HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM -- Twenty years ago on Jan. 31, Nguyen Van Linh was in charge of the Communist Party command structure that staged a surprise attack on the outer ring of this unsuspecting South Vietnamese capital, then named Saigon. He remembers escaping later to a cottage he used as a safehouse just outside the city, and narrowly avoiding an American bombing counterattack.

Col. Nguyen Huu Hanh, then commander of the South Vietnamese Army's fourth special zone in the Mekong Delta near the Cambodian border, was unprepared for so brazen a communist attack inside his command post. So unconcerned was he about the possibility of a Viet Cong attack that he recalls granting leave to about half his troops so they could celebrate the Lunar New Year, or Tet.

James Pringle, then Saigon bureau chief for Reuter news agency, recalls being awakened shortly after midnight by the sounds of the first Viet Cong rockets announcing the attack on the city. The office was about halfway between the presidential palaces and the U.S. Embassy -- both of which came under siege by the guerrillas -- and Pringle recalls writing his first dispatches from the floor of his office in the dark.

That dramatic and ultimately costly communist offensive against dozens of South Vietnamese cities two decades ago proved the turning point in the Indochina war, setting the stage for the eventual American retreat and the North Vietnamese takeover of the south in 1975. In a single bold stroke, "the monkey offensive," as it is called here because it was launched on the first day of the Year of the Monkey, brought the war into the streets of Saigon and dozens of other cities of the South while television brought the images of conflict directly into America's living room.

Since then, the Tet offensive has been synonymous, at least symbolically, with American retreat and defeat, although the actual scorecard from the battlefield was quite different.

In the two-month-long Tet campaign, communist forces lost an estimated 58,000 dead, compared to about 3,900 American and 4,900 South Vietnamese troop losses, according to U.S. historical accounts. Among the dead communist troops were some of their best. Two days after the offensive began, U.S. and South Vietnamese troops had pushed the communists out of all places attacked except the ancient imperial citadel of Hue, which took longer to retake.

But to an already wary America, the shock and dimensions of the attacks created a powerful image -- which would never quite be reversed -- of loss and endless war.

In that context, the single most important Tet attack was the assault on the U.S. Embassy compound. Col. Tran Van Dat, one of the former Viet Cong leaders who is now deputy commander-in-chief of this city, said last week that the embassy attack was carried out by only 18 guerrillas -- all but two of whom died or were wounded -- and that the main goal was to affect American public opinion.

Out of 80 guerrilla fighters who staged attacks on five targets in the center of Saigon, Dat said 50 were killed or wounded.

Despite the offensive's significance as a political turning point in the war, no celebrations are planned for the actual date of the offensive -- Jan. 31. Most Tet activities are planned instead for Feb. 17, the start of this year's Lunar New Year. Most Vietnamese said April 30, 1975, "Liberation Day," marking the fall of Saigon, is the more significant date.

One military officer and former guerrilla leader in Danang said, "We will celebrate the anniversary of the Tet offensive, but we don't give it as much importance as Washington. . . . The Tet offensive was just one of the many, many operations we led during the war."

Most Vietnamese officials interviewed over the past two weeks seemed more interested in discussing Hanoi's principal preoccupation -- their desire to normalize relations with the United States to gain access to U.S. aid and trade. Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach, at a press conference with foreign and Vietnamese journalists, used the anniversary of Tet to renew his call for improved relations with Washington.

"Normalized relations between the United States and Vietnam would also be the best dressing for the moral wounds inflicted by the war on the two peoples," Thach said. "As long as the present state of hostility between the two countries continues, these moral wounds of war will keep bleeding."

Over the past two decades, the Tet offensive has been repeatedly analyzed in books and articles by American historians of the war, many of whom have concluded that the offensive was actually a military defeat for the north. It virtually eliminated the carefully constructed guerrilla infrastructure in the south, exposed its top leadership to arrest and execution and belied the myth that large majorities in southern Vietnamese cities were ready to rise up and join the guerrillas in rebellion.

But that is largely the American retrospective.

According to some of the former Viet Cong participants interviewed in several Vietnamese cities over the past two weeks, the Tet offensive is officially recounted as a decisive military victory, the American equivalent of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu.

Vietnamese government officials, party leaders and top military officers for the most part contend that the effect of Tet in turning the American public against the war was calculated. "We did not set as an objective to take over or occupy all the cities," said Nguyen Van Linh, now the Communist Party general secretary. "We wanted to convey a message to the Americans."

Even some Vietnamese officials here conceded that the communist losses during Tet were heavy and that the impact of Tet -- including president Lyndon Johnson's subsequent decision not to seek reelection in 1968 -- surpassed even their most optimistic predictions.

"Right after the Tet offensive, we didn't realize how significant the victory was because we continued to be tormented by American bombers," said Nguyen Dinh An, vice president of the People's Committee of Danang, South Vietnam's second-largest city and the site of the first deployment of U.S. combat troops in 1965.

"We had expected before the offensive that it would mean the end of the war, and we would remain in the city," An said. "Instead we had to go back to a life of hardship in the battlefield. But as time went on, we eventually came to realize the significance of our victory. Johnson had to give up his reelection campaign, the bombing was halted and the two sides began talking in Paris."

Foreign Minister Thach, who was a diplomat at the time of the offensive, also said he was surprised at the impact on American public opinion. "On the military front, the victory may have been limited. But the political victory was very significant," Thach told a conference of visiting foreign journalists.

Former guerrilla leaders here, in neighboring Bienhoa, once home of America's busiest air base, and in the central Vietnamese capital of Danang and Hue, all suggested during lengthy interviews that the Tet offensive involved an intricate level of planning that had begun more than four months earlier, including deep infiltration of the most secure of American and South Vietnamese military installations.

The former guerrillas said hundreds of South Vietnamese civilians helped bring arms and ammunition, provided information and gave sanctuary to wounded guerrillas after the fighting ceased.

With the involvement of so many civilians supporting a relative handful of guerrillas who staged the attacks, the Vietnamese take offense at the suggestion of American historians that the communists failed to achieve their expected "general uprising" in the cities.

"Actions by the people, big and small, contributed to our offensive," said Col. Tran Thanh Dat. "This offensive can be seen as a revolt, an uprising, of the people in their minds as well as through their actions."

Some Vietnamese officials here conceded that the uprising was ultimately costly, with many of the Communist Party leaders in the south either killed in battles or later arrested. In Danang, for example, Ha Ky Ngo, the vice president of the party's provincial committee, and Mai Van Chan, the second secretary, were both killed. Officials in Danang said the party infrastructure needed to be rebuilt after Tet.

"Of course, after Tet we had some losses, but after each operation we had to rebuild our forces," said Tran Hung Thua, who was described as the chief of the guerrilla attack forces who assaulted the U.S. air base at Danang.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Tet offensive was the change it brought in western attitudes toward the war. Journalists for months had been hearing optimistic prognoses about "a light at the end of the tunnel," and the Tet offensive seemed to belie Gen. William Westmoreland's prediction two months earlier that success "lies within our grasp."

"We knew Tet was something significant at the time," said Pringle, the former Reuter bureau chief, who returned here last week as a freelance writer. "It flew directly in the face of everything we had been told."