Of course, borders are sexual, at least for men, for you’re about to enter a normally forbidden territory. This buildup, anxiety and euphoria is lessened if the border is a mere formality, or if you have a strong (and stiff enough) passport. For women, border crossers can promise adventure, for they may deliver you to another world, after entering yours.
For two weeks, I’ve been hugging a border. I type this in Si Ma Cai, just four miles from China, though the trek there is not level, and there’s nothing on the other side but wooded mountains.
Just last week, though, I was in Lao Cai, where each day I could stroll along the Red or Nanxi River and see what the Chinese were doing on their streets and balconies, or inside their windows. Along the bank of the Red River, a few men were fishing against a green backdrop of towering wild grass and bamboos. I fleetingly glimpsed two women walking their dogs.
Most of the time, though, there was no life. Most stores were closed. Unoccupied hotel rooms had their curtains always drawn. At mid-morning, a four-lane avenue leading to a grand gate and steep steps, a magnificent vista, had but one motorbike moving.
Normally bustling, Hekou and the Honghe Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture have become unnaturally void and silent, even as their multi-colored lights still dazzle at night. Thanks to the coronavirus, much of China is locked inside. Though seeing a Chinese in public is not quite like spotting Elvis or Big Foot, it is rare.
I came to Lao Cai from Dien Bien Phu, on a minibus that took ten hours, with stops to pick up passengers and to eat lunch. There was a friendly Chinese who communicated with me via a translation app. About forty-years-old, he alternated between looking eager and subdued.
Learning that I was Vietnamese, he asked, “Will you help me to find a wife?”
“Sure, when we get to Lao Cai,” I laughed.
“A beauty pageant winner?”
“Yes, of course. There are many.”
“A Vietnamese wife is too expensive,” he cranked up the humor. “Three hundred thousand dong [$13] for just half an hour!”
Since a conversation of this nature could only go so far, we didn’t say much more. A few hours later, the Chinese turned his attention to an Argentinian man, sitting right in front of me.
His opening, “I’m from China. I go back to China tomorrow. I’m only playing in Vietnam. Where are you from?”
When the Argentinian said something nice about China, the Chinese surprisingly retorted, “Dictatorship!”
Most people onboard were headed for trendy Sapa. In 1995, I saw its famous 1935 church still in ruins. It had been shelled by the Chinese during their 1979 invasion. A local told me people had fled in terror to the hills. In 2020, I opened the minivan window to better scan all the new, brightly-lit hotels, restaurants, cafes and bars.
Lao Cai was completely destroyed during this barely remembered border war, and was abandoned for a dozen years. Both sides laid down thousands of mines.
This remote region has long been fought over, however, for it’s a lucrative trade route between Yunnan and Vietnam. Opium shipped downriver while sea salt flowed upstream. Fattening on taxes, the Black Flag bandits were based in Lao Cai. Tai and Hmong Lords staked out territories.
Trying desperately to retain their identity, there are ethnic groups here almost no one has heard of, such as the Kháng (down to 14,000 people), the La Chí (13,000), the Phù Lá (11,000) or the Pa Dí (just 2,000). Much larger groups, though, are also losing this battle, and yours, too, of course. Cultural castration is a worldwide pandemic. We’re all being unmanned.
As the British rushed to reach Yunnan via Burma, the French got there first through Lao Cai, in 1886. In 1906, they linked it with Hanoi by a railroad that cost 12,000 Vietnamese and Chinese lives, plus 80 European ones.
When the Englishman Archibald Little came to Lao Cai in 1911, this was what he saw:
LAO-KAI presents the same contrast to Ho-k’ou, that the Model Settlement does to the Shanghai city; on crossing the railway bridge that now unites the two towns, one passes abruptly from filth and disorder into wide macadamised streets lined with shade trees; clean white bungalows, one and two-storied, a small bund with pontoon wharf—a miniature Point de Galle with the same tropical air and vegetation, but also a close, steamy atmosphere due to its situation in a narrow valley distant 265 miles from the sea. There are few or no Chinese in Lao-kai (it costs them about six shillings a head to enter French territory) and, in the siesta hour, in which we landed, there were apparently no inhabitants. The military are stationed on the right bank and have to cross the rushing river by ferry to come into Lao-kai; the piers of a high bridge, solid circular pillars of brick and stone, were erected some years ago, but the idea of completing the bridge seems to have been abandoned. The chief buildings are the offices of the administration, a spacious Custom-house with godowns attached, the offices of the “Messageries Fluviales,” the Post Office and the Hotel Fleury, where we put up, also a roomy military “cercle,” pleasantly situated on a bluff overlooking the river, and a bandstand in the central “Square.” Towards evening, after an enjoyable dejeuner at the hotel, we sat on the verandah listening to a military band, we having happily arrived on band-day, and felt that in crossing the Nam-ti we had re-entered civilisation; but we pitied the folk whose duties relegate them to this depressing spot, with little to occupy them, no sports, no society, nowhere to go; hemmed in as they are by pathless jungle.
A century later, Hekou has surpassed Lao Cai in tall buildings, array of shops and modernity, for China is no longer mired in “filth and disorder.” Things can reverse fast.
Just before we entered Lao Cai, the Chinese showed me his phone, “Can we stay together at the hotel?”