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War days a hot trend for the young, cool

Once it was a war, then it was a movie, now it's a bar.

Welcome to the Apocalypse Now, Ho Chi Minh City's latest, trendiest watering hole.

It is here where young backpack-toting travelers from Europe and North America down beers with bar girls from Saigon's raunchy hey-day _ and a few contemporaries as well _ as the sound of the Doors, the rock n' roll band forever associated with the war, vibrates through the sparsely decorated, dimly lit room.

The existence of the place, which opened in June, confirms that despite 16 years of socialism, the people of what used to be called Saigon have not lost their uncanny knack for making a buck; nor are they any more reluctant than they used to be about selling virtually anything. In this case what they are selling is the mystique that surrounds the events of Vietnam's painful past and the fascination foreigners have with it.

Flak vests, safari jackets and sunglasses are the attire favored by the coolest of the cool. Smokers light up with flip-top Zippo lighters, which, say the people who sell these items in numerous shops, were once owned by GIs. Most are engraved with messages such as "We are the unwilling led by the unqualified doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful," plus the names and dates and places where the supposed original owner served when he was here.

The young crowd, many born too late to have any memories of the war, seems to be looking for a vicarious old Saigon experience, but the place has the contrived atmosphere of a movie set. The music _ mainly '60s rock 'n' roll _ comes off sounding more like a soundtrack than the echo of an age.

Some Vietnam veterans are upset by the bar and see its existence as illustrative of a pervasive myth about the war: that it was an exciting adventure, like something out of an Indiana Jones film. Its name came from the Francis Coppola film on the Vietnam War.

"What it does is glorify war," said Gordon Smith, who heads a chapter of Veterans for Peace in Monterey, Calif., and served at nearby Bien Hoa Air Base in 1970 and 1971. Smith was back in Vietnam distributing donated medicine to hospitals and clinics throughout the country in November but refuses to go near the Apocalypse Now: "These kids that aren't even old enough to remember the war sit in there and think, "Oh boy, that must have been groovy,' and wishing they could have been there."

Most of the patrons deny that they have come for any reason apart from the pursuit of a cold beer. "It's a nice place. I just sit and listen to music, that's all," said a 30-year-old Swede shoe-stringing his way through Southeast Asia.

"We come here because everyone goes here. That's the only reason," added his American companion, who wore a "Lift the embargo" T-shirt.

One thing cannot be disputed: The establishment is doing a brisk business. Though it is hardly distinguishable from any of the thousands of other cafes and bars in town that serve the same beers _ local Saigon 333 beer and black market imports from Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and the Philippines _ the Apocalypse Now usually is packed.

"The war is in the past," said 22-year-old Tran Thi Lan who helped set the place up, dismissing the possibility that there might be something less than appropriate about the establishment's name. "We figured we'd start up a place for tourists and a foreign friend suggested that we name it after a famous movie to attract people, so we chose Apocalypse Now."

Lan, who now tends bar for 2,000 Vietnamese dong (about 15 cents) an hour _ not a bad wage in this country where a civil servant earns barely $30 a month _ only recently saw the movie.

"It was very good," she said, in her English learned in part from school but mainly from Hollywood, "but for me it's heavy."