HANOI -- The sights and sounds of what people here are beginning to refer to as Vietnam's version of glasnost, the Russian word meaning openness, are surfacing in this communist capital and the surrounding countryside.

In moves suggestive of Mikhail Gorbachev's leadership in Moscow, Hanoi's new leaders have embarked on an ambitious campaign to reinvigorate a country racked by economic decline and political malaise. In the process, they hope to reverse more than four decades of an entrenched war mentality characterized by excessive secretiveness, suspicion of outsiders and fear of expressing open criticism.

The openness campaign here, led by the new party general secretary, Nguyen Van Linh, has taken many forms, from economic liberalization to the widening of the allowable topics for political debate to a tolerance for western ideas, fads and fashions.

Following last month's meeting of the new National Assembly here, for example, visiting western journalists were invited to do something that is extraordinary in Vietnam: conduct man-on-the-street interviews to test public reaction to the choice of a new president and new prime minister.

An investigative reporter for the Communist Party's daily newspaper Nhan Dan recently disguised himself as a factory worker to do an expose of the poor working conditions in a state plant.

And in Hai Hung Province in the Red River Delta region, the top Communist Party leader shunned his official black Soviet-made car and is commuting to work on a bicycle as part of a nationwide campaign to get party officials back in closer touch with the people.

The 71-year-old Linh -- like Gorbachev in Moscow -- has come to personify the drive for reform. Defying tradition, Linh has been cutting a more modern -- and more human -- profile lately, posing for photographs while swinging in a backyard hammock and conducting a morning exercise routine.

These first impressions of Vietnam as a country in transition emerged during a two-week visit to Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and surrounding provinces, a trip arranged as the country tries to lift its veil of secrecy and allow more visits by western journalists. Other journalists and scholars who have visited communist Vietnam frequently since 1975 agreed that the country is a different place today than it was even one year ago, although some disagreed on the extent of the change.

Most longtime visitors said they have greater access to an increasing number of government and party officials, who are much more candid about their past errors, particularly in handling the economy.

Vietnamese officials and western diplomats here agreed that the changes under way are driven mainly by a desperate need to rescue the country's failing economy. Reform, they said, is imperative. Openness to new ideas means openness to creative ways of managing the country's economic mess, including the encouragement of private-sector capitalism that the leaders here once vowed to eradicate. More openness in politics also might make the country more palatable to western investors, they said.

But there are obstacles in the path of change. One party official listed two "forces against renovation." The first, he said, are the ideologues "who are used to the old way of thinking." The other are opponents who have profited through petty corruption under the old system. "Those people are conscious of their need to resist," he said.

As one Western European diplomat here put it: "The top level of the party and the people are in agreement that things must change. In between, there's the administration with an attitude of 'let's wait and see.' There have been reforms before, and they've always failed, so why should they trust it now?"

Still, most Vietnamese and western diplomats agree that the drive for reform has unleashed energy and popular enthusiasm that would be hard to turn back.

"The wind of change is blowing," said Vo Tong Xuan, an agriculture professor and a member of the National Assembly, "and anyone who stands against it will be blown away."

The most significant change of the openness campaign is said to be in the political sphere, where public discussion has widened considerably and where everyone, it seems, is using words like "democratization" and "reform" to describe the new atmosphere.

But the most surprising to a first-time visitor are the western goods and life styles that have given Hanoi a touch of the more freewheeling style usually associated with Ho Chi Minh City, the former South Vietnamese capital of Saigon.

By most western standards, Hanoi would be considered a dour and depressing capital, with harsh living conditions evident behind a facade of neat, tree-lined streets and French colonial architecture. But compared with the capitals of many other similarly impoverished countries -- or compared even with the Hanoi of one year ago, as described by residents -- the city seems brighter and more lively.

Coffee houses now blare western popular music. At one of these, young couples in fashionable blue jeans sipped ice tea to the beat of Stevie Wonder's "Part-time Lover." Ice cream parlors have sprung up around Hanoi. The clothing has grown more colorful -- although it is not yet close to the western styles available in the south -- as Hanoi's markets have begun to stock imported Thai shirts and flowered pants, creating a Vietnamese version of the young urban professional.

"Ten years ago, if a girl wore white slacks, someone on the street might cut them off; it was better to wear brown or black," said Bui Tin, a leading journalist for Nhan Dan. "No one could imagine someone wearing red slacks, or yellow, or blue. Now, it's your business. I think these small changes have a very deep basis -- it shows the new respect people have for individual freedom."

