to leave legally.

He also made further proposals indicating his hope the program would involve huge numbers of people, construction of processing centers in Japan, China, and the U.S.-administered island of Guam, and planes and ships to "quickly ferry emigrants" out of Vietnam.

The U.N. plans, however, applied only to people leaving to join relatives overseas or allowed out because of other humanitarian considerations. Vietnam's statements indicated however, that Hanoi wanted to expand it to cover persons who "leave to earn their living abroad" -- in other words refugees.

But the 900 who have left were family reunion or humanitarian cases. Of the 350 who went to the U.S., almost all had relatives who petitioned the U.S. government that they be admitted to join them.

Departments have been so low partly because of paperwork and what American sources here term misunderstandings with the Vietnamese.

Earlier this year the United States sent Hanoi a list of 5,000 people with relatives in the United States. Hanoi, sources said, thought this meant all 5,000 were cleared for immediate entry when in fact the United States was only willing to consider them -- following a lengthy process of interviews and medical tests as required by U.S. immigration law.

Vietnam was visibly ruffled, the sources said. "It got to the point where they'd send us an aircaft manifest of people who'd fly out next week and we'd take and whom we wouldn't," one source recalled. Processing was further delayed by manpower shortfalls in the U.S. consulate in Bangkok.

American sources complain there was obstruction from the Vietnamese side too: a U.S. request to place four consular officials in Ho Chi Minh City was turned down, Vietnam agreed to only one American under U.N. auspices and suggested others could come in on chartered aircraft, conduct interviews at the airport and leave the planes.

"We cannot accept the U.S. officers because we do not have diplomatic relations," a Vietnamese diplomat here said.

Vietnamese bureaucratic delays are also cited. One American whose Vietnamese-born wife is trying to bring out several family members said that just to receive an application for an exit permit, people must resign from their jobs.

Even if bureaucratic problems are overcome, family reunification could have little significant impact on reducing Vietnam's Chinese population. U.S. law limits such entries to about 30,000 per year per country, while Vietnam claims to have already registered 300,000 people who want to leave.

Refugee workers say Vietnam apparently hopes the United States will allocate part of its special Indochinese refugee quotas -- 14,000 per month by special act of Congress -- to departures direct from Vietnam.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman said such a proposal was under consideration.

The sources said delay was due in part to reluctance to establish a precedent of international law: legitimizing a country's expulsion on an umpopular minority.

If a U.S. decision does come to take refugees from Vietnam, however, Hanoi may still be disappointed with the speed of departures. The United States does not accept refugees en masse; each case is considered individually.

The 21,000 names at the U.S. Embassy appear to be a list of "refugee candidates." But the list gives only rudimentary information in each person -- name, family relationship, address in Vietnam and occupation. U.S. officials have asked Hanoi to give for each of them a four-page biographical form.