The old man flashed a toothless grin as we struggled up the slippery steps to the top of the waterfall. Groups of sure-footed women carrying yokes craddled with dried fruits and coffee snaked passed us. My attempts to converse with them failed, leading the old man to joke, "Those people don't understand Chinese- they are even poorer than we are. Be careful up above the falls as you get closer to the border. The Vietnamese are tricky people!"
This warning followed us as we dodged the spray falling from the Detian Waterfall- Asia's largest transnational falls, and searched for the border between Vietnam and China marked by a small stone post.
The marker was elusive, however, and we wandered alone through ankle-deep streams making their way to the falls below. An old steel pillar etched with French writing, once holding up one side of a suspension bridge, echoed back to the late 19th century when the French made their incursion into China via this route. Their stay in China, like the stays of many of the other Western countries, lasted only until 1949 when this border started to take on much different strategic interests.
"During the fifties and sixties, this area was a major supply route for Chinese aiding Ho Chi Minh and the communists. Ironically enough," said a young guide leading a group of Taiwanese, "this same border was the site of large battles between those same Vietnamese communists and China in the late seventies."
We followed this group up to a pavillion overlooking the area. The falls and the river below form the border between China and Vietnam. The rusty remains of cannons pointed toward the river's opposite side where, unlike the Chinese border, military camps remained visible.
An island directed the falls into two sections, one on the Chinese side and one on the Vietnamese side. The Chinese side, reflecting China's aggressive and pragmatic efforts to further develop tourism as a source of revenue, consisted of a fairly comfortable hotel on the shores of the lower river and an accompanying array of souvenier stands and food shops. Most of these stands and shops were filled with Vietnamese crackers, coffee and perfume. The shop clerks in some cases were also Vietnamese. In fact, the whole Chinese border was fluid with a constant flow of Vietnamese farmers carrying in food products and carrying out Chinese electronics and household items.
"The Vietnamese can freely enter our local villages. They come here to shop and sell some of their own products. During the Lunar New Year, we are overrun with them as they flow across to buy things that cannot be had in their country. We, Chinese, however cannot freely move about their country. I have had some of my friends held hostage by their soldiers until they paid US$100 to be released."
The Vietnamese side of the falls consisted of a military camp, with absolutely no sign of tourism. Their soldiers watch the border closely and had recently had minor skirmishes with Chinese soldiers on the island straddling the falls. The island, which both sides claim, is now off-limits to visitors. Recent talks in Hanoi and Beijing have seemed to ease some of the tension.
The guide saw me, the only Caucasian within 100 miles, and warned me, "Be very careful as you walk further up the falls. A few foreigners have been encouraged by Vietnamese speaking English to have their photos taken along the river, only to have soldiers jump out from the bushes and demand money. Remember- Hanoi is a long 14 hour truck ride from here!"
The foundation of an old border guardhouse told us that we were once again near the border. Up ahead, three tables protected from the drizzle by bamboo umbrellas were ladened with coffee and perfumes. No stone marker was visible and two vendors called us in Chinese to view their products. Only later, after returning to the hotel, did we realize that we had long since crossed into Vietnam.
The following day we were stuffed into a small van with a dozen Vietnamese women and drove along the lower river to the main market town in the region. The markets there were alive with activity. Pigs, chickens, dogs, stereos, clothing, fireworks- seemingly everything was changing hands between neighbors from two sides of the river who, in some cases, could not speak the same language.
We struggled to find transportation out of the small village, finally settling on a cramped van full of locals for the four hours back to the railhead. My sons boasted how they were able to visit Vietnam without a visa. "But Dad," said my youngest, "I don't like it there as much. Those Vietnam crackers are not as good as China's."