HANOI, Vietnam -- When the circus came to her village more than 30 years ago, Nguyen Tam Chinh was eager to join it and see the world. Her father approved her choice, because Ho Chi Minh, the leader of North Vietnam, had declared circuses to be patriotic entertainment.
So Ms. Chinh lived up to "Uncle Ho's" ideals.
During the 1960s and 1970s, she entertained North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong guerrillas. She marched down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to their camps behind enemy lines to perform her complicated balancing and juggling tricks.
She has assumed that her daughter, Kim Cuong, would follow the same path: join a circus to provide clean fun for Vietnam's 74 million citizens. But Kim Cuong, now 14, has her own ideas, which she finds more appropriate for a young woman in postwar, post-revolutionary Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh seems less heroic than does commerce. For her generation the war is musty history. Kim Cuong wants to become a business woman. She wants to see the world -- "Paris and London," she suggests -- much as Vietnam is wanting to enter it.
Vietnam is having to search for its identity, one it hopes will help the country catch up with its prospering neighbors. Twenty years after the end of the Vietnam War, it has yet to become a modern, truly unified country governed according to people's desires, rather than according to a model imported from some distant power. "We've always been led by a foreign power," says Tran Bach Dang, the underground Communist Party boss in wartime Saigon, which has now been renamed Ho Chi Minh City. "First the French, then the Americans and Soviets.
"After the war we blindly followed the Soviet Union. Only in 1991 did we start standing on our own two feet."
As demonstrated by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher's visit here this weekend -- the first trip by a senior U.S. official to unified Vietnam -- the country is gradually winning acceptance as "normal."
Vietnam's 11-year occupation of neighboring Cambodia is over. The government in Hanoi is Communist only in name. The Americans and their dollars are trickling back. And Vietnam is coming to be regarded as merely one of many Asian nations focused on economic growth and development.
But the Vietnamese are unsure what kind of future they want. Even as they advise Americans to bury the past and invest in the future -- and even as many of Vietnam's neighbors do just that -- the Vietnamese themselves have not yet decided what kind of country they are building.
Will it have an open, free-market system as in many other Asian states? Or, as in China, a partially capitalist economy coupled with strict authoritarian control?
As for the war, it is not as deeply buried as people sometimes say. Almost every man now over 40 was in the army, and almost every family lost someone in that conflict, which cost at least 2 million lives and caused another 1 million to emigrate. The war remains the backdrop for almost everything one sees, from the unemployed veterans who line Hanoi's streets looking for day jobs to the political prisoners who clash with authorities.
It is a country in which peace has, in different ways, proved nearly as testing as war.
A quiet Buddhist
About 1,200 miles south from Hanoi's crumbling French villas is the country's economic motor, Ho Chi Minh City, former capital of South Vietnam. It is a seedy city, a place of disintegrating concrete and sidewalk markets where kids turn into beggars the moment they spot a foreigner.
A side street in a poor part of town is home to the An Quang Pagoda, an unprepossessing building behind a steel gate. The prayer halls and monks' quarters are upstairs, in airy rooms that let in sluggish summer breezes and keep out the daily torrents of rain.
On a recent afternoon, about 30 women were praying in the main prayer hall. A steady rain was falling. Some of the workers who maintain the temple napped in the heat. And living in this quiet refuge is the monk Tri Quang.
He was a powerful, implacable foe of a series of corrupt regimes in South Vietnam. Linked simplistically by U.S. authorities with the Communists, he stood for traditional Vietnamese values of uprightness and independence, and he opposed foreign ideologies and foreign armies.
So Tri Quang found no solace in the victory of the North, and his fate mirrors the country's uncertain attitude toward independent thinkers. He had demanded a political role for Buddhists in the newly reunified country.
The government's response was to place him under house arrest.
"Now I live the life of a simple monk," Tri Quang says. "I leave politics to the politicians and concentrate on translating Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit and Chinese into Vietnamese."
He is much admired by the regulars at the pagoda. "Outwardly he must say he isn't interested in politics," said a 60-year-old worshiper. "But inwardly we know he thinks of politics and injustice. But his voice has been forbidden him."
Buddhism remains one of the Vietnamese government's biggest challenges.