Ngo Thi Dua starts work at 2 a.m. as a laborer at a brick plant to support her three children. For 15 hours, she will balance a shoulder pole and two baskets loaded with bricks, trotting from storage area to oven and back. Her pay for the day: 70 cents.

In the same village, Nguyen Van Uy, a veteran of the recent war in Cambodia, is planting crops in his 3,900 square feet of fields. If the harvest is good in 120 days, he will earn $100, less than a dollar a day.Like many Vietnamese, Ngo Thi Dua and Nguyen Van Uy seem doomed to lives of poverty. But their nation, one of the world's poorest, is reviving itself with remarkable speed by introducing a market economy.

Vietnam's fields and factories are full again with thousands like Ngo Thi Dua and Nguyen Van Uy. Their production is contributing to a booming construction business and record food crops.

They are the forerunners of a new Vietnam that has made more economic progress the past three years than it did in the previous 15 since the end of the war with the United States.

The country, which had to import rice in 1988 to stay alive, is expected to surpass the United States soon and become the world's second-largest rice exporter behind Thailand.

There is still much to be done. Vietnam is at least a decade away, and maybe two, from rebuilding itself after years of neglect and decay, failed Communist economic policies and a toll on its resources from wars with the French, the Americans, the Chinese and the Cambodians.

But change and reform are under way. Vietnam is emerging from economic ruin, stagnation and isolation that left it far behind its Asian neighbors in development.

It is back in the good graces of benefactors, Asia and Western Europe, after years of distrust and scorn. International financial institutions are lending it money again.

The government has licensed more than 800 foreign investment projects with a total approved capital of $7 billion. Only $1.8 billion has been paid in so far. Three-fourths of the projects are joint ventures with Vietnamese partners, almost all of which are state-run enterprises, and the major investors are from Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Australia.

But the most powerful nation, the United States, has held out on economic and diplomatic relations to pressure Vietnam to provide the fullest possible accounting of 2,239 American servicemen still missing from the war.

Still, Washington is slowly relaxing the embargo in reaction to what it says has been Vietnam's increasing cooperation in the MIA search. Last week, the Washington Post reported that senior U.S. officials were close to recommending that President Clinton lift the embargo.

Mobil Corp. and three Japanese companies won bidding in late December for the right to explore for oil off southern Vietnam. For now, the United States is permitting Mobil only to collect seismic data and bars it from producing or selling oil from the offshore field.

On Dec. 23, the Treasury Department issued rules allowing U.S. businesses to provide goods and services for development projects in Vietnam financed by international institutions like the World Bank. Between $500 million and $800 million is up for grabs.

U.S. companies are still forbidden from buying or selling consumer goods and from other commercial activities in Vietnam.

There are few remnants of the Vietnam War and even less talk about it. American bashing has given way to the official line of reconciliation and lifting the trade embargo. Wherever Americans go, they are warmly greeted.

The landscape of military bases and barbed wire, of fire and smoke, and of death, has been transformed into lush pastures bustling with life and a new generation of postwar workers and farmers.

Dong Ha. Con Thien. The Rock Pile. Khe Sanh. The hellholes of Vietnam are remembered only by the Americans and Vietnamese who spilled their blood there. The new generation knows little of the war, bent more on studying English and computer science than history.

The new Vietnam awaits an army of American businessmen once the embargo is completely lifted. The country that drove the Americans away now wants them back, offering a market of 70 million consumers, a large pool of inexpensive labor, and oil and coal resources.

That inexpensive labor is seen in Ngo Thi Dua, working in the brick factory. It is Bui Thi Huong, laboring in the village of Hung Thinh, 20 miles up the road, helping rebuild Vietnam's decrepit highways.

Most of the work is done by hand. There is little heavy equipment available.

"Just the same, like in wartime," Bui Thi Huong said. "We use our hands all the time. I don't know why we have no machines to better the job."

She and the other laborers earn 70 cents a day, enough to buy a couple of bowls of noodles at a restaurant or about 61/2 pounds of rice to feed their families. Meat is a rarity.

Vietnam's two largest cities, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, glitter with four-star hotels, charming restaurants, karaoke bars and VIP clubs, but poverty persists in the countryside.

To some the glitter is a fantasy that masks the archaic conditions of Vietnam's highways, bridges, irrigation systems, schools, health care, water supply and electrical power grid.

