By MIKE IVESJUNE 25, 2015
LAO CAI, Vietnam — National flags rustled in the breeze on both banks of the Red River, but nothing else was moving at this normally bustling border crossing.
On the Chinese side, a concrete landing area was empty.
On the Vietnamese side, more than a dozen maroon-hulled motorboats were docked, upriver from the border city of Lao Cai. Just as many container trucks were parked bumper-to-bumper along a narrow road leading to the crossing, baking in the midday sun.
Three Vietnamese truckers, eating fried pork and drinking vodka at a nearby restaurant, said trade had stalled at this semiofficial crossing for much of the spring, under orders from the border authorities.
One trucker said that seven of the trucks had not moved for two months. Another complained that it was costing him nearly $7 an hour to keep his cargo — chicken wings, he said — refrigerated.
“I’m angry about having to wait, but I have no choice,” said a third trucker, who wore jeans and a denim shirt and gave only his first name, Cuong.
The relationship between Vietnam and China, always hot and cold, hit a low point last year after China moored an oil exploration rig in waters off Vietnam’s central coast, setting off anti-Chinese protests in Vietnamese cities and riots in some industrial parks. The tension has lingered as Beijing has built islands in parts of the South China Sea that are claimed by Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations.
Political ups and downs typically do not have major effects on overall trade and investment ties between Vietnam and China, its largest trading partner. But they have profound effects on the small-scale traders who live near Vietnam’s 800-mile border with China.
In May, for example, a 152-mile highway from Hanoi was extended to the border in Lao Cai, the provincial capital, and officials from both countries met to discuss plans for creating an economic cooperation zone here, raising hopes among local businesspeople for increased trade.
But just a few days later, Chinese and Vietnamese defense ministers met to discuss border management, and local traders said the result was a clampdown on cross-border trade, particularly at the semiofficial Red River crossings where customs enforcement normally hovers between lax and nonexistent. They said a similar clampdown had persisted for months after last year’s oil rig episode.
“The relationship between Vietnam and China is always going up and down, and it’s the same with business,” Do Thi Lien, 57, said at her truckers’ canteen near an official crossing in Lao Cai. “But Chinese people are just like us: They don’t want any trouble. It’s our governments that make trouble.”
In one apparent sign of Vietnamese-Chinese tensions, the general secretary of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, who is widely viewed as more friendly toward China than toward the United States, may visit Washington as early as this summer, the first such visit by any Vietnamese party secretary.
A man slid down a ladder to a small illegal border crossing just outside Lao Cai, Vietnam. Political tension between Vietnam and China has had a profound effect on the small-scale traders who live near the 800-mile border. Credit Aaron Joel Santos for The New York Times
The party’s senior leadership has long been divided over how close Vietnam should be to China or the United States.
But a Vietnamese academic in Hanoi with close ties to the government, who requested anonymity to discuss a politically sensitive matter, said Mr. Trong’s planned trip reflected a growing consensus inside the party that a stronger relationship with the United States was in Vietnam’s national interest.
Independent Hanoi intellectuals, too, are urging the government to escape China’s economic orbit and deepen trade ties with the United States and the European Union.
But the Vietnamese who live on the border tend to see things differently.
“Traders on the borders don’t care about the national interest,” said Alexander Vuving, a Vietnam expert at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. “They may have that sense of ‘We are proud of being independent,’ but their first interest is their business.”
That goes for Nguyen Duy Manh, a trader who says he used to smuggle beef, seafood and other contraband across the river into China, and fruit, vegetables and cigarettes back into Vietnam.
A view from Lao Cai, Vietnam, toward Hekou, China. One Vietnamese trader said locals were not concerned about the politics between Vietnam and China, but rather about how much money they could make. Credit Aaron Joel Santos for The New York Times
“If we sell everything we have to China, then Vietnam won’t develop, and that’s very bad,” Mr. Manh, 29, said between drags of a cigarette on the patio of his home. “But a lot of workers aren’t thinking about politics. They just think about how much money they can earn.”
The mutual dependence and misgivings go back centuries. China ruled northern Vietnam for more than a millennium, and the China-Vietnam border was abruptly closed after a short border war in 1979.
After the border reopened in 1991, trade increased economic growth on both sides, and new relationships between the Vietnamese and Chinese sprouted up based on mutual economic interests, Yuk Wah Chan, an associate professor at the City University of Hong Kong, said in an email. But current tensions in the South China Sea have repercussions on borderland economies, she added, often in the form of tightening border procedures and heavier scrutiny of illicit trade.
As dawn broke over the skinny buildings and corrugated red roofs of Lao Cai’s downtown on a recent weekday, Vietnamese traders were walking back and forth along a bridge that is an official pedestrian crossing to China. Many set off carrying fresh fruit on bicycle-mounted wooden pallets, and returned with Chinese produce or bundles of consumer goods like clothing or umbrellas.
Ha Thi Huong, a trader working near the bridge, was racing to finish selling a shipment of mangoes that had been trucked in from southern Vietnam. She had sold five 110-pound crates around 3 a.m. to traders who smuggled the fruit into China under cover of darkness, she said. But now it was almost 7 a.m., and the mangoes in her last two crates were going soft in the heat.
Ms. Huong, 25, said that she occasionally sold fruit to local traders who resold it in Lao Cai, but that her primary business was across the Red River.
“If people here couldn’t trade with China for a few days, we’d all be out of work,” she said.