He spoke through a female government translator wearing baby-blue cotton pants and a bright pink shirt.

"Listening to rock music and dressing in fashionable ways is not antagonistic toward socialism," Bui Tin said. "There is no overdoing it."

The new mood of tolerance, according to several persons interviewed, has spread to other areas, including the arts.

"Artists, writers, composers have more freedom in choosing their themes," Bui Tin said. "Besides serious topics about production and labor, they are starting to produce works about love and the feelings of people."

Several years ago, such work probably would not have been published. Today, Nhan Dan periodically runs love poems on its back page.

Openness -- and a need for hard currency -- has also meant a more tolerant attitude toward foreigners and overseas Vietnamese who would like to visit here or send money and gifts back to their relatives. The government has streamlined visa procedures for overseas Vietnamese and has lifted restrictions on the quantity and value of goods that can be sent from abroad. Vietnamese receiving money from abroad also get a more favorable exchange rate from the state bank than previously.

Linh's openness drive also has meant a kind of rapprochement between the communist authorities and the small but influential Roman Catholic Church. The communist leadership traditionally has viewed the church with skepticism and as a potential source of dissent because of the prominent role that Catholics played in the American-backed South Vietnamese regime.

Shortly after assuming the party leadership in December, Linh made an extraordinary appearance at the Catholic bishops' conference in Hanoi and told the prelates that the party recognized the role of the church in defending and rebuilding the country.

"Mr. Linh seems to want to be more open with the church," said the Rev. Nguyen Van Binh, archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City. "After the party congress {in December}, there was an atmosphere of more openness."

Binh said church-state relations "are getting better and better," but he is still waiting for Linh to follow up his conciliatory remarks with concrete steps, such as lifting seminary enrollment limits and rules against foreign priests being brought in to fill vacancies.

Glasnost seems an appropriate description for the changes taking place here. Some Vietnamese officials and western diplomats suggested that Hanoi's new leadership has been able to make such progress partly because of Gorbachev's lead.

"Naturally the Soviet situation helps them put things through that otherwise they would not have been able to," said one western diplomat. "It helps that the big brother has made reforms and has asked others to do the same."

"The things that are happening in the Soviet Union also have an impact on the renovation process in Vietnam -- for example, the articles criticizing high-ranking government officials," said journalist Bui Tin.

Most officials agreed, however, that comparisons between the advanced, industrialized Soviet Union and impoverished, underdeveloped Vietnam are largely superficial.

In the political arena, openness -- or "renovation," as the Vietnamese call it -- has meant a shrinkage of what some officials refer to as the traditional "prohibited zone" of free speech. Previously the prohibited zone included criticism of party officials or government ministers, discussion of economic shortcomings, such as failure to meet production goals in agriculture or industry, and most discussion of military affairs.

Under the old thinking, as it is called, potential enemies of the state might misuse internal criticism to undermine Vietnam. Now all that has been turned on its head, as almost every topic is open for public debate. Even the Army has been chastised for waste, although topics such as Vietnam's 1978 invasion of neighboring Cambodia and its continuing military occupation there still remain off limits.

"We criticize everything, including the military," said Gen. Tran Cong Man, editor-in-chief of the Army daily newspaper Quan Doi Nan Dan. "Like in every country, there are still two prohibited zones -- state secrets and military secrets."

Most of the public criticism of government and party officials have centered on exposes of corruption or mismanagement. Most of the exposes have appeared in the Communist Party daily Nhan Dan in a column written by a mysterious muckraking investigative journalist who uses only his initials, "NVL," in his byline. Most readers take the author to be General Secretary Nguyen Van Linh, although Linh reportedly told a meeting that the initials stood for the Vietnamese words "Noi Va Lam," or "Speak and take action."

Two months ago, NVL reported that 30 tons of garlic awaiting export had spoiled after being kept in a hot warehouse in Haiphong because the guard responsible for the temperature control took the weekend off for the May Day holiday. After NVL asked in print, "Who was responsible?" the director of the storage warehouse was fired and the guard on duty punished.

The popularity of the NVL column (it reportedly receives hundreds of letters from readers every day) has produced imitators in provincial newspapers and trade publications. When the in-house newspaper for Vietnam Airlines first published an expose, called "Where have all the materials gone?" about misappropriation of construction materials, and named the director of the airlines as responsible, nothing was done. NVL picked up the story and decried the "terrible silence" around the affair. The airline director was summarily fired.

