Four Vietnamese writers who belonged to a dissident intellectual circle in the 1950's, and who were long censored and jailed by the government, have received one of the country's top artistic prizes. Only two of the four, the poets Hoang Cam and Le Dat, are still alive. The awards are an apology of sorts to writers who, despite government hostility, became some of the best-loved figures of 20th century Vietnamese literature. Matt Steinglass reports from Hanoi.

Hoang Cam is 86-years-old. His friend Le Dat is 85. It is decades since they were the leading lights of Vietnam's new literature, decades in which their poems were often banned, and they suffered government harassment and imprisonment.

But Vietnamese censorship has loosened in recent years, and the government has embraced some of those it once criticized. On Saturday, an official from the Ministry of Culture awarded the National Prize to Hoang Cam, Le Dat, and their late colleagues Phung Quan and Tran Dan.

The official praised Hoang Cam's high artistic values, and his contributions to the construction of socialism and the defense of the country.

In the early 1950's, Hoang Cam wrote patriotic poems encouraging Ho Chi Minh's soldiers in the battle for independence from France.

After independence in 1954, Hoang Cam and the other men honored Saturday joined two independent magazines, called Nhan Van and Giai Pham, or "Humanism" and "Beautiful Flowers".

The magazines published articles and poems that criticized the brutal land reforms Ho's communist government was carrying out. In December 1956, as Le Dat recalls, the government shut the magazines and cracked down on their writers.

Le Dat says Phung Quan and other prominent writers were sent to prison. He says even the magazine's readers risked losing their jobs or being sent to forced labor.

Hoang Cam was unable to publish officially for 30 years, but his poems were widely distributed underground. In the early 1980's, he was jailed over politically suggestive poems like The Dieu Bong Leaf, about a beautiful woman who tricks a young admirer.

But since Vietnam's cultural opening in the late 1980's, Hoang Cam's works have gradually become part of official culture.

At Vietnam's National Poetry Day last week, Nguyen Huu Quy, a poet at the Vietnamese Army's cultural magazine, praised Hoang Cam's work.

Quy says Hang Cam's poetry captures the character of the Vietnamese people.

Censorship in Vietnamese literature today is less oppressive than in the days of strict Communism and "Socialist Realism."  But artists here still know where the limits are. Direct criticism of the Communist Party's political power remains taboo.

Nguyen Ngoc is the former editor of Van Nghe, Vietnam's main cultural magazine. He was pushed out of his position in 1988 for being too progressive.

Ngoc says the awards for Hoang Cam and his colleagues are welcome, but too little and too late. He says, in fact, the state should apologize to them.

Poet Le Dat agrees that the awards come too late, but says he's pleased just the same.

Le Dat says he is happy mainly for his wife and children, because they have suffered so much from his involvement in the Nhan Van-Giai Pham group 50 years ago. He says he has an inferiority complex towards them, and that the award will help him pay his debts to his family.