Ask The Vietnamese About War, And They Think China, Not The U.S. : Parallels Vietnam's war with the U.S. lasted a decade, a mere historical blip compared to its centuries-long feud with China, which has been heating up recently.
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Ask The Vietnamese About War, And They Think China, Not The U.S.

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Ask The Vietnamese About War, And They Think China, Not The U.S.

Ask The Vietnamese About War, And They Think China, Not The U.S.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Here's one way the United States has collected allies around the world. It can offer to help distant countries feeling threatened by their much-closer neighbors, which helps to explain why America gets along these days with Vietnam. The Vietnamese no longer worry about this country, despite a war that ended 40 years ago this week. Vietnam has gone back to watching its giant next-door neighbor China. That rising nation has been asserting its power over the South China Sea. Michael Sullivan reports that the Vietnamese are wondering what comes next.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: I'm standing on top of a hill outside of Lang Son in northern Vietnam. Below me, I can see the rail line that leads into neighboring China. And I can see a lot of new construction all around me. But at the top of this hill, there's absolutely nothing, just the wind rustling through the reeds behind me. But on the morning of February 17, 1979, this was the location of a Vietnamese outpost, built by the French. And on that morning, the Chinese attacked northern Vietnam and this outpost got hit hard.

Neither the Vietnamese nor the Chinese governments like to talk about the border war much, but it was nasty. And when it was over in less than a month, at least 50,000 people were dead - maybe a lot more.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER PIPE)

SULLIVAN: Nguyen Duy Thuc was in that bunker that morning when 200,000 Chinese troops poured into northern Vietnam. He takes a long pull on his water pipe and tells me of rushing to the border just a month out of basic training for the war his superiors knew was coming. China - seeking to punish Vietnam for its invasion of Cambodia the month before to oust the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge.

NGUYEN DUY THUC: (Speaking Vietnamese).

SULLIVAN: "The Chinese attacked just before dawn," he says. "And we all ran to our posts. They came so fast, some guys didn't even have time to put on their pants," he says. "They just grabbed their guns and started firing."

THUC: (Speaking Vietnamese).

SULLIVAN: "There were so many Chinese," he remembers. "We fired our AK-47s until the muzzles turned red and couldn't fire anymore," he says. "But they still kept coming."

THUC: (Speaking Vietnamese).

SULLIVAN: Nguyen says more than 800 people were crammed into the bunker, including women and children. "We held out for a week," he says. "Then the Chinese pumped gas into the ventilation shafts and that was it." He says he was just one of three people who managed to escape. Near the city's center, retired businessman Pham Phu also remembers the day the Chinese came. Unlike the soldiers, he says the civilian population had no idea the Chinese were about to attack.

PHAM PHU: (Through interpreter) I remember going to the market to sell a pig I'd slaughtered when the shelling started. We weren't prepared at all because the officials kept telling us not to worry. They said we just beat the Americans and the Chinese wouldn't dare attack.

SULLIVAN: He fled like everyone else and returned a month later, when the Chinese had withdrawn, to find a broken and battered city, but left again the same day. The stench of the dead, he says, was simply too much. More than three decades later, Lang Son has been rebuilt, and the Chinese are back. But this time, it's just business.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SULLIVAN: Chinese-made stereos and other electronic goods crowd the main market here. Want an iPhone 6 Plus? A hundred bucks. A Bose Soundlink mini? Twelve bucks. Not exactly real, but the price is right. And all the other stuff on offer - children's go karts, Chinese army meals ready-to-eat, kitchenware - it's all dirt cheap.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

SULLIVAN: This woman is buying new microphones and speakers for her karaoke parlor in the capital Hanoi just a hundred miles down the road. Business has been a little slow, the vendors say, because of the tension with China over the South China Sea, tension that erupted into anti-China rioting last May that left at least a dozen dead. Historian Duong Trung Quoc is a member of Vietnam's National Assembly and the editor of Past & Present magazine. He says the anger at and suspicion of China is hard-earned.

DUONG TRUNG QUOC: (Through interpreter) After the American War, the Vietnamese and the Americans can reconcile. Vietnam and France could, too. Veterans from both sides can sit down and talk together, but not with the Chinese. The Vietnamese have had too much experience with the Chinese. We can't trust them.

SULLIVAN: Nobody has to tell the people of Lang Son to be wary.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRAYER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Praying in foreign language).

SULLIVAN: I come across Pham Thi Ky and her family at one of the many war cemeteries in Lang Son - hundreds of headstones - the majority for those who fought and died not against the Americans, but China, including Pham's brother-in-law. She has come here today on the 36th anniversary of the day he was killed in the border war with China. I ask her and two other family members the same question I'll ask every Vietnamese on this trip.

The war against the Americans lasted about 10 years and then it was over. The war against the French lasted more than a hundred years and then it was over. Has the war against China ever ended?

PHAM THI KY: (Laughter) (Speaking Vietnamese).

SULLIVAN: That's a no.

You?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: No.

SULLIVAN: Next?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Speaking Vietnamese).

SULLIVAN: "No," the last woman says, shaking her head. "No. With the Chinese, how can it ever end?" For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Lang Son.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRAYER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Praying in foreign language).

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