THE little girl in a crib in a room of Tu Du Hospital knows nothing about economic embargoes, diplomatic normalisation or Robert McNamara. New born, she does not yet have a name. It is unlikely her mother will ever return to give her one. She lies blinking and silent, surrounded by other babies all chuckling and kicking. Her still body is tiny, her head the size of a bowling ball. The doctors and nurses who care for her in the Tu Du Hospital in central Ho Chi Minh City believe the girl is the latest victim of Agent Orange. She is perhaps the latest victim in a war that was supposed to end 20 years ago this week when North Vietnamese tanks rumbled into Saigon to finally secure a Communist victory. Dr Pham Viet Thanh, Tu Du's vice-director, is unsure how long the little girl will live and if she does, how badly her brain will be damaged. He is also unsure for how long the 170 kilograms of dioxin in the 40 million litres of Agent Orange sprayed by United States forces to destroy jungle cover in South Vietnam will continue to deform his people. 'For me it is a great sadness that we are told that no one can yet conclusively prove the cause (of the mutations),' Dr Thanh said. 'I myself am sure after all that I have seen. And I believe one day the final proof will be there.' Tu Du's doctors delivers babies like the girl in bed four from women who live in the hardest-hit areas of the Mekong delta where generations of farmers have lived off war-poisoned soils for more than two decades. Last year about 1,000 of the 26,865 pregnant women who entered Tu Du came with severely malformed foetuses or rare cancers of the uterus. The rate, almost four per cent, is four to five times higher than other Vietnamese hospitals, according to official figures. Doctors and scientists in the US also believe a link with Agent Orange exists, but final proof - hampered by the 20-year US trade embargo and dioxin tests costing US$2,000 a shot - is still some years off. Tu Du is also an orphanage. Crippled and deformed children whose parents are unwilling or unable to care for them play in the old French buildings, oblivious to any sign of war. The war is a long way away, too, for the city's young and rapidly emerging urban elite who whiz past on motorbikes outside the hospital gates. Sons and daughters of Communist Party cadres among them, they can be found in a string of hip new riverside cafes and bars across the city, wrapped in French fashions and eating Mexican-style food. For them the city today is more like Saigon in 1974 than the closed Ho Chi Minh City of 1985, a time when northern-inspired socialism made life its most austere - a year before the Communist Party began its reforms. In 1985 it was a time of curfews and restrictions, with many businesses nationalised and the former soldiers and policemen of the southern 'puppet regime' under state watch. Now, with former southern soldiers working alongside old northern enemies, a host of new buildings underway and fast-rising incomes, the city is well on its way to becoming the Vietnamese Singapore it craves to be - a smart garden city under strict state control. People's Committee officials admit privately the goal is 'economic growth without vices', but that is still some way off. The city can be both Paris in the 20s and Chicago in the 60s, with colonial villas decaying next to drab American-era buildings. Few are more bleak than the old US Embassy building on Le Duan Boulevard. Its windows still blocked by a mosaic concrete screen to shield it from surveillance and rocket attack, it lies dormant but finally back in the hands of the US State Department for the first time since April 30, 1975. On that day just before sunrise, Ambassador Graham Martin rolled up the Stars and Stripes and gathered his most private papers before climbing a lonely stairway to a roof-top helipad. He left to a waiting aircraft carrier in the South China Sea on one of the last American helicopters as the panicked families of thousands loyal to the American cause - soldiers, police, prostitutes and clerks - clogged streets surrounding the building, seeking any form of escape as Communist tanks and planes bombarded the airport out on the edge of town. Now the building lies quiet, its gardens overgrown as Washington decides whether or not to demolish it. Paper shredded two decades ago on what were the world's biggest document shredders still now blocks stairwells. On the roof, amid US army-issue sandbags and rusting teargas canisters - the last defences of the last marines - a tamarind tree has sprouted. It was a tamarind tree outside that Martin finally ordered chopped down as Washington sent in the helicopters. That gesture more than any confirmed the withdrawal. SAIGON then was as foreign as Ho Chi Minh City is today for Ngo Thi Phien, who sits quietly in her spartan village house on paddy fields in Tan An Hoi 40 kilometres away. At 74, Mrs Phien, dressed in black pyjamas, lives the same simple life she did through the long years of war. But she knows she will always be alone. Mrs Phien lost her entire immediate family - two husbands and three sons, one adopted - to the war. The killing started in a nearby paddy field one summer's day in the early 50s when forces from the occupying French colonial rulers came to execute her first husband. 