Vietnam's leaders are not very hopeful that President-elect Ronald Reagan will alter the Carter administration policy of benign hostility toward Hanoi, but they seem willing to wait and see.
"We'll judge him by his deeds, and not by his words," said Vietnam's foreign minister, Nguyen Co Thach, in an interview here yesterday.
But Thach and other are less than thrilled about the nomination of Alexander Haig as secretary of state. Haig, as newspaper editor Huong Tung put it acidly, "is no stranger to us."
Tung is the wry, willy and waspish editor-in-chief of the Communist Party newspaper, Nhan Dan, and a member of the ruling Central Committee. He suggested that Haig rose to be a general less by talent than by being diplomatic. More-over, Tung added, "even The New York Times says he's not the right man for the job."
Haig, who was a combat field commander in South Vietnam early in his career, accompanied Henry A. Kissinger to secret negotiating meetings with North Vietnamese officials in Paris in October and November of 1972. Kissinger was then national security adviser to president Richard Nixon, and Haig was his deputy.
With the negotiations stalled in December 1972, Haig was among the strongest advocates of the "Christmas bombing," 12 days of heavy bombing of the Hanoi area and other parts of North Vietnam intended to change the communist government's negotiating posture.
Haig also conducted several missions to South Vietnam during the Paris talks to bring the Thieu government into line with U.S. positions.
Tung said he does not think either Haig or Caspar Weinberger, "the two key persons in the Regan administration," are "very interesting." He said teasingly that he would prefer his "friend" Jane Fonda to Reagan "as a film star president," and has told his newspaper readers in an editorial that there is little difference between Reagan and Carter.
This view was echoed by Foreign Minister Thach:
"We have had experience with seven presidents from Truman to Carter. Now there is an eighth. The others represented the most hawkish to the most liberal. But it made no difference in the amount of suffering each has caused my country."
One of the critical disputes at the moment between the United States and Vietnam is the presence of approximately 200,000 Vietnamese troops in neighboring Cambodia that support the Heng Samrin government there. They invaded Cambodia ostensibly to punish and remove the dictatorial government headed by Pol Pot, who had been mounting military forays against Vietnam, and "to help the Cambodian people."
Pol Pot and the remnants of his once powerful Khmer Rouge forces still harass the Vietnamese, sometimes allegedly from sanctuaries in neighboring Thailand.
The Untied States, Thailand and other Southeast Asian nations want Vietnam to withdraw from Cambodia, but the Vietnamese will have no part of withdrawal. They see Pol Pot as part of a Chinese plot to destroy Vietnam. Accordingly, Thach, Tung and others said they "will withdraw only when the threat from China is over."
When might that be? "We waited one thousand years once in our history before the Chinese left Vietnam," Thach said. "We will wait China out again."
Still, the Cambodian situation affects all aspects of Vietnam's relatins, with friends as well as enemies.
For example, Vietnam has a very serious food shortage, espically in the north, in part because of three devastating typhoons this year.
"No one is starving," said Tung, "but people are hungry." Some Western observers here thing the shortage is reaching a critical stage and will lead to serious malnutrition next year.
The Vietnamese are counting on the Soviets to make up a good part of their shortfall of more than a million tons of rice. They would like help from other countries as well, Thach said, "but without conditions."
That caveat prevents aid from some wouldbe friendly countries. They want the Vietnamese to account for the distribution of the food lest it go to the Vietnamese armed forces to help sustain their war in Cambodia, which these countries oppose.
Thach said that if necessary for the defense of Vietnam in the future, the Soviet Union will be given military bases here. Many Western observers in Vietnam suggest that both the former American air base at Da Nang and the former naval complex at Cam Ranh Bah now are virtual Soviety military bases.
Thach emphatically denied this. "There are no bases for the Soviet Union here," he said. "The Soviets have not asked for bases." Nonetheless, Western sources contend that Soviet planes and ships are being refueled and refitted at DaNang and Cam Ranh Bay. Moreover, Western intelligence sources say that Soviet planes are performing reconnaissance missions o U.S. operations in the Pacific from Da Nang.
As one Western diplomat here put it: "It is all in the definition of 'base.'"
"Although Vietnam will not cross the [Thail] border -- never!" Thach said, Vietnamese officials scorn Thailand.Tung, for example, said that the Thai government has no interest in creating conditions of peace along its border with Cambodia because "in so doing Thialand loses oil from China and military weapons from the U.S.," both of which it wants.
In mid-June, the Thais claimed that the Vietnamese sent troops a few miles into their country. The Vietnamese deny this. Thach charged that it was a "trap," "a provocation." Moreover, he pointed out that it is Thai territory only on American maps. On French maps, it is Cambodian Territory.
The Vietnamese are convinced that they are protecting all of Southeast Asia against Chinese expansionism.
"We have the job of defending Southeast Asia," Tung said, "even though the Southeast Asian countries have asked us to go away and have called us bad names." The Vietnamese are contemptuous of China, espicaly its Army, which they fought in a short and savage border war last year. Thach said in answer to a question about the Chinese Army, It is not very good." He added that the morale of the Chinese soldier is low and that "The illiteracy rate is so high n the Chinese Army its soldiers cannot manage sophisticated weapons."
Still Thach emphasized that "we must be vigilant."