NAM HA REEDUCATION CAMP, VIETNAM, FEB. 12 -- Approximately 160 political prisoners, all military officers or officials of the former U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government, were released today at this reeducation camp about 60 miles south of Hanoi.

The inmates, including 10 generals, a former defense minister, military and intelligence officers, politicians and 25 Christian and Buddhist chaplains, had been held since the communist victory in South Vietnam 12 years ago.

At a press conference in Hanoi yesterday, Vice Minister of Information Phan Quang announced that 3,820 political detainees would be freed from reeducation camps throughout the country on the occasion of the Lunar New Year, which will be celebrated here next week.

Quang said only 159 officials of the former regime would remain in reeducation camps after the releases this week. He said those remaining would be held to give them time to "prove their repentance over the crimes" they committed during the war.

Hanoi has faced domestic discontent and international criticism for continuing to hold prisoners in reeducation camps without trials more than a dozen years after the war ended.

In recent months, Vietnamese officials have said that they have decided to free all remaining inmates from these camps. "We made a decision recently to release all of them," Communist Party chief Nguyen Van Linh told journalists last month.

Linh also said those released would be allowed to emigrate. "We do not want to keep them in this country once they have decided they want to go," he said.

Journalists and diplomats were invited to witness today's ceremony and talk to the inmates. After Maj. Luu Van Hanh, the camp commander, read the names of those being released, two prisoners made speeches thanking the Vietnamese Communist Party for allowing them to rejoin their families.

"During the first years, I struggled with my ideas," said Lt. Gen. Nguyen Vinh Nghi, a former South Vietnamese Army infantry commander. "But finally I saw no other way than to accept the policy of the {communist} government. Since then I tried to follow camp rules."

Following the release ceremony, the inmates were served a holiday meal consisting of vegetable soup, pork and rice. Then they lined up to receive train tickets for their three-day trip Saturday to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, and about 4,000 dong {about $3} to buy food along the way.

The inmates were reluctant to talk in detail about their experiences in the reeducation camps. Many said they had been moved five or six times during the past 12 years. The camps were administered by different ministries and the treatment they received varied widely, the inmates said.

At the Nam Ha camp, the prisoners lived in six whitewashed cement buildings surrounded by raised cement or wooden platforms. The camp has a "happiness room" where detainees were allowed to spend time with their families during occasional visits.

Bui The Dung, 52, who served as minister of defense during the last two days of the Saigon government and who had just been released from a hospital where he was treated for a heart ailment, said inmates had worked very hard growing rice and vegetables during their first few years in the camp.

Most freed inmates said life had become easier in recent years. Tran Duc Minh, former commander of the Infantry Institute in the South, said he had translated English and French military books into Vietnamese. He said he also studied Russian, Spanish, German and Latin.

Many of the inmates interviewed said they hoped to leave Vietnam under the U.S. Orderly Departure Program.

Former defense minister Dung said he wanted to flee 13 years ago when the South Vietnamese government collapsed in the face of the communist military offensive. "I knew I would be in trouble if I stayed, but I couldn't find transport on that day," he said, referring to April 30, 1975.