'It was then I joined the revolution,' she says, her face twisted and body wracked with scars from the subsequent torture by South Vietnamese forces. Forced to live behind barbed wire in one of the many controversial 'strategic hamlets' used by the Americans and South Vietnamese to concentrate and secure villagers to deny the southern communists - the Vietcong - new recruits, she found ways to feed and house and supply her comrades. A chest of drawers and a table - virtually her only possessions - are riddled with bullet holes from the day the South found jungle revolutionaries in her house. Now the village is truly at peace. Under a leaden monsoon sky, brittle leaves crunch as a lizard stalks a dragon fly, but Mrs Phien is not resting. 'I worry very much about the future,' she says, eyes suddenly blazing. 'Now more and foreigners are coming back to Vietnam, there will be the obstacles as before. Maybe they will come to dominate again. 'But these people must know that Vietnam is independent and those armies will never be allowed here again.' Mrs Phien's neighbours are all old revolutionaries who have returned to their village lives as simple peasants. 'The most important lesson is the importance of the bonds between neighbours and among the countrymen,' she says. 'It's thanks to this that we could survive. And it is this that is helping me know I am old and alone with my family dead.' Mr Truc, not his real name, is 42 but he somehow seems both older and more alone than Mrs Phien. Crouching in the darkness under a full moon by the Saigon River, he is waiting to meet contacts from the city's Chinatown, Cholon, in the hope of getting work in a restaurant. Nearby, rich young revellers in LA Lakers caps groove to the thump from the Rolling Stones in the light of a waterside bar. 'When I was young I looked forward to the day when I would be happy and old and wise. Now I am just tired, so tired. I feel old but I will always be confused. I will never have wisdom. I feel my life is over now, and I understand nothing.' Mr Truc was an officer in the South Vietnamese Army. He has just learnt from the US Embassy in Bangkok that he did not spend enough time in 're-education' - two years and 10 months - to join almost 500,000 former soldiers and families in the US under the Orderly Departure Programme. 'I have made all the wrong choices,' he says. 'I thought I was fighting for freedom. That is all I was interested in. 'Now there is freedom, I can see it before my eyes and I have none of it.' For Mr Truc, the war started when US forces pulled out of Saigon. Having fled the central highlands to the coast weeks before as the northern forces closed in, he decided to try to protect his family in Saigon rather than try to escape with the Americans. As the surrender of South Vietnam was broadcast, he remembers watching helplessly as friends in the Saigon police hierarchy turned their pistols on themselves. Children now sell helicopters and jet-fighters made from coke-cans in a shop near the same spot. But the expected blood-bath never happened. Instead, the southern and northern cadres joined up and over the course of several months they closed the brothels, burnt the old school books, and created new police forces and city authorities. The real hardships would come much later. Slowly, dazed former soldiers - some one million in all - were told to 'volunteer' for re-education by the south's victorious new communist rulers determined to cleanse western ideals from the minds of their captured enemies. Mr Truc was told to pack for three days. He instead was prepared for 10 days. Because he was an officer he was not released for almost three years. Normal foot-soldiers were out within a month. Like many other officers after their release, he and his family had few rights to official residency, work or education. Mr Truc ended up with other former officers toiling in a closely-watched 'new economic zone' just four kilometres from Cambodia. One day in 1979 he watched his communist master take on their former Khmer Rouge comrades in a border skirmish. 'By this stage I was weakened by hunger and going crazy. I just started to laugh and could not stop, even though I made myself sick. 'Soon, all the other old officers were laughing too, so they sent me back to Saigon . . . and a few days I decided to flee.' Mr Truc was caught shortly afterwards at the helm of a boat on the Saigon River and jailed for a further three years for attempting to escape from Vietnam. Soon after release, the prospects - including work and education - were looking up for former officers of the old regime, and he decided to stay. 'I will never get a great job. I am still poor and I believe I am a target for the corrupt now, so I will never be as free as the others under the renovation policy (of market and social reforms instigated in 1986 by the Communist Party),' he says. 