It was another surreal scene in Saigon. In the lobby of the Continental Hotel stood a group of Russian seamen dressed as French noblemen in the 1920s, with slicked hair, high collars, black and white shoes and, nearby, ladies in beaded dresses and forehead bands with feathered plumes.

A French production company, with a catering truck of sorts parked at the curb, had taken over the old hotel for a night of shooting scenes for a movie called "L'Amant," or "The Lover." And the Russian extras were about as curious of the city as the Vietnamese were of the fashions."Was Saigon always like this?" one Russian asked, surveying the flood of motorbikes and bicycles outside. "It must have been worse when the Americans were here."

In many ways, it was. But to a reporter returning to Saigon after 20 years away, it is still very much a vital city that assaults the senses, tugs at the emotions, evokes memories and, at the end of the day, breaks your heart.

Whatever happened to the shoeshine boys, to those tiny taxis that scurried about town, to Sam, the office driver so proud of the $1,800 Mazda, to the friendly young woman who twice a week would stroll into the office after midnight to utter the only English words she knew: "Me you. You me"?

What is the visible legacy of that massive American presence, of all those men and all that equipment brought fruitlessly to bear on those now in control? And, then, quite suddenly, comes the realization that it is as if the hundreds of thousands of Americans who had come, had never come at all.

What remains along Tu Do Street, once Rue Catinat and now renamed Dong Khoi, are artifacts of a bygone age, an era to be mourned but not forgotten.

The reminders are painful to see: the American dog tags for sale for the negotiable price of $1, right there beside class rings from U.S. schools, watches and engraved Zippo cigarette lighters.

"Pleiku 67-68."

"Sure to go to Heaven cause I've spent my time in Hell."

"We Are the Unwilling, Led by the Unqualified, Doing the Unnecessary, For the Ungrateful."

Twenty years ago, Saigon was going through another series of crises. The streets were clogged with hundreds of police, troops, jeeps and trucks, President Nguyen Van Thieu was winning a one-man election, the U.S. force was dwindling, cut by more than half to 200,000, anti-government student demonstrations often turned bloody; 1,381 Americans and 20,000 South Vietnamese were killed in action that year, as well as many thousands among the forces from the North.

The streets today are clogged, not by cars and trucks, but by the motorbikes, bicycles and pedicabs. In the square where demonstrations were once frequent and violent, they were putting together a huge sign the other day announcing the arrival of an entertainer named Elvis Cong.

There is no visible military presence of any kind - only traffic policemen occasionally giving tickets to errant cyclists. And, getting in and out of the Tan Son Nhut airport, still somewhat chaotic, is a joy compared to the days of wartime security and bureaucracy.

It has been 16 years since "Liberation Day" when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese who promptly imposed control and changed its name to Ho Chi Minh City. But almost everyone here still calls it by the old name, including the official tourist agency, Saigontourist, which hopes that Americans come back in large numbers one day.

"We would like ex-GIs to return and see Vietnam," an official of the agency said. "I'm sure many would like to visit the areas where they were stationed. We are not angry at the American people. Vietnamese would receive them with open arms. The war is over. We just hope the American embargo ends so it would be easier for Americans to travel here."

Indeed, there is a whole generation now that did not know or see the Americans and the few who do come these days to Saigon are once again objects of friendly curiosity. Twenty years ago, Americans had become part of the Saigon landscape; at times condoned, condemned or attacked, at times accepted or simply ignored. Often in 1971, during the tense days of the election campaign, American soldiers were told to stay off the streets in special alerts.

Now the Vietnamese, from officials from the North to noodle soup vendors, from the homeless and unemployed to schoolchildren, are genuinely happy to see American visitors and wave and smile and attempt to practice their English.

A pedicab driver points with pride to the Stars and Stripes he wears on his hat as he pedals visitors to see the deteriorating American Embassy building. Another Vietnamese, who teaches English, hands visitors on the street his resume, noting that he worked for the U.S. Army for five years and was proud of it.

At the moment, Vietnamese here are looking to the United States in hopes that Washington and Hanoi can work out remaining differences on lifting the trade embargo. At all levels, they hope that once the embargo goes, investment would come and Vietnam would prosper.

