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A Reporter Returns

Most of the 3.4 million Americans who served in the Vietnam War put the experience behind them. So did some journalists who departed the country in the 1970s feeling that they never wanted to see the place again.

One was David Lamb, who first went to Saigon in 1968 as a young reporter for United Press International. Vietnam, he says, was "never part of the game plan," and when he left in 1975 it "disappeared from my radar screen."

All the more remarkable that he would return to Vietnam 22 years later, a seasoned foreign correspondent for The Los Angeles Times, and not only discover the place he hadn't seen the first time, but become enthralled by it.

It was, of course, a different Vietnam, as he writes in a new book, "Vietnam Now, A Reporter Returns," which reaches bookstores this month. After four years in Hanoi, the one-time "enemy capital," Lamb says, "it was where I thought of home as being, and it seemed odd that I could feel so at peace in a land I once disliked so intensely."

The author found that Vietnam had largely put the "American war" behind it in ways the United States never has. Most of the population was yet unborn when the U.S.-backed Republic of (South) Vietnam fell to the North Vietnamese communist forces in May 1975, but even older people bore little apparent animosity toward Americans.

This discovery surprises many who return, and Lamb found it at various levels of society, from peasant farmers to students to new-age intellectuals.

He also met a man who had neither forgotten nor forgiven the past: Senior General Vo Nguyen Giap, victor over the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and leader of North Vietnam's 15-year campaign to take over the South, who shed his soldiers' blood with a cynical disregard that appalled some U.S. officers.

To his credit, Lamb was not mesmerized by the legend, either. Giap, he says, "could have contributed so much leadership and inspiration to peacetime Vietnam," but in a 2½-hour interview proved "annoyingly self-righteous in his inability to admit that neither he nor the party was capable of error or misjudgment."

Such a book offers chances to set history straight; the author does so in pointing out that Hanoi's civilian areas were not targeted by U.S. bombs and survived "remarkably intact," despite antiwar activists' claims in the 1970s that the city had been "nearly leveled."

The book's many evocative moments include the author's meeting with a family once divided by war, a waiter learning English by reading Jane Austen and a ride on the "Unification Express" train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City - "or Saigon, as it's still called on the schedule."

He writes with sympathetic understanding of the Viet Kieu, Vietnamese who fled the country in the chaos of the war's end, and were now returning to an unfamiliar country, hoping to find out whether they were American or Vietnamese.

Two decades after the war, Lamb found Vietnam "undeniably ... becoming a freer, looser, more relaxed society," where people seemed content and well-fed, despite an economy that has never taken off. They could travel abroad and read foreign publications, and Catholics and Buddhists practiced once-subversive religions openly, if free from politics.

Yet in some ways, the country remains in a 1970s time-warp. Museums in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are filled with military junk including helicopters, symbolic reminders of the American defeat.

In 1997, a year of Asian economic crisis, Hong Kong's return to China and a Moscow-NATO security pact, the official Vietnam News Agency ranked the 30th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as the year's top story, and gave the No. 9 slot to a youth festival in Cuba.

"It was as though the media lived in a dream bubble far removed from the realities of planet Earth," Lamb writes.

Official attitudes toward the resident foreign media of about 20 were mixed, he found.

"One group of old-line conservatives would have been happy to see us ... pack up and leave," but "most officials realized there were benefits to our presence" for foreign investment, tourism and the prestige of having representatives of international news media in their midst.

Lamb supports personal observations with solid history and a suitable collection of photos. The book suffers from having no index, an increasingly common deficiency.

By Richard Pyle