It was an unexpected kind of send-off from Vietnam when we found ourselves plotting how to escape across the border–and out from a packed wedding celebration in a cinderblock canteen, at a dusty little crossroads where the only means of wheeled transport seemed to be the back of somebody’s motorcycle. But let me start from the beginning.
We weren’t dead set against going to Sapa, northern Vietnam’s minority theme park, until we got off the train at the border town of Lao Cai. Then, something about being back so close to China (our home! our people!), along with our belated discovery that Sapa–an allegedly nice place that everyone (as in tout le monde) says is only truly enjoyed by renting a motorcycle and cruising to other places (not an option with a toddler)–would be another two-hour ride (once the van filled up!), made the destination lose its remaining appeal. So we decided to spend just one more day in Vietnam, allocating those extra four hours to exploring the local area along the Chinese border to the northwest.
The next day: A glance at the map, a few pronunciation attempts, and a protracted, primarily hand-gesture negotiation with the bus driver later, we were on our way, out of Lao Cai and up to see a bit of Bat Xat District. We stayed on the bus as it began climbing and winding high up into the mountains, out of the Yuan River valley that forms the Chinese border. Not wanting to go too far, we hopped off at a spot where the mountains separated to form a wide bowl filled with fields and scattered villages, and set off hiking (Mom and Dad) and rock collecting (Owen). An old woman walked jauntily by, carrying a load of lettuce on her back. She paused to give us a giant smile and enthusiastic hand-wiggle (kind if a rural fist-pump) and put a freshly-made rice-flour cake in Owen’s hand.
We made a morning of seeing the place, collectively called Muong Vi, stopping everywhere we (Owen) found something of interest: children gleefully burning brush (Owen “helped,” and shared some toy trucks…okay, I shared them when he wasn’t looking); water buffalo crossing a stream; a hen and her chicks pecking in the dirt; sharing oranges (and more of Owen’s toys) with a family in their home. On the dirt foot paths to hamlets not connected by any roads (increasingly rare in most parts of China) this place seemed a world apart from the bustling construction and commerce of the border crossing just a few miles away. But appearances can be deceiving, and a few encounters revealed that some of the men spoke a bit of decent Chinese, as they occasionally crossed over to provide their manual labor for higher pay (arrangements between China and Vietnam allow this legally). Then, after one last look at the gorgeous setting, we started on our way back down, hitching a ride with some passing local government officials (who did not speak any Chinese) back to the crossroads at the bottom, and tried to rustle up some lunch.
“That place looks crowded,” I offered, and before we knew what was going on, we’d been pulled into a dilapidated restaurant in the throes of a raucous wedding reception. This is an ever-present danger for Western tourists during the Spring Festival / Tet holiday, which doubles as the wedding season for extended families that are all reunited for these couple weeks. Despite our protests, which were quite sincere since we felt embarassed about imposing, chairs were brought and we were pushed into them. Bowls filled with rice appeared and all the expensive delicacies were placed before us.
To a point, accepting the family’s generous offer to play host to us, and expressing our due delight, would be super face-giving. But for the same reason, any moves for the exit would be met with obligatory–and quite forceful–protests, which would have to be handled smartly. Staying too long would be rude (and potentially prevent us from making it across the border before it closed that day), but so would staying too short. And since it would be rude for them at any point not to counter any of our attempts to leave, or even to allow us any prospect of finishing the food in our bowls, we would literally have to push our way out. So, as the men started lining up for shots with Nick, we wondered if we’d ever make it back to China.
Fortunately, we discovered that many of them also spoke some Chinese, albeit with alcohol-induced drawls that made comprehension hard. Thus we were able to explain that we’d already eaten, had a bus to catch, would like to see the bride and groom to express our congratulations, etc. One lady shouted translations to the assembled crowd, for the benefit of those too old, too young, or too drunk to understand our own accented Mandarin. After enough toasts, we eventually we got an audience with the bride and groom, who hadn’t even known we were there, and offered our parting wishes (“Make babies quickly!”). This momentous occasion was of course met with unanimous calls for more toasts, which Nick felt obliged to oblige at each table on our winding way to the exit.
Outside, back down at the crossroads, hill tribe women selling vegetables eyed our foreign faces and get-ups while we eyed back at their wilting wares and colorful clothes. Flies and the occasional motorcycle buzzed past, but not much else. Again, Lao Cai with all its honking cars was just a few miles down the road, but it seemed the only way to get there from here might be a long walk with a wiggly toddler.
Then a car appeared, actually a big SUV with two open seats. Surprised looks all around: did these foreigners get lost on the way to Sapa or something? Our ride back, it turned out, was a group of teacher students from the college in Lao Cai. Better educated than anyone else we’d met in these parts, they spoke fluent English, but no Chinese–an interesting distinction between the educated and working classes here in China’s shadow. As they were Lao Cai natives, Nick asked if their parents had experienced China’s invasion through here in 1979. No, one of them said; his parents, both members of the Liberation Army, had been elsewhere–including Cambodia, Vietnam’s occupation of which had been China’s principle cassus belli. Nick then asked how they felt about China, and received not a single gripe. Their vibe was mostly one of disinterest.
Not more than an hour later, we were back in China. Just a dozen or so miles from the tiny mountain hamlets of that morning, the typical booming Chinese border town: stacks of shops and wholesale markets; clusters of banks and government offices; a designated I’ve-been-to-the-border photograph spot teeming with women wearing all manner of sun protection. Perhaps indicating a greater national self-confidence(?), shop signs everywhere featured Chinese and Vietnamese scripts, an overt and advertised border bilingualism that contrasted with the less widespread Vietnamese/English posted above hotels on the Vietnam side.
In addition to a sudden unavailability of fresh vegetable dishes, Hekou also welcomed us (Owen) with the biggest indoor playground we’ve ever seen in China. It was run by four grumpy middle-aged ladies who plugged in their hot plate and rice cooker and made spicy stir-fried vegetables and rice and played cards all day next to the sandbox. Jackpot. We settled in, taking turns supervising Owen and wandering the streets. I bought woven baskets and ate some mysterious fruit that tasted like pumpkin cheesecake. Nick, as usual, met an old man. Thus:
Old man: “American? I fought you guys!”
(Being on the Vietnam border, Nick then thought maybe he was Vietnamese, or had been an advisor or technician sent by China.)
Old man: “No, in Korea! I fought Americans for three years… It was terrible. War is terrible!”
Nick: “Most accounts in America say you Chinese fought really well, too.”
Old man: “Ha! Maybe later, but not at first. We had nothing! The Americans had machineguns, artillery, and worst of all, those airplanes. It was suicide. Later, the Soviets gave us airplanes, too. And [not understood].”
Nick: “What was that last thing?”
Old man: mimes a crew-operated rocket, or maybe recoiless rifle. “But we were always thought you’d drop the Bomb on us. Did it to Japan, after all… We did think maybe America wouldn’t if we captured a lot of them. Dropping his voice: at first, we shot a lot of people when they tried to surrender. They didn’t understand our commands–we’d been taught French! Shaking his head: Later, we learned some English phrases, and captured more. Like this: [garbled]! You know, ‘Caahma wed me!’ But later, we had to give up ten prisoners for every one of ours America gave back. America was very smart: the rest of our captured soldiers, they gave to their friend Chiang in Taiwan!”
Then it was time to go.