'I just live now for my baby boy. Maybe he can fulfil my dream and get to America.' Nguyen Manh Tuan, a former South Vietnamese Army officer of even higher rank than Mr Truc, looks at life differently. As a lieutenant-colonel at the height of the war in the late 60s he was in charge of large areas around Pleiku in central Vietnam, had a family of eight children and ran a profitable wood-working business, three American cars and a US army helicopter 'all of my own'. Captured by the surging Communist forces and held as a prisoner of war for a year shortly before the fall of Saigon, on his release he toiled for several years without permits on the silent streets of the new Ho Chi Minh City, painting and repairing bicycles. He refused to be crushed. Mr Tuan set up a tiny factory making nail clippers so his family, still tarred by his war record, could work. Struck by the quality of his goods, the authorities eventually gave him official recognition and support. Now he employs about 200 people making scissors on machines fashioned from war junk. 'When I was a repairman I used to look at the sky when the big jet planes would go over and I would nearly cry. I thought I would never again have the chance to leave,' Mr Tuan said. 'Now as a Vietnamese there is nowhere else I would rather be. Soon I will realise my dream of exporting to nations all over the world.' One of his supervisors is Dang Xuan Hong, a retired Communist police captain. Mr Hong's task used to be to keep a close eye on Mr Tuan as he traded across Binh Thanh district, printing illegal advertising sheets on a back-yard gelatine press. He will never be a communist, but now does not mind the Party administration. It is policies, not doctrine, that count, he says. The new business ethnic can be found in the closest communist stronghold to Saigon during the 60s. Cu Chi is home to a 200-kilometre network of elaborate, booby-trapped tunnels that at the height of the war accommodated up to 6,000 guerillas for months at a time. Despite years of napalm, B-52 bombing raids, sniffer dogs and poison, the full network, which included hospitals, dinning rooms and arms stores, was never understood. The Communist forces' Tet offensive of 1968 - the first full-fledged attack on the US-protected Saigon - was planned by revolutionary leaders over months from their tunnel hideouts. Now a Vietcong theme-park for tourists, some 300 Vietnamese and foreign visitors - US veterans among them - queue daily at Cu Chi to shoot Ak-47s for US$1 a time and crawl through the dirt. It's not so far through the jungle to the house of Phien. But you don't have to pay to hear the explosions at Khe Sanh, a vast bleak plateau near the border with Laos in central Vietnam. Few tourists come here. Near the old line between North and South Vietnam, the US-led bombers dropped an estimated 100,000 tonnes of explosives on Khe Sahn during a two-month siege in 1968. President Lyndon Johnson directed the operation himself from a special sand-pit in the basement of the White House as 6,000 marines dug in against a huge Northern force said to be hiding in jungles nearby. Historians with the benefit of hindsight have put the whole operation down as a simple diversion to free a path for the Tet offensive down the coast a few weeks later. But now a hot day at the misty, overgrown air-field of Khe Sanh - for two weeks the busiest on earth - is enough to set off unexploded white phosphorus flares. The metal scavengers and herders on the plateau are used to the blinding white flash of the phosphorus as it burns in air, hoping it does not take with it a child or cow. Le Van Thai cuts weeds for compost on the plateau. 'Each one that explodes is one less that will blow you up. It's okay if you stay on the path,' says Thai, whose son-in-law lost a leg when he strayed two years ago. They are among the poorest in Vietnam with frequent floods, typhoons and famines and sandy soil ravaged by war. Now, locals pin their hopes on a burgeoning market at Lao Bao on the border with Laos. Here under huge limestone bluffs thousands come to huddle in huts made out of cigarette boxes and trade in currencies from all over Asia and goods from Bangkok. 'One day there will be huge trucks on new roads bringing goods from Laos and Thailand to the port at Danang and we will all be rich. That's why I'm here,' says one trader. His attitude is similar to that expressed in Hanoi hundreds of kilometres to the north. General Van Tien Dung, the man who from a jungle hideout commanded the final lightning takeover of the South, defying all predictions to unify the country in two months, is sitting smart, well-scrubbed and upright in a Hanoi villa. One of Vietnam's most famous warriors, he sees himself as a man of peace. But without independence, he says, there cannot be peace. 'We never want war, we want peace so we can build and improve our country,' says General Dung, who later served as Minister of Defence. 'Sometimes war is unavoidable but as history has shown us, our foreign invaders are always bigger and stronger but we finally win. We destroy their spirit. 'But now we are fighting a new war against poverty and backwardness.' General Dung says the country has to remain 'vigilant' but its priority must be the continued renovation to finally achieve a rich, civilised and equal society. 'This anniversary does not mark an end,' he says, his eyes bright and his famous spiky mane now grey and starting to recede. 'It marks merely a beginning.'