ALONG VIETNAM’S BORDER

Wong How Man
Jinping, Yunnan

Market street scene at Lao Gai on the Vietnamese side of border across from Hekou. Sign Post Number One. Here is the starting point of China’s long inland border which stretches for over 22,000 kilometers, as well as the beginning of its lengthy 14,000 kilometers coastline. The Post was first erected in the final years of the Qing Dynasty as a demarcation between China and the French colony of Tonkin in northern Vietnam. A kiosk was built over it to shade it from the weather, be it sun or rain, just unlike what the two countries have gone through in their relationship over the years.

Along this coast and land border with Vietnam are patches of mangroves. By a village called Rongshu (Banyan), the tide comes in and recedes as villagers head out onto the mud flat on foot to dig for clams and even oysters, served at local restaurants. Large flocks of chickens and ducks are raised here, naturally without fences, and the ducks move in and out of the coast according to the tide. The chicken are sent to market or slaughtered locally and served in the restaurants. Ducks, however, are not served on the table, as they are only used to lay eggs, which are then salted, and sold at nearby market. There is even a newly renovated Catholic Church. The French must have made some inroads during colonial times when they controlled neighboring Vietnam.

Unique fishing boat of the Vietnam border with Guangxi. Nearby live a small minority group of China, the Jing people. They originated from neighboring Vietnam, and have a total population of approximately 22,000 people in China. Actually, this minority in China is the same as the majority Kinh of Vietnam. Some are now living in a small cluster of villages here and maintain their livelihood by being coastal fishermen and farmers. Their boats, mainly for operation near shore, are made from logs bound together. Some bamboo ones retain the look of a raft, though the bow and stern are tilted upwards.

We continue our exploration of the southern border. Most border crossings are only for organized trade of larger scale, with huge truckloads going through, or for small time exchanges by local villagers with bicycles or push carts. Tourists from further inland or third country nationals are not allowed to cross. One exception is Panchangshi, a sizable city near the famed Friendship Gate. This is the gateway from China to Hanoi, capital of Vietnam.

Fishing harvest from border waters. During friendlier times in the 1950s through the 70s this was where much of Chinese war supplies, as well as military advisors, crossed the border into Vietnam in support of the Vietnamese resistance against first the French, and later the Americans. By the late 1970s, the tide turned and the two communist neighbors became hostile to each other as several border skirmishes and clashes led to all out wars. Strange enough, both countries’ air force sat out the entire war without any engagement. I surmise that perhaps there was some unsaid protocol on both sides to limit the war to the border, thus curtailing damage and destruction to cities further inland.

Today peace has returned to this border and daily there are visitors and merchants crossing back and forth. We took the opportunity to make a crossing to visit a nearby town, Dongdang, which is only three kilometers away from the border. The grass may not be greener on the other side, but the coffee and bread certainly tasted better, and we stocked up our supplies for the upcoming long trip.

FROM LEFT: Mule caravan of the Vietnam-Yunnan border. Traffic at Lao Gai on the Vietnamese border. Cart of cinnamon coming across the border into Guangxi. At a less obscure border, our road skirted a small river which formed the border between the two countries. We stopped by a roadside stand to buy from the locals some pickled vegetable. I asked the owner Li Da how it was during the border conflict. “I was still a boy and we were told to move inland for two kilometers as the Vietnamese started shelling our side from the nearby hills,” he recounted. “The ordnance fell right over our head whereas if we stayed where our home was, it was too close to be shelled. So we moved back home,” he added.

“At one point, the PLA stormed the other side and found out that all the shelling and firing coming from nearby hills were just from two female Vietnamese soldiers. They were captured and our soldiers found out they each could maneuver all types of ammunition; rifle, machine gun, grenade, pistol, quite an all-round soldier.” Li Da spoke with some admiration in his voice.

Around here, most male names go by numbers, and many shops and restaurants are with someone’s last name with a number added behind. So Li Da is the oldest and from there on Li Er (two) and Li San (three), so on and so forth. And a form of Cantonese dialect is spoken all across southern Guangxi, even in smaller villages.

Bridge looking across to Lao Gao of Vietnam. We drove for long distance in a road paralleling the border, and up to many small border crossings. Almost all were only for local use, and guarded. I enquired at most crossings what were the local transactions and merchandise. At larger crossings like Xingshi and Panchang, they sent over hardwood furniture. For medium size crossings like Shuikou, there were Vietnamese “French” perfume and packaged dried fruits. At Lihuo it was cart-loads of cinnamon stacked up high, and near Aidian it was plastic bagful of pine resin coming across. Almost in all cases, the Vietnamese came over to purchase daily sundries and small electrical appliances.

Finally at a remote place with a few stone houses marked as Gen Ao, somewhere hidden among karst hills and just 500 meters off the main border road, I found an unguarded and obscure crossing. Sign Post 895 stood lonely at the end of a dirt road where two large cement blocks were placed to make sure nothing larger than a bike or motorbike could pass. From there the road became a foot path into Vietnam.

Church in Guangxi near the border with Vietnam. A banner on a dilapidated house warned of penalty if illegal crossings are made. I saw a few locals hurry along with loads on their back. Suddenly, my favorite motto “easier to ask for forgiveness than permission” flashed through my mind. Without much hesitation, I went ahead and crossed this little-known border without bother of immigration or customs. Such intrepid excursions always feel like a small triumph and provide quiet joy for an explorer, worthy of a small fine should I be apprehended.

Leaving Guangxi Province into Yunnan, we also saw mule caravans, a rare sight these days. They were used to bring bundles of banana from high hills to the roadside for loading into trucks and sold to cities further inland. These days, because of popular dietary care by better educated city folks, the fatter and more wild type of banana commends twice the price of the thinner ones.

Along the border of Yunnan, we stopped by Hekou and spent a day exploring Lao Cai across the border. What used to be a crossing by the small gauge train between Kunming and Hanoi has been suspended for many years. Twenty years ago during my first visit here, there was a flourishing street market filled with bush meat and wild animals. These are now nowhere to be seen. Bill Bleisch surmised that either the new policy of animal protection must be taking effect or the animals were simply wiped out. In resignation, we concurred the latter was more likely.

CERS team at remote border post. One of the last stops before the Vietnam border ends inland is Jinshuihe, a river border at the southern tip of Jinping County. Here is a crossroad of many minorities. At a tiny village with only twenty households, there are five nationalities. Yang Xiaohui, a Hani man told me, “The Miao, called Hmong on the Vietnamese side, live in the high hills. The Yao inhabit the mid-hills, whereas the Dai stay at the bottom. There are also Lahu around here. But now we can all come down to the plain to live,” said Yang. “The Vietnamese side is much poorer, sometimes not even with enough to fill their stomachs. They have more women than men, so at times the women marry into the Chinese side,” he added.

Just 100 meters from the border control office is a huge sign. On it are images of Chairman Mao and President Ho Chi Minh. The writings are both in Chinese and Vietnamese, calling for long term peace and cooperation between the two countries. At least here in Jinshuihe, cross border marriage is the quickest way of realizing that dream.