"Journalists in Vietnam are now the people who create public opinion," said Buu Tho, an economics editor for Nhan Dan. "The leaders of our party and state have given us only one request: Be correct. If we are correct, they will defend us."

Corruption is also being weeded out at the provincial level. In the Thot Not district of Hau Giang Province, about 350 local officials were removed for corruption -- "half the population of the district," quipped Nguyen Van Thuong, editor-in-chief of the provincial newspaper. The sacked officials, some of whom are in jail, were caught using government land for themselves, one of the most common forms of corruption at the local level.

Coupled with the emphasis on openness is concern about a concept unheard of here in the past -- democratization. Democracy no longer seems to be a western-inspired evil to be avoided, but rather an idea that is overdue. This first-time visitor in Vietnam was struck by the frequency with which leading party officials, journalists and young people on the street mention increased democracy as the next step in renovation.

Democratization here does not mean free elections in the western sense. Still, in last April's balloting for a new National Assembly an estimated five candidates contested every three seats and actually engaged in campaign-style debates.

More than half of the newly elected assembly are newcomers, and although all candidates had to be officially approved, the percentage of Communist Party members appears to have decreased somewhat. Many of those elected were nonpolitical professionals and experts in economics, agriculture and other specialties.

"For us, the democratization is a process we must improve more and more," Gen. Man said. "The election to the National Assembly recently was a step toward democracy -- but only a step." Man said there should be even more candidates for each seat and campaigning time should be expanded to allow candidates to explain fully their platforms to the voters.

"Nowadays in Vietnam, we have a double task," said a party official interviewed in Hanoi. "First to widen the democratization. But on the other hand, we have to strengthen our centralism." He described centralism in this context as "order and discipline -- people have to obey the orders of their superiors."

This official, echoing Linh's speech to the new National Assembly last month, suggested that democratization and granting more autonomy to local entities in no way mean that the Communist Party is about to loosen its grip on political life, key sectors of the economy or economic planning.

There are, of course, limits to the openness and degree of change. Linh, for example, has not indicated that he will make a dramatic gesture, similar to Gorbachev's this year, by releasing the thousands of persons still being held in reeducation camps. The exact number of detainees is still an open question. Some Vietnamese officials insist that less than 10,000 remain in the camps set up after the fall of Saigon, but some western human rights groups put the number at four times that.

Vietnamese officials consider those persons still being held in reeducation camps as either war criminals or people who might try to destabilize the regime if released. They also defend not bringing them to trial, saying that under Vietnamese law they could be put to death if they are convicted of war crimes.

Some western diplomats said that despite Hanoi's insistence that the detainees are a domestic political problem, Linh may recognize their continued detention in reeducation camps as a potential obstacle to his goal of establishing ties in the West -- once Vietnam withdraws its troops from Cambodia in 1990 as it has pledged. One diplomat predicted that some of those who would arouse interest in the West may be freed over the next few months as part of the openness campaign.

Also, freedom to criticize is limited to the official party-run newspapers. Individuals still are not permitted to publish independent newspapers.

Even in publishing, one official said Vietnam will likely continue its ban on translating books that "encourage exploitation of man by man, propaganda for violence or war and erotic literature and pornography."

But the main obstacles to openness and reform may be within the middle ranks of the party and bureaucracy, as Linh challenges some long-cherished precepts.

Besides taking cues from the Soviet Union, some analysts believe that Hanoi's new leadership also keeps a wary eye on China, its communist antagonist to the north, where a drive for rapid reforms led to unprecedented street protests by students demanding even greater democracy.

The result was a backlash by hard-line conservative elements who thought that the reform drive had gone too far too fast, and the removal of China's Communist Party chief.

Some diplomats here believe that concern about a possible conservative backlash may have been partly responsible for the new National Assembly's surprise decision last month to name two aging stalwarts, Vo Chi Cong and Pham Hung, as president and prime minister, respectively. Cong is considered a moderate and Hung a hard-liner.

"They follow the events in China very closely," said one Asian diplomat, "and they are well aware of what is happening in China with the conservative backlash. Why risk that kind of battle?"

But some Vietnamese officials dismissed the possibility of a China-style conservative backlash here, saying Vietnam's new reform campaign is being supported even by the one-time hard-liners who now recognize that change is inevitable. Most said the new president and prime minister were only interim appointees, as the assembly members were paying respects to elders before completing the transition to a new generation.

Gen. Man also said Vietnam historically was never as hostile as China to outside, specifically western, influences. "For a long time, we have been receiving good influences from the West," he said. "We are not against the exchange of cultures between East and West."