While they are waiting for better economic times, they are trying to make a living as best they can. Many are busy at business but for the vast majority, poverty and unemployment are rampant. These are industrious people but too many have almost nothing to do.

Some of the more enterprising are thinking ahead and preparing for an influx of foreigners. The Continental, taken over by the government, has been remodeled and its famous open terrace, known as the "Continental Shelf," has been enclosed; the Floating Hotel, moored on the Saigon River, opened 18 months ago; talks are under way with major chains for more hotels; and, within the past month, a Vietnamese who has lived in Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif., opened a new restaurant called City, which could be right out of Los Angeles' trendy Melrose Avenue.

Against a background of pastel colors, courteous waiters who have learned basic restaurant English - "Enjoy your dinner" - take orders for mousseline of lobster, meat loaf and mashed potatoes, the pizza of the day, and Philadelphia steak sandwiches.

"This is a gamble," the manager said. "We just want to be ready."

Other Vietnamese here want to be prepared - prepared to leave. Across from the Continental Hotel, a chalkboard announced classes on "How to Survive in the USA." In one shop, a young girl studied a pamphlet, called "Departures," outlining the English she might encounter at an airport. And private English lessons, often taught by Vietnamese old enough to have worked for Americans, attracts students.

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Many of those encountered on this return visit made it quite clear that their goal was to go to the United States. And, to bolster their case, they were quick to relate tales of hardship.

"I tried to leave several times years ago," said one shop owner. "Each time I paid my $5,000, but each time I was betrayed and arrested. So I decided to send my son. His boat went down, and he was drowned."

"My father got out," said a young woman dressed in her attractive ao dai with its wide-legged trousers and long tunic split at the sides. "He made it to Bangkok where he is in a refugee camp. He told me not to marry in Vietnam because I would be stuck here and to wait until he could send for me. So I am waiting even though my younger sisters are married and my mother keeps telling me I'm getting old. One day I hope to join my father."

"I probably could have left just before Saigon fell in '75," said one Vietnamese friend, who 20 years ago was keen on politics and economics and prided himself on being well-informed. "Why didn't I leave? I ask myself that every day. So what do I do? I've dropped out. I read no newspapers and listen to no news. I teach a little and get drunk every night."

Other memories on this return visit were evoked hourly.

There were the frivolous recollections of the steaks from Texas and the potatoes from Idaho, served on the roof of a U.S. officers quarters, now a government agency; of the U.S. general in the Mekong Delta who proudly taught the Vietnamese to make corn bread and of Room 19 in the Continental, the home of the returning reporter for 18 months, with its big portrait of Mickey Mouse since taken to an unknown destination.

There were more serious recollections, stirred by visits to the "Exhibition House of Aggressive War Crimes," with its maps and photos of Vietnamese war victims, and to the Presidential Palace where Thieu lived and worked.

References in the exhibit to Gen. Creighton W. Abrams, the U.S. commander, recalled several off-the-record conversations with him on his relations with Thieu and his difficulties at times of understanding Vietnamese officials.

"President Nixon called me one day and asked me to inform Thieu he wanted a joint operation to invade Cambodia on a Monday," the general had confided several months after that 1970 invasion."Thieu told me the next day that his astrologer told him that Monday was a bad day and wanted to postpone.

"I sat there trying to figure out how to tell Nixon about Thieu's astrologer when a message came from the White House to hold off the attack for a couple of days because it would be easier then for the president to get television time. Thanks to the astrologer, I could cable back instantly: `Done.' "

The presidential palace tour, which included a small group of North Vietnamese villagers on their first visit to Saigon, concluded with a film of the history of the war. In the final scenes, a North Vietna-mese tank knocks down the same palace gates that were visible from a window just a few steps away.

Inside the gates, gardeners were at work on the front lawn, while outside the bikes were on the move in full force. It was as if they had someplace to go.

"I hope you enjoyed your visit and will find things even better the next time you come to Saigon," said a friendly government official.

Later, as the departing flight moved away from the airport terminal, passengers saw one more artifact, the faded paint of a peace symbol from the old days. And the refrain from Peter, Paul and Mary, so popular then, would not leave the mind:

"Leaving on a jet plane,

Don't know when I'll be back again."