"It's an illusion to the extent it's not reflective of the country as a whole," said Frank Hawke, vice president and Indochina manager for Citibank. "There's a lot of people whose lives have not changed. There's a danger people will get unrealistic expectations about the pace of change. There has been incredible progress in the last three years."

Other businessmen, United Nations officials and Western diplomats agree.

"Vietnam is a country that has an enormous potential, but it's still nonetheless a very poor country," said Roy Morey, resident representative of the United Nations Development Program.

Government data show Vietnam has made steady progress in five years of economic reforms. Inflation fell from 400 percent in 1988 to 4 percent during the first 11 months of 1993.

Farmers harvested 25 million tons of food in 1993, two years ahead of the target for that amount. Six years ago, the farmers were working for state agriculture communes. Now farmers have much more control over their own land.

In a state of the nation report to the National Assembly on Dec. 6, Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet cited the economic gains, which include annual growth in the economy averaging 7.2 percent since 1991.

"We have overcome the country's socioeconomic crisis, settling the recession, checking inflation and maintaining political stability at a time when we faced acute challenges, having no financial backing from outside and suffering from the U.S. trade embargo," Kiet said.

There is a long way to go.

Vietnamese government officials, diplomats and financial analysts agree that unemployment and corruption are major problems.

Government estimates on the number of unemployed vary from 1.9 million to 2.2 million, or 5.6 percent to 6.5 percent of the labor force of 34 million. Another concern is underemployment. Five million people, 14.7 percent of the work force, are able to find only part-time jobs.

Catching up with Taiwan, South Korea and other booming Asian countries will take some doing. Vietnam estimates it would need $40 billion in private and public investment to rebuild the country and double economic output by 2000. That would mean increasing investment as a percentage of the economy from the current 12 percent to about 25 percent over the next seven years.

Morey, the U.N. official, says it may take the Vietnamese 15 years to reach their rebuilding and economic goals. Other observers say it could take longer.

Almost half of Vietnam's 66,000 miles of roads are rated poor to very poor by the United Nations. Many roads have no shoulders, poor drainage and inadequate bases. Many have not been repaved in a decade and are filled with potholes.

Up to 70 percent of Vietnam's other transportation networks - 1,600 miles of railways, 12,000 miles of navigable inland waterways, seven main ports and international airports at Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City - are rated poor to bad.

There is a pressing need to rebuild schools and improve sanitation and health care. Clinics often lack equipment and medicines. Electricity and safe water are scarce in rural areas.

While Vietnam is winning praise for remaking its economy - the Communist Party calls it "doi moi," or renovation - its human rights record concerns the United States, Australia and other Western nations.

Western observers say Vietnam is improving the treatment of its citizens, but it still restricts their activities and bans opposition parties. There is no protection for individuals under the law and no effective court system to check government abuses.

There seem to be fewer political prisoners, but it is hard to know for sure. Vietnam lists all its prisoners as criminals.


Vietnam facts

Area: 132,413 square miles

Population: 70 million; annual increase, 2.3%; half younger than 20%.

Distribution: 78% rural, 22% urban

Land Use: Agriculture, 26,640 square miles; livestock, 1,320 square miles; aquaculture, 1030 square miles; forest 36,260 square miles.

Health: Life expectancy, 63 years; daily caloric intake, 1,928 per adult; infant mortality, 45 deaths per 1,000 births; 2,694 patients per doctor.

Education: Average schooling, 5.8 years for men, 3.4 years for women.



Reform of Vietnam's economy

1987 - Official, fixed prices raised closer to free market prices. Rationing ended for many commodities. Internal trade liberalized. Rules set for foreign investment.

1988 - Farmers given user rights to land for at least 15 years, allowed to improve land on their own and benefit from surplus production. State enterprises given more autonomy.

1989 - Price controls abolished, expect for housing, medicine, electricity. State enterprises allowed to export goods and trade with foreign partners. Import-export quotas reduced.

1990 - Private businesses permitted. First steps toward closing or merging money- losing state enterprises.

1991 - Foreign exchange markerts established to set currency rates.

1992 - Rules formalized allowing leases, sale, merger or liquidation of state enterprise operations. Tight fiscal and monetary measures sharply reduced inflation. New constitution guarantees property rights.

1993 - Subsidized credit ended for state enterprises. Business taxes out. Farmers given rights to farmland for 20-50 years, depending on use.