uong Khong Border Police


April 30, 2001

A Half Day and Night in Muong Khuong

After our Coc Ly adventure, our next night was spent in a hotel in the small town of Muong Khuong, very close to the Chinese border. We got there with a stop at Cao Son, a smaller version of the Coc Ly market and a drive through beautiful country, usually up in the hills looking down at terraces and steep hills planted in corn. Muong Khuong is a very small town and the only hotel was not exactly a steal at $12, but it had the virtue of having a private bathroom with toilet and hot and cold running water and no insects and no further bites. After checking in we set off for a three part walk. Before we set off Phu warmed us about photographs: in town they were okay, but if we got close to the Chinese border we should not take any. The first part was to find ourselves lunch, the second was to explore a few kilometers of the countryside that comes right up to Muong Khuong and the third part was to find our way back. We got back a bit disappointed that we had not even seen sight of the Chinese border and wondered what all of the fuss about photos was about.

We had read in our guidebook about the days when travelling around Vietnam required police permits and sometimes even police bribes but had never had any such encounters in our two plus months in the country. However in Muong Khuong when we got back we were greeted by Phu telling us that "polit" were causing trouble and that we should talk to Mr Vo, the Hoang Vu hotel keeper in Bac Ha, to find out why; Phu's English was too limited to explain it. He made the phone call and Jan talked to Vo who explained that when Phu had taken our passports to the police for permission to spend the night in the town, the police had become suspicious because we were travelling without a guide. They didn't want to let us stay unless we paid them 100,000 Dong (about $7). Vo suggested that if we didn't want to pay the extra money, we should drive on to Lao Cai instead. We agreed to tell him that neither solution was acceptable. We didn't want to pay extra money and we didn't want to drive to Lao Cai because night was falling and we didn't want to miss any of the spectacular views that we knew would be on the route. Vo was understanding but said that we would have to handle it and take the consequences. However, he did say that he thought that we had an advantage in that we could always plead ignorance as we didn't speak or understand Vietnamese.

Jan gave the phone to Phu so that he could learn what had been said while she explained the conversation to Gerry. There was nothing we could do immediately, so we went up the stairs to our room to await developments. An hour later all this was out of our mind when a knock on the door came. It was just before 7 p.m, a time when we wanted to be ending the day, not starting a flight from town. A young man in his thirties was at the door and it was clear he was the police. He was not in uniform, but had our passports in his hand. He started by asking somewhat aggressively questions in Vietnamese. Jan smiled politely and indicated that she didn't understand. We repeated this a couple of times, getting nowhere, until finally in desperation, the man asked in Chinese, "Do you speak Chinese". At first, Jan thought she should say no. After all, wouldn't they find it odd that westerners would speak Chinese? But then she decided that some communication was better than none, so she smiled again and said in her very bad Chinese, "Yes, I speak a little Chinese."

At this point one of the hotel staff intervened to try and sweet-talk the man, but he was not to be diverted and came back to the door to pursue his investigations in Chinese. His Chinese was much better than ours, but we managed to explain to him that we were an American couple and that we were tourists and that we thought his country was most beautiful. He asked where we were going and Gerry invited him into the room to look at the map of Vietnam where he pointed out our itinerary.

This mollified him somewhat and so Jan asked him how old he was and (the obligatory question in Chinese conversation) how many children he had. He proudly told us that he was 35 and had two children. He asked us the same question and we gave him the shocking reply that we had no children. By this point we were sort of friends. At least we thought the tone of the interview indicated it was all but over. Then came the crucial question that Jan didn't understand. It was his last question and involved "fengjian" or something similar sounding. To our ears it had the ring of "baksheesh" or "gift". Maybe it had something to do with paying the extra money and maybe it didn't. But since we couldn't understand and said so, he had nowhere to go. After a long silence, he finally smiled and said that he was sorry to have troubled us, and got up to go. Jan responded that it was no trouble and escorted him to the door, wished him a very good evening, and out he went.

We were both quite amused by this incident. First we would never have imagined that learning Chinese would come in useful in Vietnam. Second, we were interested by the change in attitude of this policeman; how a few formulaic exchanges in a common language seem to have removed most of his suspicions. His first words had been quite aggressive while his good-byes were very restrained and polite. Perhaps the sight of our recently washed underwear hanging up to dry in the room, or the frank way in which Gerry had laid out our itinerary had disarmed him. Later, Jan reflected on her hesitation at creating suspicion by speaking Chinese. For him, it obviously seemed normal that one should speak Chinese, perhaps because he did or perhaps because we were so close to the Chinese border. Given the evening's events we did not hang around Muong Khuong for breakfast the next morning and left very early while the clouds were still filling the valleys and -- perhaps — policemen were still sleeping.

Updated July 20, 2003