Life and work of local Vietnamese in Mong Cai

Pei Gongying Photos: Zhang Han

Pei Gongying (transliteration) was drinking beer and chatting with his Chinese friends in Mong Cai, Vietnam on May 14 when he heard about the recent anti-China riots happening in the south of Vietnam. One of his Vietnamese friends urged him to escape over the phone because there was going to be a war between China and Vietnam. “Where can we go? Missiles can hit anywhere. Let’s enjoy our beers,” he said to his Chinese friends after hanging up.

The war on the China-Vietnam border that started 35 years ago leveled Mong Cai to the ground. Now most of the people living in the border town are new immigrants who do business between the two countries.

Pei came to Mong Cai about 10 years ago and worked as a dealer in a casino. He lived in a dorm of the casino with another Vietnamese and three Chinese. His salary was $160–$250 per month, which was rare in his hometown. In 2009, he left the casino and joined a trade company started by one of his friends, selling textile and aquatic products to Dongxing, China. His salary increased to $400 per month, which allowed him to live a comfortable life. He and his wife went to Dongxing  and bought clothes every month.

However, a dispute over the South China Sea started between China and Vietnam in 2011. The tense bilateral relations between the two countries led to the bankruptcy of Pei's company. Now he works at the reception in a three-star hotel and most of the guests are Chinese people. His salary has gone back to only about $160 per month. He and his wife and two children are living in an apartment which belongs to his father-in-law.

Now Pei cannot afford to buy an apartment of his own in the most affluent city in north of Vietnam. A 100-square-meter apartment costs about $33,000, double the price 10 years ago. Pei hopes his children will have an opportunity to immigrate to China some day.

Currently, not all Vietnamese in Mong Cai feel optimistic about the China-Vietnam relations. Small shops began to close down after the riots broke out. The desolation is not characteristic of a border city that used to be crossed by more than 10,000 people every day.

Wang Ming and one of his wood paintings

However, Wang Ming (transliteration) opened a store near a casino dealing in wood paintings in early May, when the recent dispute between China and Vietnam had just begun. Hand-made wood paintings are a traditional handicraft in Vietnam, which is very popular in Guangdong and Guangxi in China. A three-square-meter wood painting costs about $1,900 and the making process takes 7–10 days.

Wang hoped that customers of the casino would visit his store. Although the economic situation is not good, he expresses his optimism about the future. “I believe the rough passage is temporary. China and Vietnam won’t go to war. Nobody likes fighting wars now. China is so big and Vietnam is so small. Even if China wants to fight, we can seek help from the United Nations and the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).”

(Translated and edited by Billie Feng)

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